How to Evoke Reader Emotions With “Surprisingness”

How to Evoke Reader Emotions With “Surprisingness”

evoke readers emotionsHave you ever read a book for a second, third, even tenth time—just to experience the emotion the story evokes? Clearly the elements of the story aren’t a surprise. You know exactly what to expect. If so, you were benefiting from an author who knew how to evoke reader emotions.

Literary agent Donald Maass says that emotions are most effectively evoked by trickery–when readers aren’t noticing we are manipulating them. He says:

Artful fiction surprises readers with their own feelings.

I can honestly say that, as a reader, the best novels do just that. They evoke such emotions from me—unexpected emotions—that I am stunned by my own reactions.

We writers want to evoke emotion throughout our novels—big, small, expected, and unexpected—so that even when readers know what emotion is being stirred in them, when they see what’s coming, it doesn’t reduce the impact.

The Net of “Surprisingness”

C.S. Lewis said people go back and reread certain stories over and over not to be surprised (because the reader already knows what is going to happen) but for the “surprisingness.” It’s the quality of unexpectedness that delights us, just as it does children who want the same story read over and over. The fact that children know what is about to happen only makes them more excited. Like children, we savor the richness of a story again and again.

C.S. Lewis

Lewis calls the plot of the story “the net whereby to catch something else.” That“something” is what he refers to as “much more than a state or quality.” Real life, he says, is a series of events, but if that is all it is, there is no deeper meaning or feeling of adventure. That net of the story, for a little while, transcends us and entangles us in the wonder and awe of living. That is what Lewis says the best stories will do.

When we can catch readers in a net of emotions—especially unexpected and surprising ones—that’s powerful magic.

Research shows when someone is surprised, dopamine increases and emotions intensify up to 400%. Heightened attention ensues, as does extreme curiosity, in an attempt to figure out what is happening.

Surprise also causes a shift. It forces a change in perspective. Your reader becomes hyper-alert, curious, in the moment, a perfect state for receiving the unexpected emotion.

How to Evoke Reader Emotions That Are Unexpected

art of racing in the rain garth steinWhen I began to read the chapter in Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain in which Enzo the beloved narrator dog is dying, I just knew what was going to happen to me, what I was about to get into. Most people relate to losing a pet. Most people share that universal affection for sweet animal companions.

While I have met many readers who confessed they wept their heart out reading this joyously sad scene, I imagine some readers weren’t moved at all. But I bet almost everyone who read that book felt something. You don’t bother to read a novel told in “first-person dog POV” if you don’t like dogs. And it says something that this novel was on the NYT’s bestseller list for 156 weeks.

The key to its brilliance lies solely in neither the wonderful writing nor the universal resonance of “it’s so horrible to lose someone (person or animal) you love.” Rather, it’s the masterful execution of the scene as joyously sad. I chose that phrase to make a point: when unexpected emotions are evoked in us, it awes us.

Pay attention to that.

You wouldn’t expect a scene that has you watching a dog die—one that breaks your heart—to make you simultaneously happy even to the point of laughing. That’s what makes that scene so brilliant. The whole time I was crying in anguish, I was also laughing with joy. The scene was absolutely authentic in every way. It was utterly surprising as much as it was totally expected.

Don’t Try to Name Emotions

I can’t put a name to the composite emotion I felt when reading Enzo’s death scene. I could toss around a whole lot of words, but trying to name complex emotions is like trying to catch the wind with chopsticks. The secret lies in Hemingway’s brilliant advice:

Find what gave you the emotion . . . then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling as you had.

Think of it this way. You might not know what to name a particular color shade, but if you have a few tubes of paint and play around with the quantities, you just might be able to re-create the color. That’s what you need to do with the words on your palette to create the same emotion you wish readers to experience.

There is something to be said about building intimacy with characters. It might be hard to evoke emotion in readers for a character to whom they have only just been introduced. This is why Garth Stein placed his most powerful emotional scene near the end of the book, when readers are fully committed to Enzo and Denny, so it might pack the biggest emotional punch.

If you haven’t read The Art of Racing in the Rain, I highly recommend it as a way of understanding the power of “surprisingness.” Those of you  who have already read the book may want to read this post and pay attention to the incongruous, unexpected emotions you feel as you go through the powerful passage at the Climax of the story. Note the universal feelings the old dog Enzo expresses that make you think, Me too!

Garth Stein does a brilliant job of not only conveying Enzo’s complex emotions, which are both expected and unexpected, but evoking so many emotions in the reader.

Finding a way to surprise your character and your reader adds micro-tension to your pages. This sparks those emotions in your readers that keep them engaged, whether it be something positive like amusement or negative like outrage or fear. Know how you want your readers to feel and lead them there.


Yes, readers love to be surprised. The unexpected surprises us. It might scare us, delight us, or move us profoundly. Yet, often a character’s reaction to a situation is wholly predictable and still it moves us deeply. Consider just about any love story that ends in happily ever after. Predictability really has nothing to do with emotional impact. It’s howthe story is shown that matters—how those emotions are conveyed in a way that is believable, masterful, and moving.

Want to learn how to become a masterful wielder of emotion in your fiction? Enroll in C.S. Lakin’s new online video course, Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers, before September 1st, and get half off using this link!

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