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Kill The Dog




Hehehe, you know when I was in college, I had a writing teacher that had a somewhat comical, but very true, rule to follow when it came to getting your audience to truly feel a moment of intense emotional pain in your project. Works every time. He used to say, "If you want to make your audience cry...kill the dog!"

And, yes, he meant that literally. Script wise, anyway.

You can have Rambo gun down an army of enemies in a foreign land, or have Iron Man burn a bunch of terrorists to ashes with pulse blasters...but if you harm ONE animal in a movie or TV show? Instant tears and gasps of utter disgust from everybody watching! Hehehe! I mean, have you SEEN "John Wick"? No sympathy felt for those dirtbags. Not an ounce!

Anyway, this article isn't about murdering puppies, I promise. I'd turn myself into the local authorities if it was. It's about being able to bring some heavy emotion to your writing through certain scenes, and maybe even getting some waterworks going from your readers in a way that they weren't expecting. Most of this particular writing technique is based in creative word usage and detailed descriptions of misery and pain...but there is also a science to it. You can get your readers to feel the ache that your main character feels at that point in the story, with just a little planning and a few moments of honest vulnerability within your prose. Hopefully, this will inspire you to try out some of these methods and really tug on some of the heartstrings and potent emotions of your audience when you're writing. It really does make for a sentimental attachment to your work, and a highly memorable experience that they will hopefully keep close to their heart and share with others for a long time to come.

So...let's 'put that dog to sleep', shall we?

I will admit that I've written stories or parts of stories that had a much deeper meaning to me, personally, than most readers could ever imagine. I use my writing to channel my emotions into something that could be seen as somewhat productive in my mind. I've bared my soul on personal issues like parental abuse, on suicidal thoughts, on severe heartbreak, on rejection, on death, and many other topics that I just felt that I had to get off of my chest. And there are many times when I've received emails or reviews from people who have admitted to tearing up and losing control of their emotions while experiencing those stories from the perspective of the main character. Whether they've been through something similar or not. And I appreciate that to no end, because it helps to make me feel a little less crazy. You know? But how does a writer go about evoking those emotions in their audience through their writing alone?

There are two words that I want you to remember when it comes to this article...

...'Justice' and 'Injustice'.

We've all experienced some lever of hurt before. Heartbreak, or rejection...loss or disappointment. It's a part of life. And no matter how hard we try to avoid it, dodge it, deny it, or suppress...there's not a single one of us that hasn't felt some kind of pain at this point in our lives. And there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, as a writer, you can consider that a valuable resource to pull from when you want to write something that really connects to your readers. They've felt it too. Pain is the one emotion that every human being on the planet can relate to in some way. So own it, and consider it a skill to explore it in your fiction.

Now, I mentioned the words 'Justice' and 'Injustice'...here's how this works. Let me take you back to a particular scene in the first season of the Netflix show, "Stranger Things"...

In the series, there is a young girl, 'Eleven', who has some pretty powerful mental powers. The scene begins with her in a lab, where a doctor and his orderlies are testing her abilities by putting an innocent little kitten on the table in front of her, and try to force her to murder the kitten with her mind. There is an extended moment of tension, and she begins to cry and apologize because she just can't do it. She refuses. So the doctor sends his orderlies in to collect her, and drag her down the hall, kicking and screaming, to toss her back into her prison cell. However, when they throw her down to the floor...she gets ANGRY! The helpless girl stands up, focuses her powers on the two men, and kills them BOTH in the blink of an eye!

Now, you can get on Youtube and watch reaction videos to these episodes any time that you like. Just type in "Stranger Things Reaction" and you'll get to see tons of people watching the show for the very first time. But pay attention to what happens to the audience when it comes to that particular scene. When the threat of killing an innocent little kitten ('Injustice'), everybody watching cringes and cries and tenses up...because the thought of such a thing is absolutely unspeakable! Every life is precious. However, when she murders the two orderlies in cold blood without even flinching...those seem people cheer! They say, "GOOD! Fuck those assholes!" ('Justice') This is how you can tap into the psychology of your readers and sway their emotions into swinging one way or the other.

Injustice is a huge factor when it comes to getting your audience to empathize with your characters. I think we all have a sense of fairness when it comes to life in general, so seeing a character that is innocent, non-aggressive, loving, funny, or heroic, getting dealt a bad hand or being forced to suffer unfairly at the hands of someone or something evil or loathsome, taps into a very deep part of our psyche. There's a belief that if we're good people and we do the right thing, then we'll be rewarded for it. Or, at the very least, protected from harm. So when that's upset by a horrible event, a massive heartbreak, or a noble sacrifice...the unfairness of it all can really touch us in a major way. And if you're looking to really bring some dark or somber moments to your fiction...the idea of 'injustice' is the best way to achieve that.

