We love stories that make us feel. Here’s how stories that work create emotional experiences for readers.
Recently, a writer sent me a scene of her novel. It was a big, climactic scene—characters who’ve accomplished something epic recognizing and admiring their work, then narrowly escaping danger in a moment of triumph.
It was a really amazing scene, a moment the writer and I had been looking forward to for weeks.
So I opened it up and I read it. And it was really fun: full of magical powers and heroic rescues and a looming threat and page-turning action.
And yet . . . something was missing.
When I finished reading the scene, I didn’t feel anything.
I didn’t feel a thrill, or tension, or excitement, or fear, or wonder, or joy. The actions were all there. But they weren’t stirring up any emotions in me as a reader.
Make Your Readers Feel
One of my favorite questions to ask writers is, what does success mean to you?
And so often, what I hear is that you want to make readers feel. You want them to fall in love with your book. You want to make them laugh, to make them cry, to make them feel fear and excitement and relief and catharsis.
I think the best stories have that power to create these sweeping emotional experiences for us, where we feel all the feelings as though we were living through them ourselves.
That’s what I was looking for as I read this writer’s scene. And in the first draft, it wasn’t there—yet.
So I got on a call with that writer, and I walked her through a process to help her create that emotional experience for her readers.
And in next week’s article, I’m going to share that same process with you.
Wait, what? Next week’s article? Why am I telling you about her story now, then?
Here’s the thing: before you can use that step-by-step process to make your readers feel, you need to understand how and why stories make us feel things.
So this week, I’m going to walk you through a scene of a movie, one that’s incredibly powerful and full of emotion, and I’m going to show you why it works.
Then, in next week’s article, I’ll share the process you can use to edit your scenes to do the same thing in your writing.
It’s going to pay off, I promise. So stick with me and let’s see how a powerful scene works.
Spider-Man: Full of Feels
This weekend, I went to see the new Spider-Man movie: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. It’s incredible. Such a good movie. I highly recommend it.
But don’t worry; there won’t be any spoilers for it in this article. The scene I’ve chosen comes from its predecessor: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
If you’re familiar with four-act structure, this scene is the climax of the third act. It’s the moment when Miles Morales has to take a leap of faith in order to become the new Spider-Man.
Before we dive into analysis, give the scene a watch:
It’s absolutely epic, the kind of scene that gives me chills. I watched this short scene completely out of context to prepare for this article, and then I just sat there watching it over and over because it’s just that good, just that full of emotion.
So the question is: how do you take a scene of your novel and do that? How does this movie make you feel so much in such a short clip, and how do you create an emotional experience that powerful for your readers?
3 Essential Elements That Make You Feel
We’ll get to the applications for your story in next week’s article. First, let’s look at three elements that make this scene work.
1. The Feeling: Triumph
The first element I want to explore is the emotion that this scene creates.
This scene creates a feeling of triumph. Miles is on the cusp of failure, and his leap off the skyscraper and swing through the city is epic and triumphant.
Straightforward enough, right?
2. The External Action: Miles Leaps
Now that we know the emotion that the scene creates, we can look at the second element: the external action.
That is, what literal events and actions happen in the scene? What do the characters do? What events do they experience?
Ultimately, your goal is to create an emotional experience for the reader. But your reader won’t feel anything if nothing happens in the scene. You have to create a context in which that emotional experience can happen. And that context is the literal, external events in the scene.
Our scene opens with Miles in his dorm room, tied to his chair. Imagine if he breaks out of the spiderwebs . . . and then he picks up a journal and starts writing out his thoughts about how much he wishes he could be like the other spider-people.
Maybe he writes himself a pep talk and then decides, yeah, I can do this. Or maybe he turns around to his roommate and wakes him up and says, “Hey, can you give me a pep talk?”
Maybe, by the end of that pep talk, Miles might feel a little more ready to go be Spider-Man. But there would be no emotional journey for us as viewers.
That external action is just not interesting enough. Watching Miles write his thoughts in his journal does not create a context in which we can experience triumph.
