The 3-Step Formula to Evoke Emotion and Make Your Readers Feel


The best stories capture our emotions and make us feel so deeply, it seems like magic. The good news is, it’s not magic. Want to make your readers feel? There’s a simple three-step process to do just that.

In the movie Wonder Woman, there’s a scene where Diana climbs out of the trenches and faces down the fire of an entire battlefield as she crosses No Man’s Land in order to change the world. I haven’t seen that movie in years. But I watched just that one clip last week, and in under four minutes, I was tearing up.

I’ve watched the How to Train Your Dragon movies more times than I can count. At this point, even the movie score can make my heart swell or bring tears to my eyes, because I know the exact moments where each song plays and what’s happening to the characters in those scenes.

There are romance novels that have given me a swoony feeling that lasts for days. There are horror movies that made me leave the lights on when I went to bed after watching them.

This, I think, is one of the best parts of stories, one of the biggest reasons why we love them so much. Great stories make us feel.

Stories That Move Us Don’t Happen by Accident

As a writer, you know that stories make us feel. I’m sure you could list out the books and movies that have given you the big feels, that have made a lasting emotional impact on you.

In fact, I’m willing to bet that that’s your goal. Or at least part of your goal, part of how you define success: you want to make your readers feel something, the same way that your favorite stories have made you feel.

The thing is, this doesn’t happen by accident. Great stories don’t just happen to have powerful emotional resonance.

I’ve worked with many writers who have brilliant, imaginative, twisty, surprising plots. They’re full of action, intrigue, magic, danger, and more.

And yet, those plots alone don’t make me feel anything.

On the flip side, in the first episode of the TV show Community, Joel McHale, playing Jeff Winger, gives a moving speech. Watch it here:

In that speech, he names a pencil Steve and then he breaks it. And when he breaks it, Danny Pudi, who plays Abed, whimpers, because now he cares about the pencil and it makes him sad.

What is it about naming a pencil that makes us feel? What is it about a clever plot that lacks emotional resonance?

It feels like magic. The good news, though, is it’s not magic. In fact, I have a simple formula I use to help writers edit their stories in such a way that makes their readers feel everything.

And in this article, I’m going to share that formula with you.

5 Notes Before We Begin

Now, there are five things that I want to note before I dive into this exercise. I know that’s a lot of disclaimers, but bear with me.

1. To use the how, understand the why

First, this is all about the how-to: the specific steps you’ll take in your editing process to create feeling. But in order to apply these steps effectively, you need to understand how and why they work.

Last week, I did a deep dive into a scene from one of my favorite movies, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. In that article, I broke down one of the most powerfully emotional scenes in the whole entire movie according to the three-step process I’m about to share with you.

If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and check that article out here. I’ll be referencing that scene throughout this article, too, so it’s worth giving it a watch.

2. These are editing tools

Second, I want to reiterate a truth about this entire blog: the process I’m going to share here is an editing tool. If you’d like, if you find it inspiring and helpful, you can use it as a writing tool to help guide your first draft, too. But you don’t have to get this right in the first draft. That’s why editing exists!

Your first draft will not be the version of your book that best expresses your story and best evokes feeling in your readers. It just won’t be. That’s the beauty of editing, and one of the reasons I love editing so much: because this is the space where we get to take what you’ve created and make it even better. And these are the tools I use to do that work.

3. Novels and scenes are made of the same stuff

Third, in this exercise, I’m going to talk specifically about how to create an emotional experience within a scene of a novel.

When I talk about how to edit scenes, I often get questions about how these concepts apply to stories as a whole. And the secret is, it’s all the same. The same principles that govern scenes govern entire novels. You can take the techniques and strategies you use to edit scenes and apply them to the novel as a whole, and vice versa.

Personally, I love working with scenes. Scenes are my bread and butter, which you might have picked up on if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while. They’re also a great small-scale training ground to practice editing concepts that apply to larger stories.

So in this article, I’m going to talk specifically about how to create an emotional experience for your readers within a single scene. Just know that the principles I’m using as I go through this exercise also apply on the level of an entire novel.

4. Emotion involves many factors

Fourth, I want to acknowledge that there is a whole, whole lot that goes into creating an emotional experience for your readers. We could talk about so many things—character development, backstories, voice, style, plot, point of view, interiority, all kinds of things. They all layer together to make your reader feel.

