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The Reader’s Emotional Journey

Chiots Run [1]
Flickr Creative Commons: Chiot’s Run

When I was little I hated tomatoes.  Not tomato sauce, mind you.  When my mother made spaghetti I’d eat three helpings.  After dinner I’d lie on the couch, clutch my belly and groan.  But actual tomatoes, sliced on a sandwich?  Bleech!  Go figure.  I was a kid.

This tomato aversion persisted into adulthood.  Then one day I was visiting a client and his wife at their home in the Catskill Mountains.  They’d bought garden tomatoes, still warm from the vine, at a farmers’ market.  My client’s wife knew what to do.  She cut them up, put them in a blue bowl, drizzled green olive oil over them, added hand crushed sea salt and fresh cracked pepper.  Served with a crusty artisanal baguette, we sat down to lunch.

My life, or at least my relationship to tomatoes, changed with one bite.  Oh!  Like a new religious convert, I saw.  I knew.  I believed.  This was what tomatoes were supposed to be: glorious, sun-warmed, transporting, a gift of hope from God to the mouths of suffering mortals.  Summer took on new meaning.  I dreamed of gardening.  This, you must understand, was just an idle dream.  I am to gardens what Godzilla is to Tokyo.

Not long after that I discovered bruschetta.  Add lemon juice and garlic to the above, spoon onto baguette rounds, consume with Italian wine, and you are in Heaven.  Later at farmers’ markets I ran across heirloom tomatoes, deep red, dusky yellow, even purple.  These lumpy antiques proved to me that our forebears ate better than we modern folk.  Heirloom tomatoes make the supermarket beefsteak variety look and taste like they come from a 3-D printer.

I wouldn’t say that I’m now a tomato expert, but I have again become finicky about tomatoes.  I love them but not just any tomato will do.  They must be local, vine-ripened and preferably pedigreed.  Anything else—bleech!

My feelings about tomatoes have changed.  They’ve come full circle.  The mealy, tasteless sliced tomatoes available to my Mom in the Fifties once again disgust me.  But I’ve grown.  I’m mature and when tomatoes too are ripe and full of wisdom I savor them as I do old friendships, new books and long summer evenings.  My journey with tomatoes isn’t over but we’ve arrived at a place of peace.

If that is how my feelings about tomatoes have evolved, imagine how it is with my infinitely more complex relationships with people.  When I was six I saw my Dad in one way, at sixteen another.  Now that he’s gone I remember only the beautiful things that made him the good man that he was.  Do you have an ex?  Well, then you know what I’m talking about.  Our feelings about individuals turn again and again over time.

Have you ever felt something similar while reading a novel?  Have you hated a protagonist, grudgingly hung on only to later find that this is a person you esteem?  Have you been seduced by a setting only to find it cloyingly sweet, then still later redeemed by a dark side, and finally a place you’re sorry to leave?

Fiction by itself can cause our feelings to change.  We can love a story, grow impatient with it, discover surprising new sides to it, question it and finally, if we’re lucky, take from it answers and feel transformed ourselves.

Here’s the thing: The reader’s emotional journey through your story is something you can plan, control and engineer for a purpose.  It needn’t be an accidental byproduct, or an effect you hope to have.  It’s fine to stir readers but why settle for that when you can lure, surprise, anger and finally lift your readers emotionally?

That emotional journey can begin with, and focus on, any element in your story: protagonist, problem, setting, a secondary character, theme, you name it.  The point is to make your readers feel one way about something or someone, then cause them to feel still another way, and then differently again.

Like tomatoes.  Really, it’s simple.  Here’s a method you can try:

When you shape your reader’s emotional journey—vary and progress it—your reader’s experience will be rich, rewarding and memorable.  Does that strike you as a good idea?  You can see why.  A clever premise will hook.  A nifty plot will intrigue.  A strong arc will make a character interesting though not necessarily lovable.  But take readers on an emotional journey and you will have their hearts in your hands.

What’s the emotional journey you have planned for your readers?  What is going to happen on the page to ensure that it’s a journey your readers will have to take?

About Donald Maass [2]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [3]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [4], The Fire in Fiction [5], Writing the Breakout Novel [6]and The Career Novelist [7].