Instead, the action in that scene is a preparation montage: Miles going to Aunt May, looking into the eyes of a spider suit, spray painting a suit of his own into a custom design, putting on his web slingers.
And then we get to the jump itself—long shots of Miles on the roof, and then slow motion shots of him taking the leap and falling through the sky and shooting his webs.
That is fantastic external action. The writers knew exactly what they were doing when they crafted that scene. They created an amazing context in which we can experience the emotion of triumph.
3. The Internal Meaning: From Shame to Superhero
Now that we have external action that creates a context in which we can experience that emotion, we’re ready for the third element: Miles’s internal world.
Now, we can identify what Miles is feeling during the scene and why that external action matters.
This step is the secret sauce, the place where we transform action on the page or on the screen into feeling in readers and viewers. Because here’s the thing: all those great actions we identified in step two are only meaningful to the degree that they matter to the characters.
If a massive asteroid in another galaxy hits an uninhabited planet, that might be an enormous action. Maybe it creates a huge crater. Maybe it knocks the planet off course, or splits it into pieces. I don’t know; I’m not an astrophysicist.
The point is, the action could be enormous, explosive. But we do not care about what happens to an asteroid and an uninhabited planet in a galaxy far, far away because it does not impact characters we care about.
The actions in your novel are the same way. They could be world-shattering, but that alone isn’t enough. They have to matter to your characters.
Let’s look at Miles again. Poor Miles starts the scene an absolute failure.
He has just tried to help his friends, demanded to come with them to save them from the big bad, tried to prove that he has powers and can use them, and he failed at every turn. He tried to fight them, and they defeated him embarrassingly easily. He’s strapped to his own chair with someone else’s spiderwebs.
They have told him to his face that regardless of his powers, he simply isn’t Spider-Man.
He is crushed, ashamed that when it counts, when his friends’ lives are on the line, he doesn’t have what it takes to be Spider-Man and help them.
Then, we see this glint of resolve. He may have been defeated, but he isn’t going to give up.
To this point, he’s had very little control over his powers; he struggles to turn them on when he needs them or to turn them off when he needs them to stop.
But trapped in this chair, he’s filled with determination. He summons all his strength and ability, and he zaps his way out of the webs with electrical power.
So far, that’s our emotional journey: failure, crushed, ashamed, resolved, determined.
What’s next? Miles’s resolve and determination carry him all the way to Aunt May’s, where she helps him equip himself with his own spider outfit. Now he’s validated. He is on his way to becoming Spider-Man.
And then, all that’s left is to prove to himself that he can do it.
He climbs to the top of the skyscraper. He sits on the edge. He stares out at the city. And we see our next emotion: fear.
The reality is, this is terrifying. He could die. If he can’t control his powers at this critical juncture, this leap is the end.
And then we hear Peter Parker’s voice telling him he’ll never know when he’s ready. It’s a leap of faith. And our last emotion before the leap happens: revelation.
As he stares down at the ground from hundreds of feet in the air, Miles realizes the fear isn’t going to go away. And it’s not a sign that he’s in the wrong place, or that he doesn’t have what it takes. The test of a superhero is being afraid and finding the strength within himself to do it anyway. It’s a leap of faith.
This leap is his true initiation to become Spider-Man.
For an entire thirty seconds, we watch him fall. We are in the tension between two identities: between failure and success, between powerless and superpowered, between death and life, between shame and honor.
Then the spiderwebs hit the skyscraper. The fall turns into a swing. And Miles’s failure turns to triumph.
He whoops with joy and exhilaration. He swings and keeps swinging, runs between cars and along the sides of buildings, leaps from one roof to the next.
It’s an emotional high. And it’s also a full transformation into a superhero.
That first leap, the first risk, was a choice he hesitated on, weighed carefully before jumping. Now, we see that he’s a superhero because the fear is gone. The hesitation as he weighed leaping or not leaping is gone. He takes risk after risk after risk with triumph and joy and confidence.
