To Become A True Storyteller, You Must Cloak Yourself In The Mantle Of Evil Puppetmaster

Lightsaber Lollipop

Bold proclamation time:

The most critical thing that a story must do  —

the tippity-top of the narrative mountain!

— is make the audience feel something.

The key verb there is “make.” As in, to force, to manipulate, to induce, compel, impel, coerce. As in, to turn the audience into your wide-eyed butt-puppets and demand that those suckers dance.

You are an emotional manipulator. You are a callous puppetmaster.

Think about it. The best stories — the ones you remember, the ones you tell again and again, the ones you keep coming back to — are the ones that made you feel something. You feel fear during a campfire tale. You feel shock and betrayal when Vader reveals his heritage and lops off his son’s hand quick as thumbing the bloom off a daisy. You weep during Brian’s Song. You masturbate vigorously during Career Opportunities starring Jennifer Connelly. What? Just me?

Uhhh. Then I was clearly just kidding. Ha ha! Ha. Heh. Shut up.

Point is, the real skill of a gifted storyteller is the ability to twist the emotions of the audience. To conjure feeling for — and please observe just how absurd this is — completely imaginary people.

“Here is a person that does not — and will never — exist,” you say. “Now I will make you care for them more than you care for your own mother, at least for two hours or 300 pages or a handful of comic book panels. P.S., you are my butt-puppet. Or, if you’d prefer, rectal poppet. That is the one choice I will give you.”

The Essential Toolkit

To achieve this, I suspect you must be:

An excellent liar.

Someone who is at least mildly disturbed.

Capable of thinking of profound evils and delirious virtues in equal measure.

Willing to commit acts of overwhelming cruelty to invisible, non-existent people.

Someone who had lots of imaginary friends as a child. And possibly as an adult.

The First Emotion Must Be Love

The core of every good story is a character for whom we care — and not just care a little, but care deeply. This alone is no easy task: Such a character must be likable, but not annoying. He must have virtues but remain imperfect. She must possess the potential for sacrifice, for selflessness, for selfishness, for evil. He may be funny, but not only that. She may be serious, but not only that. He comprises many dimensions but not so many that he seems unreal or unpindownable.

How do we foster love? How do we ask the audience to care for her (and by “ask” I mean, “twist up their emotions like a pair of frilly panties”)?

I don’t know that any one way exists, but I suspect it helps if you go in knowing why the audience is going to connect with a given character. Are they going to respect his honesty in the face of criminal tendencies? Will his warm heart buried beneath a crusty exoskeleton of calcified snark be their undoing? Is it her unexpected toughness, her motherly instincts, her witty sardonicism, her laser-shooting uterus?

Best figure that out. Identify it going in. Easy tip: pick three traits that will make the character lovable. “Irascible scamp,” “charitable to a fault,” and “photon ovaries.”

Character magic, complete.

Now You Stab The Audience In The Kidney

First comes love, yes.

But after that? Sweet, sweet betrayal.

Hey! That handsome John McClane, he’s going through some rough times — oh! Oh, he’s trying out that toe thing. On the carpet. And then oh snap, terrorists and OH GOD HE’S RUNNING ACROSS BROKEN GLASS AND THERE’S FIRE AND A GUN GLUED TO HIS BACK WITH TAPE AND BLOOD EW.

That Buffy sure is a sassy little vampire slayer, isn’t she? She’s cute and snarky and has such great friends and HOLY CRAP SHE JUST HAD TO KILL HER VAMPIRE BOYFRIEND OH GOD NO.

Oh, that Elizabeth Bennett! Trapped in a stuffy society where status matters, the poor woman just wants to marry for love and YE GODS AND FISHES SHE’S BEING EATEN BY A KOMODO DRAGON.

Okay, I maybe made that last part up. But I dare any of you to claim that Jane Austen’s novels would not be a smidgen more entertaining with the introduction of various ravenous reptiles.

Point is, that character you just made the audience love? Now you have to hurt that character. As badly as you can stomach, I suspect.You have earned the audience’s love and trust. Now you betray it.

Trick is, audiences are both really stupid and damnably clever. They’re stupid because, duh, they keep coming back for more. They keep walking back into bookstores and movie theaters all year ’round, expecting that something will be different, expecting for once that their love and trust will be rewarded.

(It won’t.)

On the other hand, they’re smart because they’ve wised up. They can see your machinations laid bare. They know you’re not likely to kill the protagonist. They know you’re not likely to irreversibly destroy some precious plot point. That forces you to either a) get creative or b) throw caution to the wind and do the exact thing that they think you can never do.

Getting creative suggests that you find secret in-roads that lead to a character’s pain — sure, you can’t kill the character, but you can kill their spirit! (Or appear to, at least.) Harm their loved ones! Take away everything they hold dear! Hobble their efforts at every turn!

