Storyville: Manipulating Your Readers
Most of what we do as authors is in order to get an expected response from our readers, right? You don’t want them laughing when they should be crying, snickering at a bad sex scene, or rolling their eyes at what should be a terrifying passage. So how do you get your audience to respond? Here are some general suggestions as well as some specific tips that I hope will help you to get into the heart, mind, soul, pants, and nightmares of your audience.
CHARACTERS THAT WE CARE ABOUT
This is one of the most important things you can do when writing a short story or novel. If people don’t care about your protagonist, about the cast of people you parade in front of them, then you will never get them to respond, no matter what your goal is. You can’t call somebody beautiful and have that beauty resonate. You cannot call somebody dangerous and make it so. Look, that guy on the corner, he’s handsome and nothing but trouble. Do you feel it? No, of course not. You can’t picture it, you can’t tap into your own experience, it means nothing to TELL me what something is. You have to SHOW me these people in their moments of inspiration, in their moments of failure. (NOTE: I've since written a more in-depth column on SHOW vs TELL. So click over if you want more.)
Think about your plot, your goal, the conflict that is inherent to your current story. Whether you outline or just start with an idea and follow your instincts, you have to be aware of what you’re writing, some sort of general emotion or feeling or situation. If you show me a mother in a kitchen and she’s humming a song—her long brown hair pulled up in a ponytail, sun beaming in the window, birds chirping, her slender, tan arms working up a light sweat as she chops up vegetables for dinner, or maybe fruit for a smoothie, or something for her son’s lunch, complete with apron, pulled tight around her slim figure—there is a certain appeal to that picture, even an air of safety. If that’s what you wanted, then good job, right? We can all relate to that.
But what if you take that same situation, and now she’s not singing, but cursing under her breath? What if her clothes are wrinkled and stained, and she cuts her finger, shoving that finger into her mouth, her eyes suddenly starting to glow yellow or red? Now it’s different, right? What if that sandwich for her son, instead of peanut butter and jelly (what a good mother) she pushes in shards of glass (the horror)? What if instead of leaning down to feed the dog a scrap, she kicks it across the room? We are building character here in every moment—her clothes, her behavior, her language, her actions. If you want us to like, lust after, or love her, if you want us to hate, fear, and become unnerved by her, then you need to create two very different scenes, right?
I think this is just as important as character. Take that same kitchen. What kind of kitchen are we talking about here? Is it a charming little suburban home with granite countertops, steel appliances, hardwood floors, with the kids playing in the living room, the husband about to head off to work, the dog barking in the backyard? What kind of emotions is that creating—safety, a sense of peace, a certain level of success, and expectation?
What if that same kitchen is in the woods, and there’s no sun gleaming in the window, just the shadows of the encroaching forest, dead grass around the cabin, the sink filled with filthy dishes, and the mother cutting up something on the counter that might have been an animal once? The children pull at her faded, torn apron, starving for dinner, tears in her eyes, as her husband slams the back door, headed out into the forest, gun in hand, stubble on his cheeks, rain starting to drizzle down, the house creaking in a wind that is building, a branch cracking and falling to the ground at the edge of the black woods that surround the tiny house. Two very different places, yes?
What is the ideal romantic and erotic bedroom? Now what would make that same setting horrific? Use everything you’ve ever seen—in other books, movies, television shows. Remember what scared you, what turned you on, or made you feel safe and loved. Tap into it. This applies to your characters, too, of course. If you can put us in a place that you have built, then you are that much closer to making us do what you want.
Just about every story, from romance and literary fiction, to horror and crime, will have some sort of tension in it. Will the boy call her back after she saw him at the diner? Did the waitress see your protagonist dump the trash bags in the alley? Why does that alley always smell so bad, when the garbage cans are empty, after you spent hours sweeping and cleaning in a frenzy of paranoia? Through your characters and setting, and now your actions and plot, you can build up that tension. You want to be subtle, hint at what’s coming. Everything you use will lead us to that same assumption—your tone, mood, setting, language, imagery, metaphor—you name it.
If the danger in your novel is a firefighter that shows up when there are tornadoes and steals kids (All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones), then how do you keep that tension going? You tell us what he looks like, long black hair, perhaps distinguishing marks on his skin or face, the yellow helmet, the black boots. We need to see him constantly now—at the county fair, as the man climbing up the telephone pole who looks a little bit off (is that the right uniform?), in the shadows, in the crowds, at crime scenes, and local schools. He is magic, he is everywhere, he is more than a mortal man, perhaps. He is smart, and plays tricks on you—phone calls (from that man on the telephone pole?), leaving cryptic clues behind, his actions leading to an explosion at a house, leaving other witnesses vulnerable, so now you rush back to them, but you are too late.
