Get in here. You’re going to want to be nice and close for this one.
Because this is (probably) the very last installment of Hooked on a Feeling, a miniseries of Mr. Horne’s Book of Secrets.
And due to its special status, it is going to be about a special topic. The emotion we are covering today is the most important one a writer can evoke in the reader. The writer who successfully does this will always prosper, will always have adoring fans, and will dominate all those writers who don’t or can’t evoke this feeling.
Like concentrated Plutonium, this feeling can power floating cities or blow holes in a planet. And you’re going to want to stockpile and hoard it like a third-world despot.
What is this weapons-grade emotion that bestows the power of instant stardom? Is it some kind of ecstasy that destroys all reason? Some deep-seated resentment that turns the reader against their loved ones? Or is it some overpowering selflessness that causes them to forsake all worldly possessions?
The most powerful and (probably) final feeling is…the sense of intimacy.
Clarification is Needed
Unfortunately, there is some confusion around both the word and the idea of intimacy. Harm has been done to the concept, and for the purposes of clarification, I will extricate it from the briars of bad semantics.
Intimacy is a function of all relationships of all types. You have a degree of intimacy with your boss, your hairstylist, your dog, your neighbor, and your god(s). Though, in the wild, it is always a matter of some privacy, the concept itself is benign, and worthy of discussion in any situation, including polite society.
However, it has fallen victim to semantic forces that would strip it of its intended meaning. There is another concept that gets called “intimacy” as a euphemism, simply because pearl-clutching busybodies are afraid of the word SEX.
The more that society tries to use “intimacy” as a replacement for the much less ambiguous SEX, the harder it will be to identify what intimacy actually is.
And there is certainly an element of intimacy to sexual relations, but those relations already have many appropriate words to describe them. It is semantic malfeasance to sacrifice the broad meaning of the word “intimacy” to exclusively serve a sexual context.
The kind of intimacy we well be discussing here will not be a euphemism for any other topic. We will be exploring the entire concept of intimacy here.
The Advantage of Intimacy
The second season of Hooked on a Feeling has been short, but provided us some powerful tools. Let us take a moment to reflect on what we’ve already learned:
- Sense of adventure allows you to monopolize a need within the reader, causing them to turn to you as a trusted source of feeling.
- Sense of mystery causes the reader to take the work of fiction seriously, creating a fandom to analyze and canonize your work.
The benefit that comes from evoking the sense of intimacy is along these same lines, but far more devastating.
- Sense of intimacy will inspire the reader to fight for your story. They will rush to defend it when challenged and take it up as a personal cause. Sense of intimacy will make them believe in it, and, consequently, in you.
Once you have evoked a feeling of intimacy within the reader, you often give them something their real life fails to provide them. More than ever before, people are impersonal, wary, and standoffish. What a breath of fresh air it is to experience a feeling of closeness with someone, even if that person does not actually exist. What an essential human need it is that we have denied ourselves.
The Scarcity of Intimacy
Imagine you are a student who has been transferred to a new school in the middle of a semester.
You don’t know a soul. Though you are surrounded by members of your peer group you are an outsider, an island, an unknown quantity.
Now suppose you take your seat and you look over at a group of friends chatting away. They are talking about all the fun things they did together over the weekend and all the fun things they will be doing later today. They speak so openly and casually with each other that it’s like they’re inseparable.
Meanwhile, there you sit, with no plans of your own except to keep existing inside this school where no one knows your name.
How could you not envy that group of friends? And it hardly matters if they’re the most popular, the best looking, or even the richest students at the school.
No, what you really envy is the fact that there are no walls between that group of friends. They are already part of each other’s lives.
But there is a wall separating you and them. In your envy, you wish to already be part of their little group, but there is no way for you to get in. You can’t walk up to them and demand to join the activities they are planning. Nor can you really ask in a nice way. Any move you make toward them is wrong, and will likely sink any chance you have of becoming one of them.
How do you, as the new student, surmount this barrier?
Well, that’s the thing: a lot of people never do. Breaking ice is a talent they don’t teach in schools. And those who have no natural aptitude for it find themselves outside, looking in, forever.
And, though it pains me to admit this, most of the people who read books for enjoyment are those people. They seek the intimacy a book provides because they can’t find it elsewhere.
“The Book was Better”
This phenomenon is more apparent in literature than it is in other modes of storytelling. It is the reason why people make stronger connections with books they’ve read than with movies they’ve seen.
Whenever a book gets adapted into a movie, there is always a refrain of “The book was better,” shouted by people who are passionate about the story. This can, of course, result from a botched adaptation or a poorly made film. Yet even when the movie is a faithful adaptation, treating the source material with utmost reverence, the idea of “the book was better” still prevails.
