Creating Emotional Connections: The Psychology of Emotional Stories (A Guest Post by Faye Kirwin of Writerology)

Learn how to use techniques from psychology to create an emotional bond between your readers and characters. This is a guest post from the lovely Faye Kirwin of Writerology.

Writing is all about people—the characters, the readers, the author, all drawn together by emotion. If you can tie your readers’ emotions to your characters, they’re tied to the story, and it’s that connection that will stay with them long after they’ve finished reading.

But… that’s easier said than done, right? A lot of mystery and uncertainty surrounds those emotional bonds with the reader. Is it something that just happens naturally? Is there a trick to it? How come it works with some characters and not others? How do you create an emotional connection anyway? Psychology offers a solution: peek inside the brain. If you can find out what happens to someone when they’re caught up in a story, the mystery surrounding emotional connection begins to clear.

Professor Paul Zak set about doing just that. He had a group of participants watch a video that told the highly emotional story of a father struggling with the fact that his two-year-old son had only a few months left to live. After the video, Professor Zak found an increase in two neurochemicals produced by participants’ brains: cortisol and oxytocin.

Cortisol, a chemical involved in focusing attention on things that are important, was related to how distressed participants felt. The more distressed they felt, the more cortisol they produced, and the more attention they paid to the video. Oxytocin, a chemical involved in social bonding, was related to how much empathy the participants experienced. The more oxytocin they produced, the more empathetic they felt. If you put these two neurochemicals together, you have the ingredients for an emotional connection—but knowing what happens to make your reader emotionally involved isn’t the end of the story. Now you need to know how to create those circumstances yourself.

Step 1: Capture Your Readers’ Attention

Transportation, that magical moment when readers experience the characters’ emotions for themselves, can only happen if the story holds their attention. How can you ensure you do that? Keep raising the tension. Don’t go easy on your characters. Tension and conflict ramp up distress, which is linked to cortisol, one of the ingredients for emotional connection.

Professor Zak recommends using Freytag’s dramatic arc to pile on the tension and maintain the readers’ interest throughout the story. Let’s take a brief look at it now.

Freytag's Pyramid - Creating Emotional Connections

The dramatic arc is a type of story structure made up of five acts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and dénouement. Tension increases throughout the rising action act, culminating in the conflict-laden climax of the story, and it’s this elicitation of distress that captures your readers’ attention and prepares them for the next step: empathising with the characters.

Step 2: Elicit Your Readers’ Empathy

Maintaining readers’ interest doesn’t guarantee that they’ll develop an emotional connection with the characters. How many books have you read that had an exciting, relentless, page-turning plot but neglected to develop their cast? With the focus on the external events that happen to the characters, plot-driven stories capture the readers’ attention, but don’t necessarily establish bonds that stick around after reaching ‘The End’. Characters do that, which is why Professor Zak points to character-driven stories as the best way to create emotional connections with readers.

What elements of a character-driven story make it so easy to form a bond?

  1. Memorable characters. Readers don’t care for the shallow, cardboard cut-outs they’ve seen a hundred times before. They want characters who are quirky, flawed, relatable, varied and complex, characters who make a home in their memories and refuse to move out. Your job as a writer is to create characters like these. I recommend a helping of psychology to keep your cast unique and, above all, realistic.
  2. Steady character development. The plot doesn’t just transport characters physically but emotionally too. What happens to them over the course of the story will change them for better or worse, and it’s this development that will engage your readers and spur them on to emotionally invest in your characters. K. M. Weiland has a fantastic and in-depth series on character arc that can help you to do just that.
  3. Engaging and relatable internal conflict. Tension doesn’t just come from external conflict; it comes from the internal variety as well. Having your characters struggle with their self-doubt, weaknesses and inner demons makes them relatable, understandable and ultimately someone readers can empathise with.

Step 3: Combine Attention and Empathy to Create a Connection

Readers form emotional bonds with the characters and the story when you maintain their attention and elicit their empathy. Increase tension throughout the story with exciting external conflicts and draw out empathy with memorable characters, steady development and engaging internal conflict. Do that and you have the ingredients you need to create an emotional connection that will stay with your readers long after they’ve put the book down.

About the Author

Faye Kirwin - WriterologyFaye Kirwin is a writer with a passion for words, minds and tea. She blogs over at Writerology, where she applies the science of psychology to the art of storytelling and teaches authors how to make writing a part of their everyday lives.

When she’s not blogging or running the Writember Workshop, she writes fiction chock-full of magic, clockwork and tea. (Mm, tea.)

2 thoughts on “Creating Emotional Connections: The Psychology of Emotional Stories (A Guest Post by Faye Kirwin of Writerology)

  1. Thanks so much for having me, Kaitlin! I loved writing this post—it’s a topic I’m fascinated by and really enjoy researching—and I’m honoured to be able to share it on such a great blog 🙂

    Thanks again and may the muse be with you!


  2. Internal conflict is my favorite to develop. I’m also still trying to work on the “steady” character development aspect, and showing personality shifts slowly over time rather than all at once. Though I love the tip about incorporating more psychology into our characters!

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