Actually, let me tell you about this dream I had.
Many Most of the details are fuzzy and
forgotten, because it was a dream, after all. But it goes like this:
I am a part of a group of women who are going on an adventure. We are excited, nervous, scared, and a little sad. We’ve been told we are saving our families, but also that we are never going to see our families again. We were only given minutes to prepare to leave and I had a garbage bag full of clothing that my husband grabbed from the dryer.
Gathered with my friends, I dump out my bag o’clothes to see what supplies I had, and out falls my Simon’s Spiderman blanket with armholes cut into it.
Cue Hiroshima in my heart and I crumple to the ground, sobbing uncontrollably.
My alarm goes off and my eyes open to a soggy face as I was crying in my sleep.
It took me fifteen minutes of sobbing into my pillow to get control of myself that afternoon so that I could get ready for work.
Thinking about it now makes my eyes leak a little bit. My heartbeat speeds up and I feel myself breathing just a fraction of a bit harder.
Something else that happened last week that has me thinking. Okay, back story: I had two cats for ten years. I was single and fancy-free, and love animals, so these were my kids (in a totally not neurotic way). A few months before I met my husband, there was a fire at my home and the cats were so sickened by the smoke that they had to be euthanized (the story is really more traumatic than that, but it’s not the point). Pebbles, the older one, was a fairly unique-looking cat. Her name actually comes from rock, not the Flintstones. I still miss her terribly; she was a pretty awesome little friend.
So I’m walking out from my office the other day, and as I approach my car, there is a cat sitting on my hood. She looks exactly—EXACTLY—like Pebbles. She sits there and stares at me, and I stop in my tracks and stare at her, for a long time. Then I remember that I need to go home, and my cat is dead, so this is not my cat. I sort of shoo the cat off my hood, but she won’t jump down. I pick her up to put her on the floor and she immediately starts purring, this loud throaty purr just like Pebbles used to do. Again, something in my brainheartgutsoul activates and I’m back on the first terrible days after the fire.
What is it that causes these reactions? Better yet, since we’re writers, how do I make YOU feel what I feel? I can tell you about my dream, and while I can still taste the air I was breathing when I saw that blanket, it’s much harder to get YOU to feel that way. Part of what makes us love stories is feeling those genuine emotions as we vicariously live the adventures or misadventures of the characters.
So what can we do?
I’ve discovered that some of the best places for “real” writing advice, meaning advice on “real” writing—novels and the such—comes from sites catering to business people, advertising writers, bloggers, etc. One such website has an interesting/useful article, “Hijacking Emotion is the Key to Engaging Your Audience,” by Helio Fred Garcia. He talks about how our brain is actually 3 “brains” working together, and sometimes not cooperating at all. Our physical survival depends on the instinctual reactions to stimuli and so our brain tends to pay very close attention. The same systems are linked to our emotional responses—so the attention carries over. Mr. Garcia says the following:
The default to emotion is part of the human condition. The amygdala governs the fight-or-flight impulse, the triggering of powerful emotions, and the release of chemicals that put humans in a heightened state of arousal. Humans are not thinking machines. We’re feeling machines who also think. We feel first, and then we think. As a result, leaders need to meet emotion with emotion before they can move audiences with reason.
Pretend I’m grabbing my red pen to cross out “leaders” and add “writers.” Let’s replace “reason” with “plot” while we’re at it. The part of our readers that dives into the story is the emotional, instinctual brain. Once we’ve established that salience, we can amaze them with our clever plot twists and flowery wordplay.
How do we activate the amygdala and establish the tractor beam to pull the reader irrevocably into our story? Here are a few ideas, gleaned from all over the place:
*The “bang”—Helio Garcia talked about suddenly playing very loud music when it was time for his class to start. The resultant startle “hijacked” the amygdalae of his students and they instinctually focused their attention on him. We can do the same thing by beginning our story with some sort of “bang”—the awesome first line that awakens the amygdala like a tap with a defibrillator.
“It was a pleasure to burn.” FAHRENHEIT 451, Ray Bradbury
"The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.” THE GUNSLINGER, Stephen King
An extended example of the “bang” can be found in I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER by Dan Wells. He starts with “Mrs. Anderson was dead.” One would think that this would be the “bang.” It’s not. The bang comes after a short explanation that she died naturally, and it was two days before something tore the guts out of another of the town’s citizens. Everyone else was killed by “The Clayton Killer.” The rest of the bang is the next line, “Well, most of them. All but one.”
The hairs stood up on the back of my neck just typing that, and I know what happens in the book. There you go—amygdala activated like Leslie Hall’s tight pants (Google it. Totally not writing related but you’ll get the metaphor).
*Relatable/sympathetic characters. I was talking about this one the other night with a coworker. Stephen King’s THE MIST has the most relatable protagonist ever, for me—a parent, stuck in a terrible situation, with a child asking “Are we gonna be okay?” Trust me. Every. Single. Thing. that happened to that dad, I was right there. When the Things happened, I felt what he felt. If you haven’t read it or seen the movie, I’m not sure you should. It left me traumatized—because I related SO much to the dad. That’s pretty powerful stuff right there. So how do you do it? Play on commonalities. Show, don’t tell. Add personality to your characters. KNOW your characters, so that even if you don’t write it all in your story, you are intimately aware of how they would react to situations. It shows in the story when you know your people that well.
A corollary to this is to make characters who are so terrible, such train wrecks that you can’t help but hate them. Then you turn them loose on all the other characters and make sure to mine the crap out of their emotions.
I read an article somewhere from a Facebook link about why we HATE Professor Umbridge so much more than we do Voldemort. Who didn’t get a pit in the bottom of your stomach when Harry was called into her office and she smiled that hideously benign smile? I know I felt the ickiness much more viscerally towards her than towards He Who Shall Not Be Named. It boils down to the fact that most of us haven’t had our parents killed by a dark wizard, or seen people eaten by a giant snake. But just about everyone has had a teacher, boss, parent, or other authority figure be cruel and vindictive when there was no escape, just because they could. The “evil” doesn’t have to be soul-eating world annihilation—the mundane cruelties of life’s regular villains will do the trick just as well, if not better.
There are so many more methods to “hijack the amygdala”—I chose the ones above because they can be done right in the first few pages of your story.
The sooner you do them in your book the better, as a matter of fact. You want to grab onto that little almond-shaped gold mine of grey matter as soon as the first page is turned, and then Never. Let. Go.
Go forth and conquer!!