So this exercise is not the end-all, be-all. It’s just one method for creating an emotional experience for your reader.

But it’s an important method, and an effective one. And every time I encounter a story that makes me feel, I find that if I were to analyze it according to this method, it always passes the test.

5. Get the Scene Analysis Worksheet

And the last thing I’ll mention before I dive in is that I have a scene analysis worksheet that dovetails really nicely with everything I’ll be talking about in this article.

In fact, you could pull out a scene of your novel, analyze it according to the scene analysis worksheet, and then use the exercise I’m going to share in this article to determine what to edit in your scene. You can grab that worksheet by filling out the form below:

All right, that’s enough preamble! Let’s dive into the exercise. Ready to make your readers feel all the feels? Here we go.

The 3-Step Process to Make Your Reader Feel

This is the three-step process to make your readers feel any emotion you want them to feel. I’m going to give away the whole shebang right here:

Step 1: Identify the feeling you want to create.

Step 2: Create a context of external action in which experiencing that feeling is possible.

Step 3: Make that external action mean something to your character.

That’s it, the whole deal. Now, let’s break that down step by step.

Step 1: Identify the Feeling

Step 1: Identify the feeling you want to create.

In order to make your reader feel a specific emotion, you need to know what it is you want them to feel. It’s always easier to accomplish a goal when you know what the goal is.

So the first thing you’ll need to do is specify what it is you want your reader to feel.

The feeling you want to create is tied to the genre of your story, the central conflict your story is about.

For example, mystery stories create a feeling of intrigue. Love stories let us feel romance. Action stories create a feeling of fear without the reader having to experience anything riskier than papercuts from turning the pages.

So a great place to start is by thinking about the genre of your story and what feeling it is you want to create in your novel overall.

Now, because in this exercise I’m specifically talking about how to create emotion within a scene, once you’ve identified your novel’s emotion overall, you’re going to zoom in and get more specific.

A love story creates a sense of romance. But that doesn’t mean that every single scene in a love story is going to create a feeling of romance, or that it’s going to create the same feeling of romance over and over. Each scene is a little microcosm of story, one piece building into a larger puzzle.

So when you’re working to create feeling within a single scene, think about these questions:

  • What genre is your novel? What feeling do you want to create in your readers in the novel as a whole?
  • Where in the novel does this scene lie? What is its place in the larger story arc?
  • What happened right before this scene? What happens right after this scene?
  • How does this scene contribute to the larger arc of emotion you’re crafting in your novel?

From there, you can narrow your scope from “romance” or “fear” to something much more specific to that particular scene.

Here are some feelings you might want to create for your readers:

  • Joy
  • Grief
  • Anger
  • Shock
  • Compassion
  • Pity
  • Awe
  • Excitement
  • Worry
  • Indignation
  • Nostalgia
  • Hope
  • Triumph

The possibilities are pretty much endless here. The whole world of human emotional experience is before you. Challenge yourself to narrow it down to just one word—the one feeling you want to capture in this specific scene.

Step 2: Evaluate the External Action

Once you have an emotion in mind, your next step is to look at the external action in the scene.

When I say external action, I mean the things the characters are literally doing. They’re having coffee at the park. They’re fighting an alien. They’re learning a new spell. They’re breaking up with their partner. They’re climbing a mountain. They’re sneaking around a crime scene and trying not to get caught.

The external action alone is not the element that will cause your reader to feel big feelings. But the external action creates the context in which feeling big feelings is possible.

So as you look at the external action in your scene, what you want to know is, does that external action create an interesting context in which we could potentially experience the feeling you’re aiming for?

In this article, I studied that scene from Spider-Man where Miles proves to himself that he is Spider-Man by leaping off a skyscraper and swinging through the city. At the beginning of the scene, he faces his complete failure as Spider-Man, his inability to use his powers to save his friends. Peter Parker ties him up with spiderwebs and leaves him stuck to his chair in his dorm room.

Miles eventually breaks out of his webs, goes to Aunt May’s spider-lair to equip himself as a proper superhero, and then climbs to the top of a skyscraper to jump.

