Thursday, August 20, 2015

How authors and moviemakers hold their readers' attention


By ‘what buttons to push’ I mean what buttons do authors use to manipulate (yep, being honest) their readers’ emotions, to get them on side with the characters in their books. For example, perhaps the author creates unlikeable, evil antagonists and emphasises the sterling qualities of his protagonists.


The most obvious ploy is the ticking clock. It not only lends urgency but it yanks the reader along at a rush, keeping him intrigued.


Then there’s characterisation. Of course in this dynamic world, what worked ten years ago may not have the same appeal in 2015. The innocent 1960s virgin, so prevalent in romances of that time, would drive a reader from 2015 to drink. We are much more cynical, well-informed and downright demanding than we were then. Historically though, some classics retain their appeal because they are much more than the sum of their characters’ emotions. To Kill A Mockingbird’s racial tensions are still not outmoded today, and that lazy description of the syrupy south’s inbred attitudes is not far from the truth in some out-of-the-way places. And that is why books like these are classics. They endure not just because of the characters in the books but because of the settings and historical attitudes. And Harper Lee manipulated the readers’ emotions. Think of the way she pushes Scout’s lack of desire to be a ‘lady’ so that the reader is on Scout’s side.


Perhaps today’s writers manipulate the readers in more subtle ways. What of Dick Francis’s heroes who are often of the working class up against a criminal upper class or just up against class bigotry where he is on the outside looking in? Dick Francis does that so well that even if the protagonist is not your usual Everyman, the reader is still very much on his side. That’s right. The modern protagonist need not be a perfect hero as he has been in novels and movies of the past. Some have patchy backgrounds and they’ve made mistakes.


There’s Lee Child’s Jack Reacher who thrums a string in every male heart. They all want to be Jack with his freedom and lack of possessions but with an innate sense of responsibility. And of course Jack has been in the military and knows how to handle himself in vicious situations. Every man’s dream. There are a lot of wannabe Jacks out there. And Lee knows how to manipulate those readers.


Tami Hoag’s heroines are believably imperfect. They make mistakes and have hang-ups that readers can empathise with and they frequently have to form alliances with people they don’t trust. There’s that little brush of reality that lends credence to the stories.


So…empathy and sympathy are the buttons. And the harder those buttons are pushed by authors and movie makers, the more a reader/viewer becomes invested in the characters. We need to see how the protagonists get themselves out of a bind, or if the evil antagonists get their come-uppance. And the best books of all are where you know darned well that the author is pushing your buttons, but you just don’t care. The book is so good!


  1. Love this post, Vonnie! Best part of being an author is manipulating a reader's emotions. After all, someone has to do it! Cheers for pushing my buttons!

  2. Great post. Love the manipulation honesty comment. You are spot on but also there sometimes comes a time when a character just can't seem to get out of their own way and I'm almost happy (relatively) for them to get a comeuppance too. The "too stupid to live" characters who put others at risk by their very incompetence. IMHO only of course; not making a statement on behalf of others. Thanks, Vonnie.

  3. Marvelously written post. (Yeah, I guess Milton got us to empathize with Satan. A loser who wouldn't stop fighting, even against overwhelming odds.)

  4. I've always thought the best writers were the ones that manipulate you, but you don't realize it until you've put the book down, walked away for a while and then went, "Heeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyy..." Dean Koontz is really, really good at that.

    Intriguing analysis of how writers do what they do as far as keeping readers engaged and turning the page. Thanks for this, Vonnie!

  5. Great selection of examples, and a perfect illustration of how/why some popular authors are so fondly read.