It’s a truism that to succeed at accomplishing a goal, you first have to be clear on exactly what the goal is. So, let’s get down to basics. What are we trying to do when we write novels? What makes readers love them? How do we know when we’ve succeeded? It’s important to know this and keep it in mind as a goal when we write.
Here’s the goal: Ultimately, novels are a search for feelings.
Mystery readers enjoy a feeling of intellectual satisfaction when they solve a puzzle. Romance readers enjoy the heart-warming euphoria of true love overcoming obstacles. Thriller readers enjoy being scared out of their wits and surviving. But don’t just take my word for it:
In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain says:
“Your goal is to elicit a particular reaction from the reader. You want to make him feel a certain way… suck him into a whirlpool of emotion. To do this–to make your reader feel the way you want him to feel–is your story’s whole and total function.”
Heather Sellers concurs in Chapter by Chapter:
“Readers want to experience life to the fullest, with all stops pulled out, without a net, with their patooties swinging in the breeze, guns blazing, tumbling down a cliff, sunk in passion, enraptured beyond recognition–because in their real lives, they cannot.”
Assuming that one agrees that making the reader feel a certain way is the purpose of a novel, how does one go about doing this? If an author explains that ”He was sad,” does that automatically make the reader feel sad? Uh…no. Not at all.
To produce feelings and emotions in readers, the writer must make them live through a scene right along with the character. If the reader is one with the character, hearing what he hears, seeing what he sees, smelling what he smells, reacting to the events, only then can he feel what the character feels. The great Hemingway put it this way:
“If anything gave you a feeling, you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Put down what really happened in action–what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced … The problem was one of depiction and, waking in the night, I tried to remember what it was that seemed just out of my remembering and that was the thing that I had really seen, and, finally, remembering all around it, I got it. When the matador stood up, his face white and dirty and the silk of his breeches opened from waist to knee, it was the dirtiness of the rented breeches, the dirtiness of his slit underwear, and the clean, clean, unbearably clean whiteness of the thigh bone that I had seen, and it was that which was important.”
So producing feelings should be the prime goal when writing novels. Not telling background information on a setting. Not heights of fancy poetical phrasing. Not commentary on a historical event. Sure, these all have a place. But focusing on the main goal–eliciting feelings–will simplify things, give you a goal, and put you way ahead in the game.