All of that, but especially the jump, is the external action of the scene. It’s the things Miles is doing, the literal actions that are the context in which we can experience the emotion of triumph.

Imagine if instead of jumping off a building, Miles stayed in his dorm room, pulled out a notebook, and began to journal his feelings.

That’s still external action. But it’s not interesting and exciting the way that jumping off a building is.

One of the biggest reasons why journaling isn’t interesting and jumping off a building is interesting is this:

If Miles journals his feelings, nothing in his external world changes. There’s no external value shift, or at least, the value shift is very small. “Words not written” to “Words written” is not a very dramatic value shift. The stakes are very low. I’m not even sure there are stakes.

If Miles jumps off a building, something major changes. The value shift is huge: “feet on the ground” to “feet in the air.” Safety to danger. Standing to falling. The stakes here are enormous, literally life-changing.

Not every scene needs enormous, life-changing stakes. But a great metric you can consider when you’re determining whether the external action in your scene is an interesting context in which your readers can experience emotion is to look at the external value shift. Does something change in the external world? Is anything at stake?

Value shifts, by the way, are one of my absolute favorite editing concepts. So much of my life as an editor is spent looking for and evaluating value shifts. If the term value shifts is unfamiliar to you, definitely go check out Value Shifts: How to Craft Compelling Change in Every Story.

So that’s step two: identify the external actions of the scene, and make sure that they create a context in which your readers could potentially experience the emotion you’re aiming for.

And to sum all that up, here are some questions you can ask about your scene to help you identify and analyze your external action:

  • What events happen in the scene? What’s literally happening on the page? What are your characters doing?
  • Do those actions create a context in which someone could experience the emotion you’re trying to convey?
  • What is the external value shift in the scene? What changes?

Step 3: Give the Action Meaning

Once you have the right external events in place, you’re ready for step three: give those events meaning.

This is where the magic happens. This is where you transform a story that’s fun and entertaining into a gripping, riveting, even unforgettable emotional experience.

All those great actions we identified in step two are meaningful only to the degree that they matter to your characters.

So in this step, your task is to find out why those events matter, figure out how they impact your characters, and show that impact on the page.

It’s a tall order, I know. So let’s explore how this works.

The principle at work here is that the events in your story matter to your characters because your characters assign meaning to them.

When Miles jumps off the skyscraper, that’s automatically important because it’s life or death. Miles values his life, and so something that threatens his life automatically has meaning.

If the writers of that movie had wanted to create a scene where the primary emotion was fear, they could have stopped right there. Mission accomplished. Threaten his life, he feels fear.

But that scene doesn’t just create a feeling of fear. It’s really about a feeling of triumph.

So how did they take that jump a step further? How did they add another emotion, and make it even more powerful than fear of life-or-death stakes?

The way they did it was to make Miles attach a greater meaning to that jump than simply the risk of death.

Miles never forgets that he’s risking death by jumping. But he chooses to face that risk because there’s something that matters more to him. He’s trying to prove to himself that he is ready to be Spider-Man. That he is Spider-Man.

So when he jumps, he’s not only afraid of death, and we’re not just hoping he survives.

He’s also challenging himself to demonstrate his skill and power. And we’re rooting for him to succeed.

And when his webs attach to the building and he goes from falling to swinging through the city in true superhero style, we understand that he didn’t just not die. He actually self-actualized, proving to himself and to the world that he has what it takes to be the person he wanted to become.

We feel Miles’s triumph. And we feel triumph because we know why that jump matters to Miles. We know the meaning he attaches to it.

Now, there are a few ways you can use to explore what your events mean to your characters.

Start by thinking about your character’s goal at the beginning of the scene. What do they want to achieve? Why do they want to achieve it? What’s motivating them? A goal is a quick way to show you what your character wants.

Next, think about their expectations. What are they imagining is going to happen in the next few minutes, or hours, or however long the scene is?

Once you know their goal and expectations, think about their emotions. How do they feel about their goal? How do they feel about their expectations? What are their emotions right at the start of the scene?

Then, how do those emotions change over the course of the scene? What triggers cause their emotions to change? How are they feeling at the end of the scene?

(You might recognize the principle underneath that question. Another way to phrase it is, what’s the internal value shift?)