Tension is simply information that you’ve already given to us, these clues, all leading us to an unnerving conclusion—the children are hidden in the basement, the killings are based on a weather condition, the map is a pentagram of killings, the killer is a cop, working on this very case. Right? Start slow, and work around it, and in time your readers will be right where you want them, eager for answers, quick to jump to conclusions, opening their minds and hearts to the information they so desperately need, or desperately don’t want to believe.
SYMPATHY AND EMPATHY
Sympathy means to share in a feeling or emotion, usually sorrow or trouble. You feel bad for somebody. Empathy means the same thing, except it adds in the extra layer of understanding, because you’ve been through the same thing. I can feel sympathy for somebody that has lost their mother or father to cancer, but if both of my parents are still alive and well, I can only feel so much, right? Now, if I’ve also lost a parent to cancer, I can also empathize, because I’ve been through it. I not only feel bad for you, and offer my love and support, but I can also add in the extra depth of having suffered through the hospital visits, the pain of watching a loved one wither away to nothing, and then having to pull the plug.
While you can’t change the experience of your audience, you can seek out emotional truths that will give you a better chance of gaining not only sympathy, but empathy. We all have parents of some kind, we all had a childhood—good or bad. So, those are most likely universal truths. Have we all been in love, and then had our hearts broken? Maybe, most likely, especially if your audience is older. We’ve all had sex, I assume, at this point in our lives, but at what age did you lose your virginity—was it 14, 18, or 25? 30? Those moments really change not only the experience and the understanding, but the depth of the connection. And what about that sex life—how vanilla has it been? When you write about sex, about oral sex, anal sex—how about a little S&M? You ever been spanked, ever been cut just a little bit, had your hair pulled back, had a threesome, gone to a sex club? See how the experience and understanding changes the more specific you get, and the more obscure the act (or deviant, I guess you could say).
Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t write about an underground sex club, even if only 10% of your audience has ever been in one—that’s part of the reading experience, too, the fantasy. So how do you connect to them, then? Well, find something we can all relate to while we're in that underground sex club—lust, jealousy, fear, humiliation, pleasure, frustration—whatever you want. We’re back to those broad emotional truths again, which give us a better chance at not just sympathy, but empathy as well.
YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES
Another way to get your audience to respond is to tap into your own experiences and emotions. What scares you to death—being abandoned, loss, spiders, snakes, demons, death, and failure? Well, shoot, why not write a story about being abandoned in a forest with your friend (or child, or dog, or husband) and then losing them to some horror, possibly something to do with a snakebite, maybe you failing to suck the venom out in time, great spider nests in the trees, something dark and lumbering in the shadows, hunting you down, coming for the soul that was promised to it long ago, in one of your previous lives. Right? Why just fire one bullet, shoot off a few, see what sticks.
It’s the same thing when writing sex scenes: you never know what will turn somebody else on—is it the anticipation, the kissing, a soft tongue probing your wet mouth, hungry for more, deeper, you ask, pulling the person closer? Is it certain parts of your body—your neck, your stomach, your breasts and nipples (oh my god he said nipple), is it the hand snaking under the waistband of your jeans? If you’re a woman, if you’re a man, you want different things to happen, right, you have different body parts after all, but doesn't it all involve some attention, a hand sliding between your legs, an eager mouth ready to please you? I think we've all had a variety of experiences in the bedroom, and then whatever you’re lacking, turn that into a fantasy. You know you’re writing a hot scene when you turn yourself on, right?
Use your experiences and then wherever you are lacking, do research—rent that adult movie on S&M, go to the internet to research handguns, check out books from the library on poisons, how the body decomposes, visit a morgue, talk to cops, do whatever it takes to make it sound real. Whatever life you’ve lived, I’m sure there are some unique moments, and then also, some universal moments that we all can relate to—use them both.
In order to manipulate your audience you have to try and anticipate their reaction. You are the first witness to your crime, your fantasy, your betrayal—does it ring true? From the first hook of a sentence, to the opening paragraph, to the first page, you should be building character so we care, setting the stage with a layered setting so we fall into your story, creating tension by giving us clues of what is to come, and allowing us to relate to your story, feel sorrow or hope, touching on those universal themes that we’ve all shared over the years. You know where you want your reader to go, what you want them to feel—so run them through the wringer, and when we all come out the other side, maybe a bit shaky, or sweaty and spent, maybe a bit upset, or unsettled, or even hopeful—then you know you have done your job.
I may have linked to these stories before, but if you haven’t read them, check out “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates and “Harvey’s Dream” by Stephen King. Both are great examples of manipulating a reader through the use of character, setting, sympathy and empathy, universal truths, and tension.
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