What we remember about a story is the way it made us feel and the storyteller produces that emotional connection through believable characters and a plot that you can identify with. Or, if the work isn’t fiction, through weaving qualities into their writing that make it feel personal instead of just an information dump.
When you connect emotionally with a story, you’re not likely to forget it. There’s sticking power. And chances are, you’ll retell it to others.
The emotional connection is what ensures your audience stays with you until the end and discovers the purpose we talked about last week.
Take a look at this story in the form of a familiar song:
There’s two things I know for sure
She was sent here from heaven,
And she’s daddy’s little girl.
As I drop to my knees by her bed at night,
She talks to Jesus, and I close my eyes.
And I thank god for all of the joy in
My life, but most of all, for
Butterfly kisses after bedtime prayer.
Stickin’ little white flowers all up in her hair.
“Walk beside the pony
Daddy, it’s my first ride.”
“I know the cake looks funny,
Daddy, but I sure tried.”
Butterfly Kisses by Bob Carlisle
It’s a story about a dad embracing the joy of fatherhood. As we listen to the story, set to lyrics, we’re transported into the middle of a bedtime routine where we’re experiencing this father’s love for his child. And it moves us emotionally.
I was reading a non-fiction book the other day about a woman discovering that she was adopted in her mid-thirties. It was a shock that turned her world upside down. And as I read her story, my own heart was pounding as I processed with her what this revelation meant to her life.
Whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or biographical, the storyteller’s job is to help the audience feel the emotions of the story. So let’s look at some qualities that help us connect with characters or the plot of a story.
1- Something worth aspiring to
The little guy who refuses to give up. An unlikely hero who makes big sacrifices for the good of someone else. The stalwart who stays true to their convictions when everyone else caves. A great character has a little bit of super hero in them. And we imagine what it would be like to be them.
It’s not very interesting to read about a day you called in sick and binged on Netflix all day. But it is intriguing to hear about how you signed up to swim across a channel with shark infested waters and almost died.
2- Real-life weaknesses
Great characters also feel real. They have blind spots. Sometimes their fears win. Bad decisions haunt them. Despite how hard they try, they fail… in really big ways. And they pluck the strings of our heart because they are us.
It’s hard to connect to a character that feels plastic. We want to see their humanity. Their authenticity is what gives them grounds to affect us emotionally.
3- A transformation in the story arc
The events of a story can be interesting but its way they affect the protagonist that fascinates us. For better or for worse. We watch characters slowly climb their way to the top or we agonize over their gradual demise.
While I happen to love the characters who change for the better because hope is my favorite theme, I can also appreciate the warning found in characters who become something they didn’t want to be through a series of seemingly insignificant decisions.
4- “Wow” moments
You may have heard the quote, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” I think it’s also true of stories. Whenever I get done with a story I particularly enjoyed, I go back and reread my favorite scenes. Then I journal about them and what drew me to them.
One of my favorite scenes described a person walking into the room and listening, like a fly on the wall, to a pianist engrossed in a musical piece. I’m not a musician, but I loved the imagery the writer used that transported me into that room and enabled me to feel the haunting beauty of emotions being poured onto keys
Think about your favorite characters, chances are you associate them with a handful of poignant scenes that gripped your heart.
5- Their connections with other people
Life is made up of relationships. And a great story is as much about the community around the protagonist as it is the protagonist themselves. We fall in love with characters by watching them interact with each other. It’s like the girl who takes a second look at the boy when she sees him playing with a child. Seeing the way people connect with other people helps us understand them.
The way we introduce these aspects in our story determines whether the audience actually picks up on them. As the person telling the story, we can see the nuances of the story like no one else can. And the difficult part is translating what we see into something the audiences can also see.
An emotional connection takes place when you, as the audience, see the scene in detail and feel what’s happening along with the character experiencing it. You can tell me that Jan is sad about her son’s death but it doesn’t impact me the same as when you tell me that Jan has lost ten pounds in the past two weeks. She has stopped sleeping and refuses to answer the phone even to her own mother. When you describe it for me, I feel it so deeply that I am compelled to do something about it.
A good story helps us connect to our own emotions. It draws things out of us that we didn’t know were there and forces us to ask big questions about ourselves.
Ready for some interaction around this idea? Name a character that you’ve really connected with in a story and why.