It should become increasingly clear that the character is a voodoo doll representing the audience. You stab the character with pins — but the character is an imaginary proxy. The one who feels the sting of the prick (stop sniggering) is the audience. In fact, what you’re doing to the audience — give them love, then stab the love with pointy evil — is the same thing that you’re doing to the character, isn’t it?

It’s an endless cycle of love and pain.

And That Is Only The Beginning

That simplest of equations (create love, betray love) is only the first and most direct way of instigating emotion in the reader. But the most accomplished storyteller has an unholy cabinet of torture tools and cruel curiosities. You can make the audience feel hatred. You can make them feel disgust. You can drag them into the depths of terror while elevating them to the heights of ecstatic relief.

What about the power of a loathsome villain?

The wrenching uncertainty of a love triangle?

The sting of defeat, the reverie of triumph?

A puppet might have a half-a-dozen strings, but the strings that lead from your story to that story’s audience are nearly infinite. And in the next couple weeks, we’ll be taking a look at more of those ways to tweak, twist, fold, spindle, mutilate, maul, and molest the tender emotions of your unwitting audience.

Stay tuned, story-slingers.

(Credit to Angela Perry who kicked my ass into this line of thinking with this comment.)

32 comments

  • Several years ago someone made a comment on the forum of a best-selling author (in which I was participating) saying that I was a “great writer” and, typically embarrassed, I said that I wasn’t a great writer, but was “a manipulative bitch with a basic understanding of psychology.” The best-selling author stepped right up and said I’d pretty much described her entire career and was I saying she wasn’t a great writer? Um. No, ma’am.

    This concept became even more clear to me a couple years later when I read Sol Stein’s book STEIN ON WRITING in which he wrote that the purpose of non-fiction is to convey information and the purpose of fiction is to evoke emotion. I can’t even tell you what a huge impact this had on my understanding of what I was (supposed to be) doing as a writer.

    And yet, every time I mention this to other writers I am accused of being manipulative and heartless and even disrespectful of the sacred bond between writer and reader. To which I say, with all due respect, if I don’t rip your fucking heart out and trample it in the muck sucking dark swamp of agony before lifting it, battered and bruised yet unbroken, to the heights of unicorn-infested sunshine and glittery ecstasy — well, I wouldn’t be doing my job, now would I?

    Also? If you want to make someone cry, first you have to make them laugh. That’s kind of basic. And don’t forget that whole concept of “saving the cat” (a la Blake Snyder) — THAT is what makes us care about hard-ass irredeemable characters from the first page (JD Robb does this in the opening scene of every single book — not that Eve Dallas is irredeemable, but she sure is hard-ass).

    Great post, Chuck. Looking forward to more. Since, you know, I’m not yet looking back on them. ;)

  • I propose one addition to the essential toolkit: just a bit of a sadistic streak. I mean clearly you must be a little disturbed as a storyteller to get creative about it but really it goes to an entirely different level if some part of you enjoys tormenting the characters (if only so their eventual victory can be all the sweeter)

  • Not so much a writing thing as a Larp Writing thing, but i’ve always taken “You are a sick twisted miserable fucking bastard!” as the highest sort of accolade from my players.
    Better than Wrestlemania pop.

  • I haven’t done much writing, other than for various games I’ve helped run, but having done a bit and read every foreword and essay about the process, one theme seems to keep coming up. In conjunction with what Chuck says about making the reader care, it seems you have to care about them to do it. So many authors have written about how the best characters they’ve written were like part of them when they were done writing them. How they felt the pangs and pains the characters felt even as they created the cause of that pain.

    The difference between being a callous manipulator and a writer: you don’t necessarily have to be that callous (more the opposite) but you have to manipulate those emotions anyway.

  • And you can’t let your characters manipulate you. YOU ARE THE PUPPETMASTER! Make them do your bidding. About ten years ago I was writing and my characters tried to pull the wool over my eyes, telling me they wanted to do something that went completely against my plot plan. I actually started to listen, the mesmerizing little twits. Then I woke up and start slapping them back into place. The story was much better for it.

  • It’s pretty disturbing to discover, first, that you need to make your characters suffer. And second, that you’re capable of viciously tormenting them in ways that would make you sick in real life.

  • Or sometimes, the characters tell you that Spock Must Die, where “Spock” is a character you have a slight crush on yourself. This, after you’ve spent weeks knowing that she gets out of the picture and wondering how the heck you can make it happen.

    Well, Faulkner said “kill your darlings,” and that’s pretty much the same thing being said here. I got many comments along the lines of “I’m still crying.” Yeah, I shed a few tears myself writing something I really didn’t want to write (5000+ words in one afternoon/evening), so I was willing to share.

  • Damn good advice, as usual, and true for all mediums of story telling. The pain you inflict on the characters in a very direct way is the hook that draws the readers in. Once they like the character, they feel the pain, but they also want to know how the character is going to get out of it, or even climb higher than they were before. Then, you either deliver them the goods (maybe making them work for it a bit) or kill the character dead. Though, when you kill the character that can make the audience feel betrayed.

