“It’s the Heart that Counts” (by Evan Lewis)

Evan Lewis won the Robert L. Fish Award for best short story by a new American author for his February 2010 EQMM story “Skyler Hobbs and the Rabbit Man,” a humorous tale about a detective who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes. Since then, we’ve bought two more Hobbs stories for EQMM, the latest for our February 2014 issue. The author’s choice of topic for this post interested me as soon as I heard what it was going to be, since one of the things that sets his homages to Holmes apart from most others we see is the warmth we are made to feel for the characters. Even the lampooned characters, including Holmes wannabe Hobbs, are all too human. The Portland author has another series running in our sister publication, AHMM, starring a modern-day descendant of frontiersman Davy Crockett, and he provides links to some of his other short stories on his blog, Davy Crockett’s Almanac of Mystery, Adventure and the Wild West. —Janet Hutchings

How many times have you read a mystery story with an intriguing character, an unusual crime, and an ingenious solution—but reached the end only mildly satisfied?

In many cases, that’s a story where the author has done everything right—everything but the most important thing, to appeal to readers’ emotions.

At last year’s Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, entertainment researcher and consultant Gene Del Vecchio gave a presentation based on his book, Creating Blockbusters. Though the book focuses primarily on filmmaking, his research relates to all forms of storytelling. His studies show that while men, women, and children differ on what types of heroes, villains, conflicts, and themes they prefer, they all have pretty much the same emotional needs. And according to Mr. Del Vecchio, satisfying people’s deep desires is the single most important element of crafting successful entertainment.

Or, as he puts it, “It’s about EMOTION, stupid!”

For mystery writers, that’s an important reminder. While clever plotting is to be commended, the best stories are ultimately about people, and how the story’s events make them feel.

Surprisingly, few books on writing devote much space to the subject. There are entire volumes devoted to plot structure, scene building, conflict, dialogue, and characterization, but I’ve yet to see one focusing on emotion. And to my way of thinking, it’s heart, more than any other factor, that determines whether a story succeeds or fails.

“Heart” does not mean sappy sentimentalism, of course. It means connecting with readers on an emotional level by satisfying one or more basic human desire. We all want love and friendship, self-fulfillment, and the self-esteem that comes from success, appreciation, winning, freedom, and recognition. Under certain circumstances, we might also crave power, glory, or revenge. Thankfully for writers, each of those basic desires can be met in many ways, offering plenty of emotional ammunition.

The writer’s job is to hook onto one of those desires and place it at the core of the story. As the story plays out, fulfilling the protagonist’s emotional need, readers will be fulfilled as well. One way to achieve that is with a character arc, transforming the hero from loser to winner, weak to strong, sad to happy, poor to rich, cowardly to brave, lonely to loved, etc. The rewards for such personal change may be internal, giving the protagonist confidence, independence, or redemption. But they can also be external, bringing respect, admiration, or love from other characters.

We all have a deep-seated desire to improve ourselves—or our lot in life—but in reality, such changes usually come about over a long period, requiring plenty of trial and error. In fiction, we can deliver that kind of emotional satisfaction within the space of a few pages, allowing readers to imagine that such change is possible in their own lives.

While we all strive to be better, most of us also have a contrary streak that secretly yearns to be bad. This offers other opportunities for emotional wish fulfillment. A rebellious character can break rules, conventions, and even laws and get away with it. In real life, most people refrain, fearing the consequences. So seeing a fictional character misbehave and thrive provides an emotional charge. It’s this charge that has made the loveable rogue such an iconic character.

When characters go too far, giving in to their baser natures, we can relate to that, too. The five deadliest sins—greed, anger, envy, lust, and pride—are emotional minefields. They provide great motives for fictional criminals. And while seeing those criminals punished for their crimes is satisfying, it can be even more satisfying knowing we’ve dodged a bullet by not succumbing to those sins ourselves.

Writing coaches are great champions of conflict. Some want to see it on every page, every line, or every word. That’s great advice, because conflict drives the story and defines character. But conflict for its own sake will only take the story so far. Conflict between enemies—or even strangers—is much less powerful than conflict between friends, loved ones, and family members. Harsh words and warring agendas that threaten close personal relationships send a jolt to readers’ hearts because they hold those relationships so dear.

Now let’s talk about death.

In the old-fashioned whodunit, a murder was simply an inciting incident. The dead person was just a problem to be solved. But in real life, death really sucks. We’ve all lost someone—a parent, a friend, a spouse, a family member, even a pet—and nothing packs a greater emotional wallop. That loss leaves an emptiness that never completely heals. By keeping that in mind, and pouring those feelings onto the page, we can make our readers feel it too.

While death is the ultimate loss, many lesser forms pack a punch. We all fear situations that threaten our emotional needs. If the story’s hero is in danger of going from strong to weak, rich to poor, winner to loser, or loved to unloved, readers will feel the threat, because they face it in their own lives. Think of it as a reverse character arc. Threats to personal safety and survival can be equally emotional if we’ve given our characters enough to live for and given our readers enough reason to care.

While fear of loss can provide motivation for a hero, it can also supply a strong and relatable motive for a criminal. A character who sees his world slipping away and takes illegal action to salvage it is not a villain—it’s a person under great stress who must examine their priorities and make a tough decision. That’s a character who speaks to the heart of all of us.

Ultimately, appealing to our readers’ hearts means making them feel that on some level the story is about them. By making them feel that our protagonists’ triumphs, failures, joys and heartaches are their own, we give them an experience they’ll remember, and keep them coming back for more.

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4 Responses to “It’s the Heart that Counts” (by Evan Lewis)

  1. rlkelstrom says:

    Your points are seldom taught, writers seem to have to know these intuitively or pick them up somewhere along the way. Maybe from reading writers who do it well or sharing info in critique groups. I learned some of this from outside the writing field- in my work as a counselor.

  2. Christine says:

    Nicely said, Evan! I’ve read a few mysteries that fell flat for this exact reason — zero emotion means less reason to care if the murder gets solved or not!

  3. kassandra333 says:

    I like what you wrote about the contrary streak in each of us. James Lee Burke, in the new Dave Robicheaux novel calls it “atavistic” as he tries to justify why he can’t trust his best friend Clete’s daughter, Gretchen. It creates a rift between the characters, made all the more powerful by Dave knowing full well that he’s being a jerk. A little explanation to the reader gives us a chance to mistrust Dave and hope he’ll change, even as we fear he might be right about Gretchen. Nice article, Evan!

  4. Evan Lewis says:

    Thanks for the kind words, gang. They’d touch my heart, if I had one..

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