This is not a post of writing advice, because I don’t do those. This is a post of writing observation. They’re different. Trust me.
I read books first and foremost for the emotions they evoke: wonder, awe, hope, joy, dismay, despair, and all the other good ones.
Similarly, I write with the intention of evoking such emotions in the reader. The hard question is how do I know when I’ve succeeded.
Writers with a lot of craft knowledge and experience probably just know. I expect they don’t need to read their draft to know how the reader will react emotionally at each point.
Me? I’m not quite there yet.
The best I can do (before I send my draft to beta readers) is read it myself and see if the story evokes the desired emotions in me. I think of reading my story for emotions as running a Geiger counter over it, but instead of measuring ionizing radiation I’m measuring emotional engagement.
If my emotional Geiger counter beeps like crazy in one section, the section is probably in good shape. If the Geiger counter’s as silent as space, I’m at risk of having the reader put down my book to do something more fun, like rearrange the cutlery drawer.
At times this works well. I can tell where the story is strong and which parts need more editing.
However, be warned: a few things can throw an emotional Geiger counter badly off.
Not enough distance
Some common writing advice states when you finish a draft of a novel you should put it aside for at least a month before reading it from start to finish. The purpose is to get some distance so you can view it more objectively.
This makes your emotional Geiger counter more accurate… basically because over time people forget stuff. Once you’ve forgotten exactly what you intended when you wrote your story, you can react emotionally to what you read, not the gorgeousness you imagine is there.
In contrast, if you read your book having only just finished writing it, you might miss out on having an emotional response because you can’t enjoy the decorative foliage without remembering all the sticky tape holding it in place.
Related to a lack of distance is boredom. If you’ve read a particular section a million times recently–because you were trying to make it work, because you use it to get in the mood for writing the rest of the book, or because brownies took your cat hostage and refused to return her until you read that scene twenty times aloud–you’re probably sick of it.
The first time you read it it might have provoked an emotional reaction. And the second time, and the third. By the tenth, maybe less so.
Your emotional Geiger counter has given up reporting on this scene. For it to be useful to you again, you’ll need to do something big. Perhaps take it out for a romantic dinner, hire a string quartet, and buy the best gift ever. I suggest a dragon egg.
Sorry, I might have got distracted there.
As I’m sure you guessed, the solution to boredom is turning those brownies over to the police and getting some distance.
One problem with using emotions to measure how well a scene works is that life stuff can affect emotions too.
Sometimes you’re worried because your bear’s head is stuck in a honey pot. Or your unicorn is about to come last in her dressage competition. Or your gryphon went to buy milk and hasn’t come home.
If you read part of your book at such a time, your emotional Geiger counter might reflect this worry rather than anything in the book.
This can be tricky to solve. The first step is to recognise you’re suffering from emotional interference. If the interference is minor you might be able to recalibrate your emotional Geiger counter to account for it and still get useful readings.
But if the interference is drowning out every trace of signal, you may be stuck waiting until your bear frees his head. (Or you could help him, you heartless writer.)
One way I use my emotional Geiger counter to test a scene is by judging how badly I want to keep reading. I’m not a very emotionally aware person, so rather than trying to guess what I’m feeling, I look at how much I can read before I feel the urge to get a glass of water or jump on social media.
If I’m trying to bellyflop into the cesspit that is Twitter every few pages, I’m clearly not emotionally engaged. More editing is required.
However, this process falls apart if someone (someone hypothetical, of course, not someone I’m married to) is chattering to me the whole time I’m reading. I’m good at blocking out distractions when I’m engrossed in a story, but they’re called distractions for a reason.
In this case, distract the hypothetical person with pizza or an adorable cat, and try again when it’s quiet.
Do you use an emotional Geiger counter to test when a scene or story is working? Do you have an alternative system? Please share! It might be better than mine.
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