I have not been saving the best for last.
I have not been holding anything back.
The feeling I will be presenting today is not the most powerful, or the most profitable, or the most beneficial to your success as a writer. It is, however, the most important.
Today’s lesson is anger.
An Important Distinction
There may be a degree of confusion among some readers as I approach this subject.
I have already devoted a chapter of this miniseries to hate, and I am not suggesting that the previous article was in any way incomplete. Today’s lesson is not a continuation of that previous installment, nor could it reasonably be.
However, ours is a strange and often ridiculous society, and, like all societies, it fosters misconceptions. As such, there are a great many people—intelligent and educated people—who assert that these two emotions are the same feeling. Others still will insist they are related, or, at least, cover a lot of common ground. They are frequently mentioned together as twin forces. “Anger and hate” are protested as the bogeymen that underlie the world’s problems.
And that is insane.
Anger and hate are radically different emotions. They have no business with each other and should not be mentioned in the same breath. I don’t have the first idea how people started to conflate them, but I know it wasn’t done in any kind of honest or analytical way.
Hate is an affirmative and constructive emotion—which of course is not to say that its constructions are good or righteous, but at the end of the day it is a creative force. It has the power to strengthen and embolden other emotions, including itself. It grows like a crystal, insulating and sharpening certain aspects of a personality. There is a lot of nuance and depth there for study, even if one does not agree with the end result of the emotion.
Anger on the other hand, is shallow and temporary. It is destructive to other emotions, tearing them down and setting them ablaze. It also cannibalizes itself, as even the fiercest of angers eventually burns itself out. Overall, it can be such an unpleasant experience that people will go out of their way to avoid things that have, in the past, made them angry.
Granted, this kind of avoidance can also be symptomatic of hate, and it’s not impossible to hate something that has made you angry, at one time or another. However, such an experience can only happen long after the anger has faded. In other words, it is impossible to experience anger and hate at the same time. When you are angry with something (or someone) you will try to confront that thing, which naturally brings you closer to it. But when you hate something, you build a barrier between yourself and the object of your hate, naturally pushing yourself further from it.
To suggest that these two actions are identical, or even similar, is beyond idiotic. There is no art in trying to compare them. And it is telling of how wrongheaded our world has become when so many people associate them together.
So be prepared, because this last chapter of Hooked on a Feeling is going to be full of all-new information about an all-new feeling.
Finishing Off the List
We’ve compiled a short but powerful list during the course of this miniseries. Each new installment has brought a new tool to our array, and reviewing past entries has helped to reinforce their lessons.
So where does anger fit on our list of feelings? First let’s take a last look back:
- Inspiration is personally transformative for your reader, and has the greatest lifelong benefit.
- Fear enhances the suspension of disbelief, and most powerfully reinforces the illusion you are weaving around your reader.
- Hate makes the story immortal, providing a conduit to future generations of readers.
- Love keeps the book in the reader’s mind, even when they are not reading it.
- Mirth causes the reader to share the book with others, spreading its influence and profitability.
- Hope and despair cause the reader to keep reading until the end, often without stopping.
And finally, there is anger. Its bullet point is the most crucial of all:
- Anger will make the reader throw your book in the garbage and disavow you as an author.
Not the answer you were expecting, was it?
Learning What Not to Do
All the previous chapters of Hooked on a Feeling have explored emotions that you should be evoking in the reader and how to do that. This entry instead examines an emotion you shouldn’t evoke, under any circumstance in your reader.
Because readers do not like to be upset. They don’t appreciate it when they lose their patience or grow sick of characters they used to love. If you stir up anger in your readers, they will leave you like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
As I said before, people tend to avoid the things that make them angry, and that applies to books and other media just as much as it does to real-world events. If the goal of your writing is to evoke anger, then you’re doing it wrong.
Which is not to say that people don’t try. There is such a thing as activist literature—novels that are little more than political tracts for this or that movement. There are also nonfiction books and periodical publications that trade in anger, in hopes of stoking the flames of revolution. Some of them are quite famous, but most of them never make it to a second printing. And the reason is clear: most people don’t want to be made angry, and the ones that do would prefer their anger be relevant to the here and now. Enraged proclamations tend to date themselves right out of the gate, and, like all anger, it passes.
