What Makes a Scene Emotionally Gripping?

6:00 AM

"Make your readers care."

Have you heard that before? I know I have, loads of times. And it's good advice. But ... how are you supposed to do that? How do you make readers care about your story?

Let's say you start a book. Right off the bat, it's intense. There's a fierce fight scene, blades are flying. It's great action, fantastic writing. But the two fighters are ... faceless. This is the beginning, so readers don't know who these characters are, they don't understand what's at stake, and they have no investment. They don't know who they should be rooting for, and what outcome they want to see.

You see the problem here?




The reason there's no emotional attachment is because we're not invested in the story yet. We don't know what we want, because we haven't been given any options.

So how do you change that?

There are three integral concepts that are key to emotionally gripping your readers in a scene. There are no doubt tons of others, but I'm going to cover these three today.


1. ESTABLISH YOUR CHARACTERS

Those faceless people don't mean anything to us. Aside from being a decent person, we have no incentive to want them to remain uninjured. I don't know what the fighters are fighting over. Did one fighter kill the other's friend? Or did one of them steal the other's inheritance? Or their dinner? Or Oreos? Or, heaven forbid, their coffee? I know I would grab the nearest knife and go at it if someone stole my coffee, but I could get over dinner and Oreos. 

Maybe they're both to blame. Maybe one called the other's face a chicken, and the other called the person's soul an acorn. They both show astounding immaturity in this case, and neither would get my vote to win the fight. 

But let's focus on that last stealing option there. Character 1 steals character 2's coffee. How will he live without coffee? We'll deal with this more in point two, but right now we want to focus on the character whose coffee was stolen. 

We know this person (let's make it a girl named Shirley) is a smart, protective bean who likes coffee. Yes, that gives her a bunch of brownie points. But what if she steals coffee from other people? What if she steals little preschoolers' Oreos? We don't want to cheer for a coffee robbing, Oreo snatching thief, do we? 

We need to know a bit about these fighters. We need to know who is in this scene. We need someone to root for. Otherwise, we have no emotional investment. And that is not good. That's why readers put books down. Because they don't care.

Let's say Shirley is a barista. Character 2, let's make it a guy named Phill, comes into Shirley's coffee shop and steals a whole bag of coffee beans and races out of the store, knocking over Old Aunt Suzie on his way out and scattering her seventeen grandchildren, who stumble out the door and into the street where cars and scooters are whizzing by.

That instantly makes us dislike Phil. And Shirley gets some brownie points when she abadons her post behind the counter to help Old Aunt Suzie and races after the thief. 

CONCLUSION: Make sure we know who our players are.


2. SET THE STAKES

We have very high stakes in this scene. I mean, come on! Someone stole coffee. This is a very serious matter. We all must hate Phil. Although, he does show a sense of priority. But STILL. Stealing is a no-no.

Ehem.

So what are the stakes here? Shirley runs after Phil. But what is she risking? What's at stake for her? We care about her now, but just because we care about Shirley doesn't necessarily mean we'll care about what she's doing. And one way we'll care about what she's doing is if we understand the stakes. I love my characters, but if my little Wolf goes to get some cereal, I'm not going to care much because there's no risk. I'm invested in him, but I have no reason to care about the cereal.

Let's say Shirley is not supposed to leave the store while working. But she does here. What's at risk? Her job. And we see how much Shirley loves coffee. We don't want her to get fired from the coffee shop. WHAT TRAVESTY. 

Let's add on. Shirley can get over losing her job. But what if she saw a gun in Phil's belt when he came and stole the coffee? Now we have two big stakes to consider. Shirley's job and her life. We can be pretty confident, especially since this is the beginning of the story, that her life will not be taken. But her job sure might.

I don't know about you, but I'd keep reading.

*SMALL NOTE: it's a good idea to make at least one of the stakes you set something you could very easily take away. Her job can very easily be taken away. We'd still have a story. In fact, we'd probably have a better story because #CONFLICT. But we don't want her to lose her job. We can be pretty confident she's not going to die (yet)


Now, you might think once you've established your characters and set your stakes, everything will be covered. The readers will care about what's happening because, well, THE CHARACTERS. And sometimes that might be true. But I know when I'm reading, if the scene doesn't really belong there, if it feels shoved in or forced, I don't really care. You might say there are stakes, but they don't feel real to me. You have to paint them in the story. You have to make it so that, if I am to continue reading this book, I have to accept the stakes you've raised.

But how do you do that? 


