Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Explanation (Feeling what the protagonist feels), part of Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story.
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A story is a simulation that allows the reader to experience what the protagonist goes through. But how do we get the reader into the protagonist's skin? By letting them feel what the protagonist feels. Why is this so important? Because neuroscience has revealed that every decision we make and every reaction we have is based on emotion. Emotion comes first and reason follows. If we're not feeling, we're not conscious, and when it comes to story, if we are not feeling, we are not going to keep reading. What do we feel? We feel what the protagonist feels.
This is why everything that happens in a story needs to affect the protagonist. In fact, everything in a story gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects him in terms of his quest. If it doesn't affect him, even if we are talking about birth, death, or the fall of the Roman Empire, it's neutral, and so it has no place in the story. That's why in every scene you write, the protagonist must react in a way the reader can see and understand. This reaction must be specific, personal, and have an affect on whether or not the protagonist achieves his goal.
Sometimes the reaction is external, meaning that the protagonist actually does something, but very often a character's reaction to what happens is solely internal, be it a thought, a sudden insight, a memory, or an epiphany. And don't forget, we need to know what his expectations were to begin with, otherwise we have no way of knowing when those expectations are being met, or far more likely, not being met. So how do you clue the reader into the protagonist's thoughts and reactions? When writing in the first person, the protagonist is telling us a story, which means that these thought and expectations must be woven into absolutely everything.
He draws a conclusion about everything he mentions, down to the smallest detail, because everything he mentions inherently pertains to the story he's telling and to the point he's making. He never mentions anything just because or objectively describes what something looks like. When writing in the third person, the trick is to seamlessly slip out of the neutral narrator's voice--that's you by the way--and into the character's very subjective point of view. To do this, you don't need to use labels like he thought, or she mused, nor do you need to use quotation marks or italics.
Let me give you an example from an Elmore Leonard novel, Freaky Deaky. Robin watched him drink his wine and refill the glass. Poor little guy, he needed a mommy. She reached out and touched his arm. "Mark?" Felt his muscle tighten and took that as a good sign. Now there is no doubt that it's Robin rather than the author who sees Mark as a poor little guy in need of a mommy. Yet there is nothing at all in the text that flags this as Robin's opinion. Why? Because none is needed, and notice, too, that she didn't just feel his muscle tighten, she drew a conclusion about what it meant. She saw it as a good sign.
Whether or not she was right is up for debate, and that's what keeps us reading. We want to find out. Open just about any book written in the third person and you'll find examples of this on almost every page. Done well and it's invisible, which is why even though you have probably read hundreds of such novels throughout your life, how to weave in a characters thoughts and reactions can still seem elusive. Great writers always clue us into what their characters are thinking and feeling because that's where the story lives.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots