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Braveheart. Titanic. Lord of the Rings. What do these movies (movies, not books) have in common? Besides great musical scores, they have what I call Gut Emotional Appeal. In other words, at some point, they get you in the gut. They make you pause and really pay attention. You really feel what just happened or is happening.

This moment isn't the same for everyone, but below I've included some examples from my personal experience.

I believe Gut Emotional Appeal - or GEA - can be a very powerful part of a novel. Certainly one can be successful without it, but I feel that it can give a novel that extra emotional punch that tips it over from a 4 star to a 5 star. If readers were in the habit of rating novels, that is.

How can I achieve GEA in my novels? What steps/methods should I follow?

Examples:

  • Braveheart. Braveheart features the (highly fictionalized) rebellion of the Scots against the English. Details about the end are below.

When Wallace is finally executed, he is asked if he will repent, to which, after a moment, he yells, "FREEDOM!!!" You feel it in the gut. It gets to you. Or at least to me.

  • Titanic. Honestly this one probably comes from James Horner's excellent score. It's still worth noting though.

When the two main characters are in the water and slowly freezing to death, there's only room for one aboard the floating wreckage, meaning the other has to stay in the water and slowly freeze. When Rose finally lets him go, the music swells, and it gets you in the gut.

  • Lord of the Rings. There are a lot of gut moments in Peter Jackson's epic trilogy. One that particularly stands out to me though is the scene in Two Towers (I think). Frodo and Same are in Osgiliath, and Sam, in an attempt to keep Frodo going, says that he thinks he understands the old tales now.

Sam: In those tales, folks had lots of chances of turnin' back, only they didn't because they were holding onto something.

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

Sam: That there's some good left in this world Mister Frodo, and that it's worth fighting for.

You feel that Sam is right. You feel that the good left in the world is worth fighting for. But you (or I anyway) also feel driven to fight for it. It's that extra push that I'm after.

Notes, and what I've discovered:

  • I develop and plan my novels extensively, so I'm looking more for steps or processes, rather than advice to implement while doing the actual writing. Both or good though.
  • I feel that a very important part of GEA is that it be something that nearly everyone can sympathize with. Braveheart: Most people can sympathize with fighting in some measure against some sort of injustice. Titanic: People can generally sympathize with love. LotR: People generally want good to win out over evil.
  • One can state a GEA scene in simple terms and it doesn't click. You don't feel the power. Note how in the above, what I listed didn't really have any power. What is missing? That's what I'm after.
  • I've spent a lot of time thinking about this. I'm open to chat discussions if you want to compare notes and try to figure out how to create GEA.
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As you rightly perceive, the moments that have a potential for gut emotional appeal are well known, but merely creating the moment does not always produce the emotion -- precisely because we all know what the moments are: loss, sacrifice, enlightenment, affirmation, conversion, reunion, acceptance, marriage, etc.

There is nothing esoteric about these moments. They are the fabric of our lives. Our highs and our lows, and the emotions that they provoke, are the milestones of our lives. We expect them to be there in the stories we read, and by and large we understand where they come in a story and why. We see them coming and we are disappointed if they don't turn up when they are supposed to. They are what we expect from a story. They are what we read it for.

The structure of a story does have to lead up to these moments, therefore. In fact, it is these moments that define the structure of the story. But it is not the structure that produces the emotional response. The emotional response comes from our engagement. It comes from how much we believe and how much we care. If we don't believe in the people or the events, there is not emotional response. If we don't care about them, there is no emotional response.

People talk about their favorite characters as if they were real. That is how much they are invested in their stories. I heard once that the reason every character on a soap opera is rich is that if they put poor characters on the shows, the studios are inundated with care packages for them. (I don't know if it is true, but it is certainly plausible.)

When a charity wants you to give money to support poor people in foreign countries, they don't put out ads full of statistics, they put out ads showing individual children. They tell you their stories, how they and their siblings are being raised by their grandmother who is slowly growing blind. Some let you sponsor an individual child and exchange letters with them. It is all about emotional engagement.

The structure of your story will lead your characters to these moments of gut emotional appeal, but whether they pay off depends entirely on how well you have executed your characters and their stories, on how much your readers believe, and how much your readers care. It is not what happens -- it is the same old things happening that we have seen a thousand times, not only in fiction, but in life as well -- it is who it happens to.

Creating characters that people believe in and care about is not something that comes from a formula (much as some people may tell you otherwise). It comes from observation, sympathy, and caring.

  • A good distinction about it being the character, not the story, which generates GEA. Thanks, Mark. Would you agree with Bango that, while things start with the character, testing them in the story can increase the emotions of the reader further? – Thomas Myron Mar 16 '17 at 3:46
  • I would say that testing the character can increase the engagement with that character further, which means that one then feels for them more deeply the next time something happens. In other words, we become more invested in the character each time we feel emotions for them, so the progression to the great moment is accomplished by a series of smaller emotional moments that build engagement. BTW, I would be wary of taking movies as a guide in this, because in a movie, most of the work of building engagement falls on the actor. In the novel, it falls 100% on the writer and their words. – Mark Baker Mar 16 '17 at 3:54
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    I'm just using movies as examples. I'll only use them as guides very broadly - nothing specific. I think a lot of the work is done by the score - something a novel doesn't have anyway. – Thomas Myron Mar 16 '17 at 6:08
  • @ThomasMyron "it is not the structure that produces the emotional response". Absolute ditto on that. Your approach to writing, Thomas, while remarkable methodical, somehow leaves out the actual writing element of it. You can have planned your male lead killed, and your female lead raped and then murdered, after all their friends are waterboarded in front of them while their families are burned alive, but if you did not write those scenes (and all the previous ones, leading to the event) well enough (WW--writing well--factor), nobody will care (NC--nobody cares--factor). :-) – Lew Mar 16 '17 at 13:47
  • Formulas are like archetypes. They are merely cliches if they are left undeveloped, but they are the core of writing all the same. I think the proper way to think of this is not that there isn't a formula, it's that the formula requires strong characterization to be successful. The logical test is: if I have strong characters, do I have a tragedy? The answer is clearly no; But, strong characters allow me to have a tragedy, so they're clearly a required component in the aggregate that is tragedy. – Kirk Mar 17 '17 at 16:00
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TL;DR You need to have a well-developed Character with a well-known set of Skills, who adheres to a certain Moral above all else. The reader must share the same Moral, or they will have no recourse to relate. The Moral must be put to the Ultimate Test, wherein the Character's Skill is shown to be at its Strongest, and Moral is at its Loudest.


Seems to me like all these examples are just a jarring use of slapping you in the face with the 'moral of the story' which has been worked up to all along.

Wallace fought so that his people could have Freedom. Screaming Freedom! at the precipice of ultimate change emotionally reinforces all that we have been working towards. It inspires everyone, giving the notion that 'This is it, this is what we have all been waiting for'

When Jack has been so chivalrous and loving this whole time, and now he finally, willingly, pays the ultimate price for the love of his life, it speaks to the reader. It reinforces all the things we have previously known about Jack, and washes everyone with remorse for Jack's beautiful, frozen soul.

When good-old Samwise Gamgee inspires poor burdned Frodo, even at the Fringes of Middle Earth and on the literal edge of Doom, when all hope seems lost, (I'm getting chills just writing this) he is showing the audience his true colors, which they already knew about him. He is reinforcing our ideas about him, in the best way, by doing what he does best, in the clutch.

"Doing what they do best, when it counts" speaks for all of these scenarios, and many climactic moments, in general. Whether its a wacky group of like-minded people, coming together to take down a larger-than-life opponent using their individual skills (Oceans 11), or a hyperintelligent detective consistently solving the crime (Sherlock Holmes), we get a rush when people use their well-known skills to solve unorthodox or seemingly impossible problems.

It becomes a punch in the gut if misfortune befalls the actor, but they still solve the problem they set out to solve (Jack). If they don't even solve the problem, that's pretty tragic, and if the character is crafted to be well-liked, the effect is more jarring than heart breaking. cough cough song of ice and fire

I'd say LoTR and Braveheart aren't so much gut-punching as heart-wrenching, but they all serve to draw a supreme level of empathy towards the actor. Because they all did what they do best, and their morals shone, to the extreme and in some cases to the end.