3. MAKE SURE THE SCENE BELONGS

This could also be called streamlining the plot. Kind of like the candle stick scenario. If you write a fight scene in a room and a character hits someone over the head with a candle stick, show us the candle stick the moment we enter the room. Then when we read the nice thunk the stick makes on said character's skull, we'll understand that it belongs there. 

You know how when you're reading a book and the middle gets all crazy? And there's a bunch of stuff going on and it's all mayhem and madness. And then you reach this point where you think, "Oh no, I'm so scared because the characters are obviously in danger of DEATH." Only you don't really feel that way. You're kind of tired of the same old stakes. 

So what is going to keep us reading? Say Shirley chases down Phil. Let's say he gets away, but before he does he warns her that he is developing an anti-coffee serum that will transform all the coffee in the world into jet fuel. DUH DUH DUHHHHH! Shirley doesn't lose her job, since Old Aunt Suzie raved about what a wonderful employee she was for chasing down Phil and helping her with the kids. So the manager can't fire her or else he'll look bad, but now he doesn't like her and things at work start to get difficult. And she can't be the good model employee he wants her to be either, because Phil is still out there with a plan to take out all the coffee in the world, starting with her beloved coffee shop.

Now let's say in the midst of all this, Shirley takes a trip to Kroger and buys cleaning wipes. Just like with Wolf's cereal, we don't really care about the wipes because they have nothing to do with the plot. If you have a bunch of action whirling in your story, make sure it belongs there. Don't put a fight scene in just for the sake of having a fight scene. Don't kill a character for the sake of making someone die and crushing your readers' souls.

Make sure these scenes belong there. They need to have a place in your story. They need to keep the plot driving forward, and to keep things moving, stakes rising, characters developing. That's what makes readers care. They want to see things happening. To see the things they truly care about change, for better or worse. 

That's one reason readers will keep reading, even if they don't like what's currently happening. They can be assured that things will change soon, and hopefully they'll like the change. And if they don't, they'll desperately keep reading until they find a change they do like. And then your readers are finally satisfied.

Establish your characters, set your stakes, and make sure it belongs. And, through all of these, keep your story moving and changing and developing. Your readers are rooting for change. Give it to them!


I am on vacation currently, so that's why things are a bit slow here. But I hope you enjoyed and learned something from this post!

Do you struggle with making readers care? What do you think makes a scene emotionally gripping? 


<3

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14 comments

  1. I think making the scene belong is something I struggle with. A very helpful and informative post!

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    1. It can be tricky to make every scene really matter. Just try to let your story lead <3

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  2. I tend to be a plot-first novelist, so it can be hard for me to make the characters likable enough for readers to be invested in them. Fight scene #2 must happen because the McGuffin must be stolen, sending the protagonist on the adventure. *Yawn*. Thanks for the great post!

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    1. Maybe thinking about why you chose these certain characters for your plot might help you in making them more likable ...? Just a thought. Thanks for reading!

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    2. I hadn't thought of it that way before. Thanks!

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    3. No problem! I hope it helps!

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  3. This is very important, I think. I appreciate it when the stakes are personal, too, and not as much about saving the world. We can care more about one person than we can about everyone in the world.

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    1. Exactly! And larger stakes are harder to take seriously, especially because we're in the world and it's fine, so it's a little too much of a stretch to say the world is going to end if we don't defeat the ominous bad guys. It works often, of course, but more personal stakes are more immediately gripping.

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  4. Great tips! I *always* need to be emotionally invested in characters before I see them gallop off into a huge fight, with stakes I'm not aware of. XD And I love your coffee example! (Even though I'm not a coffee drinker myself... *gasp* Yeah, sorry about that...)

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    1. NOOOO. Melissa ... *sniffs* I THOUGHT WE WERE FRIENDS. *tragically throws self on pillow and sobs* I will try to forgive you. I have to compromise with tea and hot cocoa, but still ... /coffee/. *shakes head* And needless to say, you've done a great job capturing my emotions with your characters ;)

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  5. This was so helpful!

    Hailey
    www.haileyhudson.wordpress.com

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    1. I'm so glad! Thanks for reading <3

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  6. I most definitely have a really hard time making my characters emotionally gripping. The second one especially is helpful to me, because I need to make sure that what is going on has some sort of MEANING and STAKE, otherwise, why would someone waste their time reading about a character who means nothing.

    Thanks for this lovely advice and I just ran across your blog today! I followed your blog and I can't wait to read more...I would love it if you would check out mine if you have a moment as well!

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    1. I'm so glad you found my blog! How did you, if I might ask? (I'm always curious!) I'll be sure to check yours out <3 I'm glad you liked the post!

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