Your first goal should be to make the character, whether it's your protagonist or a supporting character, a lovable part of your story. Take some time to really develop a close relationship between that character and your audience. Let them really get to know him or her or them...and create a connection. Sympathy for the characters, and a personal synergy with their addition to the story, is what gives the writing its effect. The words you use, the metaphors, the sweeping dialogue...those are all parts of it too. But at the end of the day, it's what your readers feel for your character's plight that is really going to fuel those dramatic moments in your project. If you can form that intense reader/character bond beforehand, and then really turn the screws when it comes to the injustice of what that character now has to face against their will? Even a brand new author can out-write the biggest award winning author in the industry. That connection is essential to make the situation work. And if your fans can connect to that injustice, that tragedy, in the same way that you do...you can't lose.

One thing that is consistent in the stories that I've written like "My Only Escape", "On The Outside", "Save Or Sacrifice", or "Never Again"...is that many readers instantly gravitate towards the injustice of what the some of those tortured characters are going through, and immediately want to protect them. That's a definite plus. And they want to swing the pendulum back from injustice to justice. Every time. It's in our nature, I suppose. BUT...I've also written some stories or parts of stories where the characters guiding the story were flawed or made some horrendous mistakes or did something that many would consider unforgivable...and the consensus from my readers was, "SCREW HIM! He's an asshole anyway!" Hehehe! The same people who wanted to help and kiss and cuddle on set of characters, wanted other to die a slow and painful death. Or at least be hurt to the point where they spend the rest of their lives in agonizing pain and regret. It's actually quite a fascinating thing to watch sometimes. They get sooooo MAD at me sometimes! You have no idea!

The point is...if you're looking to bring feelings of loss, sadness, heartbreak, and suffering, to the surface when your readers are tackling your work...remember that the 'injustice' part of the equation is where your biggest strength lies. Slowly bond your audience with a character that is, for all intents and purposes, a good person. Now, don't be TOO obvious about it! Hehehe! Don't make him like one of the 'Red Shirts' on Star Trek, who is obviously going to die as soon as he hits the planet surface! None of that, weathered cop, "I'm only a week away from retirement!" stuff. That's just putting a target on their backs for something bad to happen to them. You can be a bit more subtle than that. Hehehe, you're a writer. Make it work.

People cringe when it comes to sympathizing with a character that they love and care about...but all of that gets thrown out of the window when it comes to PUNISHMENT! A strange malfunction of the human psyche, I suppose...

Also, one last thing...when I talk about evoking emotion, that doesn't mean that you have to KILL anybody! Hehehe! You don't have to have someone get hit by a bus, get a terminal illness, or fall into a n active volcano! It can be something as simple as a rejected confession of love. The loss of a job. A parents' divorce. A missed opportunity. It doesn't have to be so big that it turns the story over on its head and nothing can ever be the same afterward. The whole idea is to get your readers to really feel some level of sympathy for your leading characters in a way that's personal and engaging every step of the way. That's all you need.

However, as with everything else...don't lay it on too thick. You can figure out exactly how far you want to go with bringing some emotional gravity to your story, but don't make it your goal to have your readership completely traumatized and utterly depressed for the next few weeks. Ease up a little bit. Make your point, but know when you need to pull your punches. This is somebody's heart you're playing with, k? :P

Down below are trailers for four coming-of-age movies that will tear me up every time I watch them. I think the first movie I ever cried at was "E.T." when I was a kid. But these truly just...ugh! If you haven't seen them, make sure you prepare yourselves ahead of time. Because, my God! Study the techniques these stories use to pull the emotion out of you, and remember your two key words here while you watch and start sniffling...justice/injustice. I think I need some tissues right now! These trailers are bringing back memories! Ugh! Hehehe!

Enjoy, you guys! I hope this helps you all out with your writing! And I'll seezya soon with more!





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  • Site Administrator

When I saw the title to this article, I had a really good chuckle.  I'm currently researching a writing genre, "cozy mysteries" because I am going to incorporate some of those techniques into a project I'm working on and one of the top rules of a cozy mystery is... don't kill the dog. 😀

I have had an interesting journey with all the research and reading I have done in various tangential topics... writing techniques... persuasion... engagement... marketing... leadership. A lot of this stuff ties into understanding how humans behave.  We are not rational creatures.  The vast majority of us run on autopilot the vast majority of the time.  the emotional stuff tends to kick you out of automatic.

Thanks @Comicality!


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Great article! Thanks, Comsie!  One of the hallmarks of good emotional writing to me is balance.  Too much can make the story seem implausible or over the top, while not enough makes it as interesting as reading a phone book.  Just the right amount makes me invested in the story and want to read more.  I sound like Goldilocks :rofl:  

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I have this image of a bunch of author's pets hiding under the bed right now 🤣  Great article Comsie!

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