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.
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.)