You may think this is a strange topic. But “feels” in books is a legitimate trend. When I first started writing I had no concept of what “feels” were and very little interest in writing them. For some reason I wanted my writing to be high, intellectual, and dry. I wanted to move the readers with emotion–but a distant, dignified emotion. In other words, I didn’t really know what I was doing.
Granted, most authors write to evoke emotions in their readers. Some aim too high and it turns out sappy. Some aim too low and settle for an exciting plot with no meat. Many misjudge the expectations and timing. My breakthrough came when I realized I needed to be more vulnerable in my writing. My characters were too perfect, or their struggles were unrelatable, or I wouldn’t let them be real people.
So what are feels, and how do you write them into your book? Well, here’s my simple definition: unlocking the reader’s deepest sympathies. But how do you do this?
Setting up Expectations– You need the reader to invest in the story personally. One way to do this is to set up their expectations ahead of time. There is something about the human mind that recognizes patterns and appreciates familiarity. If you have listened to classical music at all, you may know that the composer often puts echoes and pieces of the main theme into the music early on. That way, when the grand climax comes and the main theme is played, the audience has already heard hints of it and it will invoke a more emotional response.
Not only that. But you want to get the reader’s imagination working for you. Yes, it’s fun to surprise the reader and there is a time for that. But it’s even more fun to get the reader to say, “I knew it!” That makes them take ownership of the plotting process. This means a lot of work for you. You have to give them just enough clues and hints to lead them down the right direction without being painfully obvious. Subtlety is key. Don’t rush through all of your introduction and rising action. Take the time to sprinkle plenty of foreshadowing, hints, and implications. Make the reader guess which ones will be fulfilled.
Timing– This one is huge and can be pretty difficult to pull off perfectly. This is the one that I probably labor over the most. The trouble with this guy is that as an author, I am immediately biased, especially when I am working on my third draft. The action plays out very different when you are on your first read, versus your third read. So it can be tricky to look back and try and guess exactly where the reader’s emotions are at any particular point. But I would say, the more you write, the more confident you will be in this aspect. It will start to come more instinctively. Although this one can particularly hard to pull off right, it is my favorite. That’s why my first book Out of Darkness, has a non-linear plot. I set it up so that the MC’s emotional climax is revealed directly before the action climax of the book, even though it takes place some time before.
Authenticity– This one surprised me a little. I wouldn’t have started writing if I didn’t have very personal things to express. But I wrapped them under layers of science fiction. And I have to add that it is incredibly different to create characters that feel like real people at all times. Dialogue seems easy at first. After all, you are the author! You know what each character is thinking at all times. The trouble is that real life is not like that. People speak without knowing what the other person is going to say. It can be difficult to mimic that in dialogue. That is why dialogue so often fails, and poor dialogue is one of the biggest reasons readers put a book down. My writing improved by leaps and bounds after I worked a high-conflict job for eighteen months. I saw how people really respond when they are emotional, angry, or afraid. And it has allowed me to infuse my characters with real motivations and honest reactions.
Reader Gratification– This one is semi-controversial. There is still that school of thought out there that insists the reader is your enemy and you cannot give them what they want. Maybe this is appropriate for some genres (I really don’t know). I can see it earning you the reader’s respect. But I don’t think it’s going to earn you any feels. In a sense, reader gratification is exactly what gives the “feels.” You set up the reader’s expectations, you create an emotional connection with the characters, you take the reader on a heart-pounding journey where they are afraid everything is going to fall apart, and then you come in with the gratification.
Now, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t always mean happily ever after, or everything turns out fine. Sometimes it means you make them cry over what could have been. But there has to be meaning in the choices you make. Readers are going to reel from the senseless death of a loved character in a similar way they might reel from bad news in real life. Life is full of bad news and tragedy and it’s hard to always find the meaning in it. If you are aiming for “feels” you have to put meaning in your story for your readers. Give them closure. Give them something to hold onto!
Round it Out– The best stories have a combination of feels. Don’t center all of your feels on one relationship, or one plot revelation. If you set up a plethora of subplots and sub-conflicts, and you handle them well, then by the end of the story you have a whole smorgasbord to choose from! You can make eight turn out well and have two end sadly and still leave your reader on a high note. And you know what? They will probably love that even more than happy endings across the board because it feels like real life. One of the very best ways to earn reader trust and loyalty is to successfully navigate them through sorrow.
So there’s a glimpse into writing a story with plenty of feels. Do you guys have any thoughts?