Wright’s Writing Corner: Evoking the Desired Response

The Wednesday post is late today. I will not bother with excuses, except to say if you ever have the opportunity to avoid having to steam clean and fumigate (which involves removing and washing or at least drying every scrap of clothing in the bedrooms) your house on the same day—and you can do so without having to break a Commandment—go for it, Man!





One of the difficult things for writers is knowing whether or not one is accomplishing what one set out to accomplish. Is my scary scene scary? Is my romantic hero intriguing? Will my funny scene make people laugh?


This is a tremendously difficult question because things just don’t seem the same when you write them as when you read them. A scene can seem frightening to the author or make the author laugh out loud, but if the words do not capture the essence of the idea, it will fall flat to the reader.


It goes the other way as well. A scene can seem quite flat to the author and come alive in a spray of sparkly magic for the reader.






This happens a lot. An author might think a certain scene is frightening or humorous the first time through…or the second, or the fourth. But by the tenth revision, it can be really hard to tell what kind of response the scene is intended to invoke, as now it just seems like a jumble of words and ideas.


There are two things that can go wrong when trying to evoke a response. They are:


1) The author does a lousy job of it.


2) The author’s judgment is off.


In the case of number 1, a scene might be funny or scary in our imagination, but we don’t properly isolate what makes it that way. 


This problem is fixed by study…by delving into writing that successfully does what you want to do and trying to learn what it is that evokes the desired response. Does the dialogue need to be shorter to emphasize the humor? Should you be hinting at the Big Bad rather than describing it to give more of a sense of the eerie? Do you need to describe your heroine’s visceral responses to the hero to convey his attractiveness? Or, is it better to merely describe the qualities of his that would produce such a response and let the reader carry it from there?


Study may be difficult, and it is annoying that we do everything instantly. (I have a whole list of things I’d like to do if I could only do them instantly, but mine is nothing compared to my six-year-old’s list.) But, in the scheme of things it is relatively easy because there is such a wealth of material to study from. Just pick up your favorite author who does that particular thing well, and sit down to figure out how he does it

Sometimes, when doing this, I physically copy out sections of a favorite authors work, so as to make sure that I notice how the words are being used. Underlining various phrasings or parts of speech can help, too. Anything that helps you notice how the author achieved his effect.


Because anything you get from a book is just achieved with words. Your favorite book, that passage that evokes wonders for you, just words. How you use those words, what kind of words you put in what order, is all that differentiates one author from another.


Once you take a look at how the experts do it, you have to go back and take a look at how you do it. There are many ways of doing it. One is the Deep Edits system developed by Margie Lawson, who gives a wonderful course in how to analyze the parts of your, or someone else’s, work. (Her courses are available either as self-study or as online group classes. I took one and LOVED it. A really useful system for self-study and improvement.)


I’m sure other books touch on this as well, but whether using someone else’s system or one you develop yourself, the key is to understand how your writing is structured so that you can make the changes necessary to achieve the effect you desire.

Keep in mind that you cannot copy your favorite author. You cannot do exactly what he does. But you can be inspired by him. You can borrow a specific technique or take what he does and change its flavor until it blends with your style. (That’s what is called “developing your own voice.”)


Number 2 is more difficult. It’s like discovering that your sense of humor is different from that of your friends. As a writer, there are two things you can do: change your ideas to fit that of the audience you have or find a different audience.


How to know which one to do? Should you stick with your somewhat outlandish idea in the hopes of reaching those who will love what you are doing? Or, should you come back into the fold and repent your strangeness?


No one can tell you that. You just have to make your own way.


All this is on my mind today because a friend called to say that he had just finished Prospero Lost. He made one comment about something he found creepy (in a good way.) It was something I had thought was creepy and had really hoped readers would have that kind of a reaction to, which means that this time, in this one scene, with this one reader, I’d succeeded. I’d evoked the desired response.


Made my day. After that, even the one two hit of the carpet and the bug guy did not seem so bad.


Also check out Danielle’s latest Words of Writing Wisdom at: http://damcphail.livejournal.com/



22 thoughts on “Wright’s Writing Corner: Evoking the Desired Response

  1. Oh goodness…I definitely know what you mean about invoking a response in the reader that you didn’t consciously intend to. I had several reviewers comment about Yesterday’s Dreams that there were scenes frighting enough (or was it creepy) where they had to get up and turn on the lights to finish reading (they must have been reviewing an ebook). Now, while I figured some of the scenes were intense, I never thought any of them were truly frightening. In fact, I always worried that my villain was too flat. Apparently I was wrong.

    My take is, write what feels right to you and in the context of the story, get feedback from others, and then polish accordingly. If you have about three or four pre-readers and all but one doesn’t get what you were doing, there is a good chance many others won’t either, and you need to try something else, but if it is only one that doesn’t get it, it is likely a difference in perception between the reader and the author. I run into that quite often where someone critiques and feels I haven’t mentioned or covered something, or misinterprets what is happening in the scene. I look back and it is clearly there, then I have to accept that some people just won’t get it.

    Good article, Jagi! Even if it is late ;)

  2. your favorite author

    You can copy your favorite author and do exactly what he does. You just need to be advised that the results are not salable, almost certainly.

    Better to try to write pastiches of all your favorite authors (even though all of them will probably not be salable). Teaches the tricks of the trade and a whole set of them, so you don’t reflexively reach for the same trick as one other author.

    • Re: your favorite author

      When I was speaking about copying, I meant physically copying passages as part of a learning excercise, not copying them into your manuscript…hope that was clear.

      Copying an author is different from learning to understand what the author does, how they acheive effects, and them adapting that into your own style…which was what I was trying to talk about.

      • Re: your favorite author

        On that subject, I have noticed a lot of writers start off doing fanfiction. However, fanfiction is utterly terrible unless the author does some adaptation of the story into their own style.

        Alas, I am terrible at finishing things I write, which is why most of the stuff I bother showing to others is fanfiction.

  3. Keep in mind that you cannot copy your favorite author. You cannot do exactly what he does.

    After reading Null-A Continuum I was lamenting the fact that I rarely thought in terms of epic to the point of absurdity, no matter how much I love the absurdly epic. My friend’s reply? “Well duh, you’re not Wright.”

    I’ve begun to realize that I’ll never write with the same logic as your husband, or with Wolfe’s murky mysteries, or Simmons’ atmosphere. I’ll write like me– influenced by those authors that I love, but uniquely me.

    Even if it is frustrating to not be able to make myself scratch my head the way Wolfe does.

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