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Monday, August 03, 2009

Psychology in Writing: Emotional Impact

I will never forget the first time I watched the movie Sixth Sense. I will never forget the chills skating up and down my spine as Malcolm Crowe, a top child psychologist (played by Bruce Willis), tried to help Cole, the little boy who sees dead people. I will never forget pacing back and forth behind my sofa in stunned shock when I realized the impact of that ominous line—I see dead people.

Simultaneously, I understood the horrific revelation Bruce Willis’s character felt.
The screenwriter/director for Sixth Sense (the inimitable M. Night Shyamalan) lured me, the audience, into the precarious world of the characters. I felt Cole’s fear. I ached with Dr. Crowe for his own loss as he tried to help Cole. The emotional impact thudded between my eyes.

Over the last few months, we’ve talked about Psychology in Writing and have explored the characters and setting. Now let’s explore this month’s topic—emotional impact, the key to the success of your story.

Emotional impact is not what you do to your characters so much as it is the impact on your audience. Whether we are talking about editors looking to acquire, buyers for large chains, or the readers, your story will affect your reader. A strong emotional impact will convince the reader to . . .

Turn the page.

One primary key to a satisfying emotional impact is to stir their curiosity. This can be accomplished by creating circumstances that combat your character’s goal. Or maybe they want something so fiercely and it’s absolutely impossible to attain. Ideally, you want your reader chewing their nails in anticipation or shouting in joy for the character. Push the reader to wonder, What will the character do now? What will happen after this disaster? How could the character possibly come out of this alive? That spike of anticipation creates a desire to . . .

Turn the page.

Easily turned pages are packed with conflict, tension, and/or suspense. With each page turn, the reader has expectations. In romantic comedies a reader wants to laugh and see (generally) the couple get together.

How do you do that? Weave in the hilarious, the outrageous in a funny, compelling way. A suspense title can walk a character into a disaster and keep them alive just by a breath. Writing a horror flick you send spiders of fear up their back, and turn the ordinary into ominous. Use verbs that create a chill in your reader’s bones. Force them, with trembling fingers, to . . .

Turn the page.

In order to create a satisfying and strong emotional impact, you must have drawn compelling characters who establish a connection with the reader. The reader must relate to your character in some way. Perfect, cardboard characters are not relatable. Every person, no matter how “plain,” has something unique that sets them apart. So do your characters. Find those quirks or aspects. Make the unique familiar. The mundane thrilling. . . so the read will . . .

Turn the page.

When the last page is turned, your reader wants resolution. Knowing that the heroine is off on her own, rebuilding her life might be exactly what the single mom in New York needs to read. Or maybe the hero who returned from war, though still struggling with nightmares, finally admits he needs help.

Emotional impact hooks your reader so that they are knee-deep in the trenches with your character. They care. They want to cheer your character on. They rail against the villain. The reader wants a good (not necessarily sappy) ending. An ending that makes them want to pick up your next book and . . .

Turn the page.


  1. This is fantastic, Ronie. Really good stuff.


  2. Wow. Thanks for this, Ronie. I've been enjoying the psychology series.


  3. Thanks, Mike! And Lynn--what a blessing. I'm glad you've enjoyed it. I have too! It's really pushed me to define things I do by instinct (in some parts).


  4. Every parent should convey to the child that he is an individual in his own right apart from us and responsible for his successes and failures.

    BluePixo Entertainment - A place for mom and dad to share topics about parenthood


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