A humorous lampooning of activist literature, on the other hand, can sometimes last through the ages.
In general, people are attracted to that which does not make them angry. That’s how friendships are made—we hang around the people who don’t make our tempers rise. And it’s also how fandoms are made, as readers and audiences cling to things that don’t disappoint or frustrate them. Anger may seem like a powerful tool, to the untrained eye, but even in its most sophisticated form it fails to hold a reader’s attention for long, and will even repel them.
Likewise, it is unwise for your main characters to be angry for long periods of time. Angsty, bitter, or otherwise toxic personalities are not fun to read. And the reader can only take so much of it before they close the book without bothering to mark their place.
But don’t worry, I’m still going to tell you how to evoke anger in the reader, but only so you will know what not to do, as a writer.
The Achilles Heel (and This Time, He’s Nothing but Heels)
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll remember that every chapter of this miniseries has a section dedicated to the weaknesses inherent in the given feeling. To trigger anger in the reader, you need only look back at those sections and review how not to do a good job evoking inspiration, fear, hate, love, mirth, and hope/despair. Doing any of the other feelings poorly will stir up anger in the reader without fail.
However, there are lots of other ways to earn a reader’s ire. For the sake of completeness, we should explore those methods we haven’t covered, and also review the ones we have.
There are a few sure-fire ways to evoke anger:
- Being dishonest with the reader. I’m not talking about being misleading or subverting expectations (which are both things that good books do). Rather, I am talking about deliberately spiting the reader by breaking the ground rules you give them at the beginning of your story. Most of the following bullet points are variations on this theme.
- Breaking promises to the reader. While you shouldn’t give your endings away too early, and you are allowed to throw curve balls and plot twists into your story, you should never change the goal posts halfway through the plot. If your tale begins with a hero finding out he is the only one who can defeat the dark lord, then we should not be treated to a plot about how he decides to go golfing instead.
- Stringing the reader along without payoffs. In particularly long stories, it is a bad idea to save all your protagonists’ successes for the end of the book. Some of their goals need to be accomplished while they are on the journey. They should have small triumphs here and there while on their road to ultimate victory or failure. If you disappoint the reader too often, they will walk away from your book and turn on the TV.
- Having your protagonist/narrator take a liking to a character that the reader hates. This is particularly true in romantic relationships. If your heroine is in love with an annoying whiner, and she continues to defend and justify him even though he’s the worst character in the book, your readers will not thank you (for obvious reasons, this is known as the “Peeta” problem).
- If your inspiration becomes sappy, then it loses most of its power.
- If your fear becomes silly or overblown, then you’ve failed to evoke it.
- If your hate becomes preachy or domineering, it undercuts your efforts to create something useful.
- If your love drowns itself in puppylike pining, then you’ve cheapened it right into the garbage pile.
- If your mirth requires explanation, then you’ve already lost the battle.
- If your hope and despair do not circulate evenly, and you rely too much on one or the other, the reader will lose interest.
Remember, anger is the easiest feeling to channel in your audience. It is all too easy to trigger it just by doing nothing, or being predictable, or being boring, or being stupid in your plot points. You want at all costs to keep that from happening. If you can manage that, you probably have enough skill to be a professonal, full-time author.
When I started this miniseries, I was not planning on it turning out as well as it did. I never really considered myself an expert in emotional communication. I believe my personal life is testament to that. But when I look back, and see how much I was able to uncover about stirring people’s emotions through writing, I see someone I don’t recognize—someone who actually has some pithy observations about the human condition. I wish I could meet this person, but I will have to settle for being able to read him.
If you’ve made it all the way here, and you have been hooked, then I’m glad I was able to reach you. This has been my most daring blog experiment to date, and I can only hope to somehow make lightning strike a second time as I move on to more projects.
If you’ve enjoyed the miniseries, then please comment. I would love to know your reactions, your objections, your expansions, and your reflections.
If you want to reread the entire miniseries, you can do so here.
Until we meet again, always keep an eye out for the ideas that are worth trying. Good night.
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…to see how it ends.”]