I’ve read a good number of books. Some are fine, some are awful, a rare few are brilliant. I’ve taken a lot of time to think about what things make a book “good”. Of course it’s an entirely subjective issue as no two people appreciate the same things in the same ways. I adore Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, I know other people who just can’t see the appeal of them. So it’s difficult to pin down the exact elements that make a good story when readers have such a diverse range of likes and dislikes.
However, there are a few things that need to be right to take almost any book from blah to wow, I’ve already discussed the first and I believe, most important thing in previous blog posts – character. Another, equally important issue that is inextricably linked to character is emotion. I’ve written a good number of stories over the years that had interesting plots and good dialogue, but … they were shit. It has taken me far too long to figure out why. Only through reading a number of stories and analysing what it was that made them a thrill to read, did I start to notice what I was missing. Emotion.
Before you roll your eyes at me and say ‘oh here comes some rubbish about how every book needs a romantic subplot’ that is not what I’m talking about. We humans are emotional creatures. Emotions even exist in other species in ways that are observable and probably more complex than we can comprehend. Human beings live on an emotional level from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep – and even during sleep through our dreams. The most level-headed and detached people in this world are often the hardest to understand or make for the most terrifying people that exist.
As a reader we are actively (though not often consciously) seeking to empathise with the characters in a story and you can only do that if the author shows you how the characters feel through their experiences. Note I said ‘show’ not ‘tell’ this is a classic case of the old adage. I could write ‘Bob felt a bit peeved as Jill spoke’ which falls flat, or I could write ‘The sound of Jill’s voice was drowned out by the sound of Bob’s teeth grinding together’ – this is a rather unsubtle example, it could still be improved, but you get the point.
I often get hung up in the plot and the flow of the story and I have to go back and edit in the character emotions afterwards and only then does the story start to become something much more than just a bunch of people going through the motions.
So the moral is, your characters think and feel everything that is happening to them, don’t deprive your readers of those inner thoughts and experiences. Show the emotion.