    So, I guess the only part missing is at the end making at least some of the pain go away?

  • You’re right of course, but you do need to approach agony with a certain amount of caution. It depends on the genre. If you’re going for litfic, then sure, make a lovely character and then slice her into oblivion, one sliver at a time. But more traditionally escapist areas are often home to readers who don’t want to be harrowed. Push it too hard, and you’ll lose many of them, maybe even most.

    Just something to keep in mind.

    • @Tim —

      You know, I don’t know if I agree with that. Some of my favorite genre works punish the shit out of the characters in a variety of ways. Robin Hobb’s Assassin Apprentice trilogy? Early Robert Jordan? Stephen King, Robert McCammon? Buffy? Die Hard? Genre works are home to characters that get put through the ringer — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.

      — c.

  • @Tim,

    I agree with Chuck here. One of the series I’m rereading is fantasy, pure escapism, but the author doesn’t pull her punches. One of the protagonists has to kill his mentor, looking him in the eye, and this is after the other protagonist is put through the kind of emotional torture that would make any therapist filthy rich.

    The stakes are high, the motives are twisted, and the characters get jerked around hard enough to break hearts. And that’s just by the end of the second book; there’s still three more books of agony waiting. But I keep coming back, because damn it all if I don’t love the characters. Litfic does not have a corner on that market, my friend.

  • “But I dare any of you to claim that Jane Austen’s novels would not be a smidgen more entertaining with the introduction of various ravenous reptiles.”

    Would have helped both of the Brontë sisters as well. And it could have prevented the agony of millions of high-schoolers over the years who have who had to endure their books reptile-free.

    Great blog post, by the way.

  • @Tim, I’m in Chuck and Eric’s corner on that point. I don’t want to be coddled when reading genre fiction. George RR Martin doesn’t pull any punches in his A Song of Ice and Fire series — major POV characters die, the “good guys” never win for long, and even when I want to throw the book across the room because he’s kicked my favorites in the teeth — again — I know I’d be chasing right after it, scooping it up and smoothing out the pages for more.

    What I might agree with, in the vein of “don’t push them too hard,” is to make sure you’re not just beating the shit out of your characters for the sake of being mean to them. (I actually think Chuck made this point in a previous post, not too long ago, maybe?) Hurt them, and hurt them good, but give them a reprieve now and then, too. Show them fighting back. Show how those terrible events are changing them. Let ‘em have a small win in there before you shove their faces back into the mud.

    But I think that holds true for all writing, not just genre fiction.

  • dude! u give away so much! i’m probably gonna keep coming back for more, for ideas to torment, mostly. a voodoo doll/ an audience “joystick”, are you selling one of those yet? even if you ain’t, it’s still wort the trip -

  • This could be why literature is dead and ‘popular fiction’ reigns. You’ve all been raised by George Lucas.

    No, a great writer doesn’t manipulate anyone. A great writer doesn’t need to. A great story tells itself, and a great storyteller is only relating. Actors must convince you of emotion. A writer that tries to convince you to feel one way or another is a hack, plain and simple. Or a screenwriter.

    All a good writer has to do is tell the truth. That truth belongs to the writer – not the reader. The reader is incidental.

    By the way – Jane Austen’s style was hardly manipulative. It was honest. She wrote as she saw it and, in a fashion, as she wanted it. If you felt something, that’s your business. Not hers.

    • @Simon:

      All the best writers manipulate their audience. And I suspect that all the best writers are aware of it, too.

      The issue is, you see a problem with the term “manipulate,” as if it suggests that the writer is somehow harming the audience or invoking some kind of malevolent spell.

      If you have ever felt anything at all from a story — told, seen, heard, or otherwise — then your emotions have been manipulated.

      Beyond that, your comment is actually pretty condescending. A lot of so-called great literature was also popular fiction.

      — c.

  • Awesome. You are, of course, completely right. I think this is something that most writers ‘know’ already, but to hear it (or rather see it) from someone else is a confidence builder for me, because it means I’m heading along the right track with my own work. Thanks!!

  • Confession, I’m half a prude, or a fair weather prude. I bought your book a while back saw the first few highly colorful words then quickly put it down. I know I’m a horrible person. An external link brought me to your 25 outlining tips blog yesterday. I’m in love… with your blog. I went back to the book. You are an insane potty mouth but probably the best person I’d ever heard writing advice from. Wrapping up this novel that could possibly get me a NaNaWriMo win in a few words… I’m totally throwing my sexy groupie panties at you. They are large, and white and may have the word granny stamped across them, and only in the context of how much I love this blog. IRL (Prove yourself a true gamer and decipher that complex code) not so much my husband may object. Love the blog. I’ve just won NaNaWrimo, and failed all my high school English teachers. Look at that perfect grammar! I’ll try not to leave anymore awkwardly creepy comments promise.

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