After seeing lots of hype in the media, I’ve been catching up with the HBO series Succession. The writers are there are expert at manipulating their audience. Their basic message is straightforward and not subtle.
The main characters – members of a family that owns a multinational media and entertainment empire – are horrible, selfish and self-absorbed. They treat everyone with contempt. But they reserve their true disdain for those outside the immediate family, in other words, those who are not super-rich.
Cousin Greg arrives bright-eyed and eager, desperate to ingratiate himself into the business. He meets Tom, who is also an outsider after marrying into the family. We’ve already seen Tom crave the attention of the patriarch, Logan, to the point of being sycophantic. And yet he still ends up the brunt of many insults as he struggles to fit in. Tom could be the perfect ally for Greg. And Tom appears helpful. On Greg’s first day, Tom tells him in a calm sympathetic tone, “If you need any help, seriously, any help, any advice … just, you know … don’t f***ing bother.”
It’s difficult to watch how these characters treat others and not say: “These rich people are so horrible. They think they can do what they like and get away with it.” And the series writers show that these particular characters do, for the most part, get away with it and that their only retribution can come from other rich people and not, for example, through the laws that apply to the rest of us. That arrogance spreads to any character who gets close to the family, to the point that there is not a single likable character in this series, and that’s exactly what the writers want. They don’t want us to like rich people.
All authors deliver their messages by manipulating the reader. That might sound horrifically controlling, but it doesn’t mean you have to become some evil puppet master. Manipulating readers is more subtle than that. It’s more of a nudge in a certain direction: look, this character is a nicer person than that one; this is the one you should feel empathy for.
An obvious example of this is used in many action movies (London Has Fallen being typical of this trope), where we see the hero’s pregnant wife at the start. She’s expected to be seen as vulnerable while her unborn child is innocent. The hunky hero has to get back home in time to save her, or he needs to go through this whole ordeal and return safely home just before the baby is born (often a daughter, to set us up for even more vulnerable females in the sequel). It’s lazy shorthand to make the audience have empathy for this action man who will kill and maim possibly hundreds of people in the next 90 minutes. But it’s effective.
Pick a point of view
The main way to direct readers’ sympathies is through perspective. With a first-person or close third-person narrative, for example, we get that character’s direct thoughts, feelings and biases. We get their side of the story, and often only that one side of the story, which is why these narrators can be unreliable, but we can’t help but have a certain empathy for that character.
For instance, we all know, from our experience in life, that we cannot be absolutely honest with everyone all the time. We have to protect other people’s feelings, and often the whole truth is just too much detail. Nobody needs to hear that you were ten minutes late this morning because you had to use the barbecue tongs to fish your toothbrush out of the toilet after you accidentally dropped it in there – certainly not your guests who’ll be arriving this weekend for your birthday cook out. So, you just say the car wouldn’t start.
And yet, we can’t help but feel the frustration of the young protagonist in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time when adults consistently lie to him.
Gone Girl shifts perspectives to show us both sides of that story, and it’s a masterful manipulation on the part of the author, Gillian Flynn, to only gradually reveal the details so that our alliances shift as the story progresses.
For this reason, it’s important to pick a point of view and stick with it throughout a particular scene, chapter or even the whole story. It can get tricky if you shift the perspective too much in a story, and especially within a scene.
Then we get into head-hopping  territory.
Here’s a made-up example: Susan and Tom have had a raging argument, and she’s stormed upstairs to pack her bags while he stays in the kitchen to pour more wine.
I didn’t think it would end this way, Susan thinks as she tips the underwear drawer into the suitcase. I did nothing wrong, Tom muses as he takes another gulp. And yet it always seems to be my fault, he never sees my side of things. Susan pulls open the wardrobe.
In this admittedly extreme example, we have to skip back and forth to even realize who is thinking what. And where are we? In the kitchen or in the bedroom? And who are we supposed to believe?
It’s difficult for readers to “see” the action from these shifting points of view, even if we had an omniscient narrator. We get her thoughts and feelings, then his, then hers. It’s difficult then for readers to know who they should sympathize with. Why not both? Because that’s actually difficult for readers to do in equal amounts. Humans are pretty much conditioned to pick sides, so we feel torn, which might be the author’s aim in some cases, but usually it just confuses.
It’s the author’s job to manipulate readers, to urge them to feel a certain way: get their pulse racing when the characters are in a crisis – done through short, direct sentences to quicken the pace of the text; to calm them when our heroes finally reach safety – longer, more detailed sentences; and to mislead readers when they want – the classic example is red herrings in crime novels.
Authors can also use story structure to send readers in one direction, along a typical monomyth journey, for example, only to shift expectations and take readers into a world of sci-fi. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas plays with structure like this and takes readers through a variety of genres in a single novel.
Reader manipulation can be very powerful, and every author does it to some extent, usually through that slow drip of information, delivering only what you want the readers to know and only when you want them to know it. You can nudge readers to have certain sympathies or even hostilities.
Whatever way it goes, however you do it, it will help readers connect with your story, make them feel involved and help them forget they’re even reading a book. They will feel like they’re part of that world you’ve created. And what author doesn’t want that?
What are your favorite examples of reader manipulation? How do you nudge your readers in one direction or the other?