EDIT: I'd like to extend a nuance of this recipe, and in doing so give a shoutout to Stephen King's The Dark Tower Series.

Roland is known to love his surrogate son, Jake. Roland is also known to be responsible for Jake's deaths (multiple), in pursuit of his Ultimate Goal. The Betrayal seed as been set... And then Jake dies for the final time.

additional spoilers in link

http://darktower.wikia.com/wiki/Jake's_Eulogy

It's utterly gut-punching, heart-wrenching, mind-quailing (to steal another King phrase) all in one.

I knew I shouldn't have expected anything else, but when it happened, and Roland let his guard down ever so briefly to give us a glimpse into his terrible inner turmoil, and saw Jake off with such love, remorse, loyalty, and compassion, it really tore me up.

It reinforced multiple things, Roland's drive towards the Ultimate Goal above all else, and the very tragic effect this had on his life. The juxtaposition of the two Morals existing at once, (pursuit and love, respectively), and the former consuming the latter, causing terrible grief.

I would wager that the more "layers" of a character you can make as raw as possible in the right moment, the more emotionally impacting the scene will be.

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    That's a good distinction between 'gut-punching' and 'heart-wrenching'; I hadn't thought of that. Also a good answer overall - this has given me some things to think about. Thanks! – Thomas Myron Mar 16 '17 at 3:27
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The best advice I can give is that your readers won't care about what happens to your characters if you don't. You have to want them to succeed when you write their story or it will come off as generic and with no impact or lasting memory.

I once read a series of books and at the end of the third one, the main male lead was killed off. At the start of the fourth, the author actually apologised to his readers, saying that he knew it was hard to read and admitted it was even harder to write and promised there was a good reason behind it. Having read the rest of the books, I now know it was the right thing to do but it has stuck with me all this time after.

Years of watching (and reading) mean we want the hero to succeed, we want the couple in love to make it, we want good to triumph over evil but these in themselves aren't enough to make it a GEA as you call it.

The viewer / reader has to have time to get emotionally involved in the characters in these events taking place and it makes the GEA that much more powerful to watch.

This doesn't mean you have to leave them until the end of the book, just to have enough groundwork to make any event have a potential to be a GEA. I myself killed the girlfriend of my male lead in the first chapter but the entire chapter was setting up them getting ready for a date, he was going to propose etc. before they got attacked and she was killed.

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Everything you've shown has a simple formula. Show the reader a possibility that could be, that they can hope for. Give them every reason for wanting that possibility. But, every step along the way your characters or your setting defines that hope as impossibility. When you finally get to the moment it will be tragically inevitable and undesirable, but your reader will also acknowledge this is the only way it could happen.

It's a simple loss principle and it's built into all of us. One day we all die. But we grow attached to the people around us. When the illusion of permanence is shattered we must grapple with the reality that the thing or person we have lost had to happen, that there is no way around it. But there should be many excuses that a person could make as to why that person deserved better. It's ultimately the conflict of what people feel is deserved and what actually is.

In some ways it's more interesting to think about how people fail to write these parts successfully. The most common thing is the "everyone is stupid, if only they could think" bit.

For that reason when you write a tragedy many of your choices will determine whether your tragedy is justified. Even just picking a time and place can make your story work in different ways. Without spoiling anything, consider the recent stranger things. That story doesn't work in a world where it's not the 80s. Not being able to call people or use facebook drastically changes risk and social interaction. When the tragedies happen, part of what "locks" them in is the inevitable restraints that society puts on the characters. Also, the preconceptions many of those characters hold that would not be held today locks the characters in positions of helplessness that furthers the tragic elements of the story. Meanwhile as a 21st century viewer you have all of these ideas about how it could be, but you know: "No, this is right. This is how those people would act. This loss was unavoidable for them, because the time, place, and people make it so." The other side of the coin for Stranger Things is the nostalgia. Everyone in it, everything in it is extremely relate-able so the emotional investment happens. You want more for these people who are trying their hardest and it's not enough.

Tragedy = Inevitability + Hope + Connection + Loss

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