The Draw of Fiction: Emotional Human Connection
“Literature offers feeling for which we do not have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread, and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve, for even good feelings—intimacy, power, speed, drunkenness, passion—have consequences, and powerful feelings may risk powerful consequences.”1 For many readers this is the draw of fiction—the vicarious emotional experience. Not only does fiction offer the reader the opportunity to select, via book selection, which emotion to feel—love, hate, fear, courage, jealousy—as Burroway points out fiction offers the reader the opportunity to feel intensely without doing any more than turning a page. Yet fiction does more than allow a reader to feel; it allows the reader to connect, to search for an understanding or meaning from life and life’s events. “…the value of great fiction …is not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.”2 The key to filling the human need to explore life and connect with others is by tapping into reader intellect and emotion.
The Importance of Details on Reader Response: Intellect vs. Emotion
As any magician knows, details draw attention. Details aid in the illusion. And as a magician controls the audience’s attention by way of carefully placed details, the writer can also use detail to direct reader attention and control reader response. The audience member, as does the reader, goes along with the illusion knowingly, asking in return the delivery of a promise. The magician uses sleight of hand to deliver that promise; the writer uses description.
Description is accomplished by providing details; however, to be effective details must be carefully selected and effectively placed. The writer must focus on the goal of the detail and determine the best details accordingly. Intellectuality is one concern. A detail is “…significant if it also conveys an idea or a judgment or both.”3 This is not to say that the writer should use details to insert their own judgment but to offer details in such a way as to allow the reader the opportunity to make a judgment. Burroway clarifies for writers how to effectively weave intellect and emotion. “Much of what you (the writer) mean will be an abstraction or a judgment—love requires trust, children can be cruel. But if you write in abstractions or judgments, you are writing an essay, whereas if you let us use our senses and form our own interpretations, we will be involved as participants in a real way.” Emotionality is another concern when selecting and placing details. “A detail is ‘definite’ and ‘concrete’ when it appeals to the senses. It should seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched.”4 Consequently, if the writer wants the reader to be engaged both intellectually and emotionally, sensory details are essential.
The Fictive Dream: More Than Descriptive Detail
“Fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.”5 Detail is the basis of that dream. “…in good fiction, it’s physical detail that pulls us into the story, makes us believe or forget not to believe or accept the lie even as we laugh at it.”6 This total immersion is the result of a response that takes place within the reader as a result of effective detail “that…creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind…In great fiction, the dream engages us heart and soul; we not only respond to imaginary things—sights, sounds, smells—as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as though they were real.”7 Details alone are not enough to accomplish this; James Frey takes the concept of the fictive dream a step further than a singular focus on details. “As a fiction writer, you’re expected to transport a reader. Readers are said to be transported when, while they are reading, they feel that they are actually living in the story world and the real world around them evaporates.”8 When in this transported state the reader’s subconscious—the area where sensory input is processed and decoded—has been engaged and is the primary source of response. Tapping into the reader’s subconscious requires more than carefully placed details; it requires a delicate linking of details to story components.
Frey noted three stages that enable the writer to reach the subconscious and thus fully transport the reader into the fiction dream:
Sympathy: “Sympathy it is the doorway through which the reader gains emotional access to a story.”9 It requires that a character be placed in a situation which will evoke an emotion so intense—loneliness, repression, danger, embarrassment—that the reader will feel sympathy for the character.
Identification: “Identification occurs when the reader is not only in sympathy with the character’s plight, but also supports his or her goals and aspirations and has a strong desire that the character achieve them.”10 In order for the reader to support those goals and aspirations the writer must make clear what the character does or does not want to happen.
Empathy: A writer can “…win empathy for a character by detailing the sensuous details in the environment: the sights, sounds, pains, smells, and so on that the character is feeling—the feelings that trigger emotion.”11 Empathy is a much stronger emotion than sympathy, and it is through empathy that the reader will feel what the character is feeling. This is achieved by using sensuous and emotion-provoking details that suggest to the reader what it is like to be the character and to experience what the character is experiencing.
1-p74, Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction
2-p31, Gardener, John. The Art of Fiction.
7-pp30, 31, Art
8-p6, Frey, James. How to Write a Damn Good Novel II: Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling