What Every Reader Wants From Every Story They Ever Read

Story formulas from masterpieces of fiction

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

The first lesson my Copywriting mentor taught me changed the way I thought about writing.

All writing must elicit an emotional response in your reader.

His advice pertained to copywriting and sales; you cannot sell without rousing emotion. But all writing is selling. The first sentence in your story sells your reader on the second one. The second sentence sells him on the third. And so on.

A reader wants her emotions aroused. We sign up for that mental torment when we pick up a book or open an article.

Spot the formulas

You can train yourself to spot the meta formulas writers use to trigger these emotional swings. As you read a book or watch a movie, pay attention to your emotions. Whenever you feel that sock to your gut, take note of it. Backtrack the chain of events that led up to that emotional surge.

If you try this exercise, you will discover patterns. Writers tell different stories but use similar structures to draw out emotional responses. Of course, execution matters just as much as the structure, but knowing these formulas is a good place to start.

I’ve gotten into the habit of looking for these patterns in books and movies. These six have resonated with me the most.

You’ll also notice a common thread that underlies all six of these examples.

Forbidden love, heartbreak and hope

Who can resist a story about forbidden love? It permeates both fiction and nonfiction. No doubt, “Romeo and Juliet” comes to mind when you hear the phrase forbidden love.

The trope never seems to age. You will find multiple variations on the forbidden love formula, but the one that generates the most emotion for me follows a specific arc.

  • Forbidden love — A couple falls in love, but outside forces throw obstacles in their way. They pursue their relationship in spite of the high-stakes risks: family, financial security, ostracism, or life.
  • The love ends in heartbreak — one of the two dies, ideally a sacrifice to save the other.
  • The narrative wraps up with a scene that creates hope. A reason for the reader to believe the remaining protagonist will be better for the experience.

My favorite example of this formula is in the classic novel, Shogun by James Clavell.

Minor spoiler alert.

The protagonist, John Blackthorne, falls in love with his Japanese translator, Mariko. The danger in their union (she is married to a ruthless man) and the clash of cultures adds to the intrigue. One of the characters sacrifices themselves.

I recall feeling angry at this point in the story. I wanted these two to end up together. But a series of events brought the protagonist hope by the end. It was that rollercoaster feeling of highs, lows and highs that triggered the emotional surges.

A Kind But Futile Gesture

Do something kind and generous for someone with no expectation of receiving anything in return. The gesture proves futile, despite the kind and generous intent. Here’s the key.

The reader knows it’s futile but the character does not. That contrast of perspective creates the effect.

My favorite example of this comes from the book A Prince Of Tides by Pat Conroy.

One of the characters, Luke Wingo, tells the story of how their sister built a tree house and stocked it with food and supplies. Savannah was a young child at the time.

She built it with the intention of protecting her Jewish neighbors should the Nazi’s return to power and invade South Carolina. He continues with the story by mentioning that she told her neighbor of her plan. The neighbor broke down in tears.

This scene works because a young child makes the gesture. It’s fifteen years after the Allies defeat the Nazi’s. The reader can accept that a child might fear their return.

Revealing A Secret

A character hides the truth about herself from her loved ones. It’s a truth that would enhance her image and reputation, but she keeps it to herself. Finally, in the end, she (or someone) reveals her secret.

There are two keys to making this formula work. First, the reveal cannot seem self-serving. Second, the secret is revealed to the right character — the one to whom it matters most.

You can find a great example of this technique in The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah. Any attempt to dissect the story here will result in a spoiler. You’ll have to read it for yourself.

The End Of An Era And The Gift

This technique focuses on the power of loss — the most potent emotional spark.

Passing on something special to someone, knowing you can never experience the same thing again. Recall the end of Toy Story 3. The character, Andy, heads off to college.

He stops at a neighbors house and brings his box of toys to play with their young daughter. He gifts his toys to the girl, except for Woody. That toy triggers a moment of hesitation. He realized how special Woody was to him and stopped himself from giving her the doll. The time for those treasured experiences has passed. He gives his prized possession to the young girl. This gift serves a symbol for us — the passing on to a new generation.

Shielding A Loved One And Paying The Price

Hiding the face of danger from a loved one. Sacrificing yourself and remaining brave to save that loved one.

Remember the movie, Life Is Beautiful? The father shields his young son from the horrors of a death camp by putting on an act. He gives the illusion it’s all pretend up until the moment of his death.

When it works, the main character expends significant effort to pull off the ruse. He also musters more courage than he thinks he’s capable of.

Loss + Hope

Master the art of hope and you master the masses — Proverb

The leader who inspires hope when all seems lost commands loyalty, reverence and sometimes blind obedience. The artist or writer who inspires hope owns his audience’s emotions, at least for a while. There’s a peculiar footnote to the power of hope. A loss must precede it for it to work.

If you’re sitting on top of the world, hope means nothing. It doesn’t fit.

Now, imagine a character losing his job and then his wife. His friends ostracize him for some petty reason. He’s lost hope.

Someone comes along and gives him a reason to feel alive again.

Loss triggers a feeling of sorrow. Hope creates positive feelings. That roller coaster ride from sorrow to hope creates the emotional effect.

By now, you’ve probably figured out the common thread among all these formulas.

When the world says, “Give up,” Hope whispers, “Try it one more time”