Goal, expectations, emotions: these are all clues about the meaning that your character has attached to the actions they experience.

And once you know that meaning, and you know how the goal, expectations, and emotions align with that meaning, your task is to take all of those things your character is experiencing internally and communicate them to your reader.

Because here’s the trick: those goals, expectations, emotions? They’re all happening inside your character’s head. That’s the stuff of their internal world. It’s not the stuff that we can see by looking only at the literal actions and events happening in the scene.

That, by the way, is the reason why external actions alone don’t create emotion in your readers. External actions that mean something to your characters create emotion in your readers when your readers know what that meaning is.

So show your readers what the external actions mean! Use your character’s thoughts, their perceptions of the world around them, and the choices they make to show us how they feel about what’s going on.

And when we know how they feel about the situation, we will feel big feelings right along with them.

So that’s step three, the space where the magic happens. Identify why the external events matter to your character, and then share that meaning and the ways the events impact your character with your reader.

To sum all that up, here are a bunch of questions you can ask yourself during this step:

  • What is your character’s goal at the beginning of the scene? What’s motivating them to accomplish that goal? What’s the consequence they’ll experience if they succeed at their goal? What consequence will they experience if they fail?
  • What does your character expect at the beginning of the scene? What do they think is about to happen? Are those expectations met over the course of the scene, or are they subverted by something that your character didn’t see coming?
  • What emotions does your character feel about their goal and expectations? How do they feel at the beginning of the scene?
  • What emotion do they experience as the scene goes on? What triggers that emotion?
  • What is the internal value shift in the scene?
  • How does the reader know that your character is feeling all those emotions? What thoughts does your character have, how do they perceive the world, and what choice do they make?

You probably don’t need to answer every single one of these questions in order to understand why the things happening in your scene matter to your character. Use them as a question bank that gives you multiple inroads to find the information you need.

3 Simple Steps to Evoke Emotion

So there you have it: the three-step process to craft scenes—and stories—that make your readers feel. Here are those steps again:

Step 1: Identify the feeling you want to create.

Step 2: Create a context of external action in which experiencing that feeling is possible.

Step 3: Make that external action mean something to your character.

We Can Care About a Life-Changing Leap . . . And a Broken Pencil

Now, I started this article with a speech Jeff Winger gives in the first episode of Community: “I can pick this pencil, tell you its name is Steve and go like this, and part of you dies just a little bit on the inside, because people can connect with anything.”

This is such a brief moment. But it follows this three-step process to a T.

What’s the feeling Jeff is creating? A teensy amount of grief.

What’s the external context? He breaks a pencil. The external value shift is “whole” to “broken.”

And how does Jeff give that break meaning? He names the pencil. He tells everyone in the room that the pencil’s name is Steve, so everyone connects with it, personifies it, and cares about it.

Because of that action of naming, when Jeff breaks it, they feel the loss. And we know that they feel the loss because Abed whimpers.

You can do this, too.

You can do this in the most intense and powerful moments of your story, the moments as memorable as Miles leaping from a skyscraper and swinging through the city in triumph.

And you can do this in the little moments, the moments as minor as a broken pencil.

If action is happening in your scene, but it doesn’t mean something to your characters, it won’t mean anything to your readers, either.

But when interesting action happens that holds great meaning for your characters, your readers will feel powerful emotion.

Your Turn: Make Your Readers Feel

Now, it’s your turn. You get to make your readers feel: to laugh, to cry, to fall in love, to leave the lights on when they go to bed.

Pull out a scene of your novel. I’d recommend starting with a scene that you want to be pretty emotionally intense—maybe the all is lost moment or the climax.

Then, walk it through the three steps:

  1. Identify the emotion you want the reader to feel during this scene.
  2. Evaluate the external actions happening in the scene.
  3. Make those actions mean something to your character.

I also recommend downloading the Scene Analysis Worksheet to help you with this process. It doesn’t walk you through these steps, but it will help you better understand what’s happening in your scene and how it works so that you can apply these steps. Get that worksheet by filling out the form below:

You have a powerful story that has the potential to make your readers feel so deeply. And when you apply this three-step process, you’ll bring that emotion out on the page.

Happy editing—or sad editing, or romantic editing, or frightening editing, or whatever emotion of editing you’d like it to be!

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