For thirty-five seconds, we see him swing through the city celebrating that he’s done it, that he’s passed the test, that he’s turned his shame into honor. And when he finally comes to rest at the top of a building staring out over the city, we see that he too is in awe of his full transformation.
Failure. Shame. Resolve. Determination. Fear. Revelation. Tension. Joy. Exhilaration. Confidence. Transformation. Awe.
External Action + Internal Meaning = Emotion
The external action of this scene is exciting: a teenager with superpowers leaps from a tall building and swings through the city.
But the internal arc of Miles’s emotional and psychological journey is where the true power of this scene lies. Jumping off a building only matters insofar as it means something to a character we care about.
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.
Change the Internal Meaning, Change the Emotion
Here’s one of the fun things about this equation: it is absolutely possible to play out the same exact external action on the screen in a way that creates no emotion at all, or in a way that creates an entirely different emotional experience.
Let’s walk through a couple of different versions of this scene.
Version 1: No Emotion
Imagine this: A teenager we’ve never met before climbs to the top of a skyscraper. We can’t see what emotions are playing on their face behind their mask. They leap, they fall, they shoot their webs, they swing off through the city.
That is a completely emotionless experience. It’s fun action, absolutely. But it doesn’t create much of an emotional response in the viewer besides “Wow, that’s cool.”
We don’t care about the character. We don’t know why this leap matters to them, or whether it matters at all. We don’t experience an emotional journey, an emotional shift from the start to the end.
Now, that doesn’t make this scene wrong. You’d just use it for a different purpose in the story.
It won’t create catharsis in the climax of the second act. But you could use that scene as an establishing shot at the very beginning of a superhero movie.
Because it doesn’t carry emotional weight, it comes across as normal, banal, everyday. As the viewer, what I would pick up is that this is a regular, everyday occurrence: teenagers jump off buildings and swing on webs all the time, and it’s no big deal.
It’s setting the stage, establishing the normal world, creating the context for future actions. Later in the story, something bigger will happen that does hold meaning, and I’ll know that it’s happening in a world in which teenagers swinging from buildings on webs is totally normal.
Version 2: Surprise
Or, imagine this: a teenager is on the top of a skyscraper horsing around with some friends. He stumbles too close to the edge, trips, and falls. He’s shocked and terrified, flailing, falling to his death.
And then he shoots out a web and catches the building, revealing an ability he didn’t even know he had, and he accidentally saves himself by discovering this unknown power. Now he’s shocked because he uncovered a latent superpower, and his swing is fumbling and panicky and confused and mostly awe-struck.
This creates surprise for the viewer, too, because we see what this experience means to him and we feel his emotional journey—the panic as he falls and the stunned amazement as he inadvertently rescues himself from the brink of death.
Like the original scene with Miles, this version could create a strong emotional reaction for the viewer. And it’s the same external actions as Miles’s own leap, just given a different meaning, and so it creates a different emotion for the viewer.
Why We Love Stories
There are so many great scenes like this in so many amazing movies and books. I really believe that this is one of the reasons why we love stories so much: because they make us feel.
I saw the new Spider-Man movie in an AMC theater, which means that before the movie started, they played that commercial where Nicole Kidman talks about the experience of going to the theater. She says,
“We come to this place for magic. We come to AMC theaters to laugh, to cry, to care, because we need that, all of us.”
And this is how it happens.
Interesting external action + powerful internal meaning = a transformative emotional experience for the viewer.
Next week, I’ll walk you through the process I use to help writers edit scenes in order to create that emotional experience.
And in the meantime, I encourage you to go look up scenes from movies or books that you love, the ones that make you feel the big feels. See if you can spot all three parts of the equation:
- What emotion does the scene make you feel?
- What is the external action that creates a context in which you can feel that feeling?
- Why does that external action matter to the character, and how does that create an emotional experience for you?
This is the magic of storytelling. Be sure to tune in to next week’s article, where I’ll show you how to create that magic in your stories.
Until then, happy editing!