And it is all due to the sense of intimacy.
A written story invites the audience not only into the world of the characters, but into their minds, as well. Prose paragraphs paint the scene through a character’s eyes. Their perception becomes our own. And after frequent exposure to this, we become convinced that we know this character the same way we know an old friend.
Ask yourself, how many readers out there are convinced that Katniss would be their friend? That they would get along with Kvothe or Harry Potter or Kaladin? How many lonely girls are convinced that, if only Edward Cullen were real, he would love them?
Go to any fandom conference. You’ll know the answer soon enough.
How to Evoke Intimacy
A good book makes the reader feel like they’re in on a secret. A great book puts the reader into a prefabricated social group. It presents a bunch of characters enjoying a sense of intimacy with each other, and suddenly you the reader are plopped into that clique, fully accepted and qualified, as if you’ve always belonged there.
And making a reader feel this is remarkably easy, though not necessarily obvious.
It is not enough to merely tell the audience that they belong. You must make them experience it. And you must sabotage their attempts to doubt themselves, to give in to their natural tendency to feel isolated and ostracized, refusing to believe that anything better awaits them.
Specifically, to evoke the sense of intimacy in a reader, you must flirt with another emotion—a particularly volatile one. The successful application of this emotion will banish the reader’s reflexive sense of inadequacy and leave them only with the capacity to feel accepted.
What is this accessory emotion you must master?
The Miracle of Shame
In real life, when you’re someone’s friend, you know things about them. And the things you know are different from what everyone else knows.
Everyone else has seen only the good things about your friend. But, as their friend, you have seen everything. You are privy to the things your friend is ashamed of. You’ve been there for their bad moods. You’ve seen them fail. You know the things they are trying to keep from public knowledge.
It works the same way when forging a friendship with a fictional character. The reader must be invited into the parts of the character they are ashamed of. Vulnerability, grief, and remorse are easy avenues into this, but it is more common for the character to merely be put in a situation they cannot control, where all their efforts are fruitless.
At a point where the character is not in control, the reader steps in, and is forced to decide what they will do. If the situation they were reading was real, would they keep the character’s secret? Commiserate with their impotence? Listen to their woes?
Some characters clearly don’t deserve their most shameful moment. The reader becomes their confidante because they believe in the character’s virtue.
Other characters are merely getting their comeuppance, but it is hinted that with some effort they might become better than their current sorry state. The reader becomes their confidante because they believe in the character’s potential.
In real life, we hide these shameful situations from as many people as we can get away with. But we deny this privilege to our fictional characters. Any reader who cares to crack open the book is given full access to the worst parts of their lives. That the reader is still able to admire the character, and ride alongside them as they climb out of the hole they’re in, instills a sense of intimacy between the reader and the character. It’s that simple and that hard.
The Achilles Heel
As stated above, shame is a volatile feeling—volatile because it borders on disgust. If you shame a character by making then do something irredeemable, then the reader will be disgusted, and throw the book away from them.
But sense of intimacy comes with a far more sinister weakness: boredom.
In the real world, relationships have a way of turning stale. And the same goes for relationships between reader and character. Once the reader knows all the character’s frustrations and shortcomings, and has seen those obstacles surmounted or coped with, the question arises, “Now what?”
You can’t recycle the same shames over and over and over again. Nor can you invent new ones indefinitely. You are saddling the reader with this relationship. There has to be a light at the end of the tunnel for that relationship to be fulfilling.
In other words, great stories always need to END.
There are ways to keep the intimacy fresh, of course. You can juggle the one reader between several characters, giving them alternating tastes of each.
You can also give the reader several relationships with a single character. Across the course of a book or series, the character may be the reader’s friend, their father, their hero, and their enemy. Or a teacher, a lover, an ex-lover, and a haunting memory.
This is much easier to manage if the story you’re writing is a standalone novel. But when the story is a series, the author must take certain steps to keep it fresh.
Now You are Armed
If you have read the entire Hooked on a Feeling miniseries up to this point, you now have a Master’s Degree in emotional manipulation.
It’s a rather embarrassing thing to have, honestly. The world frowns upon playing with other people’s feelings. But it is the author’s most important job. No wonder we get so little respect.
Yet you will be thanked for it. Isn’t that the strangest thing? People will show you gratitude, or even kneel before you in tears, because you made them feel something. That you did it intentionally is probably not lost on them.
Though I can attest that this miniseries has been thorough, I must admit that it only teaches the how of evoking emotions. To understand the why, you must take the principles taught herein and practice them in the field.
Is it a noble thing I have taught you, or one that is completely selfish and destructive? Don’t expect me to answer. I don’t honestly know.
But for good or for ill, someone is bound to get hooked. And you’ll want to know how to do it again and again.
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