The other day I found a book by Ben Bova, who is a famous science fiction writer. Having enjoyed Ben Bova’s science fiction work, I read his version of a contemporary thriller much in line with Michael Crichton novels. This Ben Bova novel is called “The Green Trap” and is about a scientist who discovers a low-cost way to produce hydrogen for fuel. Although I enjoyed Ben Bova novels and short stories in the past, I found “The Green Trap” surprisingly flat and mediocre.
Comparing “The Green Trap” to other novels made me realize what was wrong, which you can study on your own favorite (and not so favorite) novels. In “The Green Trap,” there’s a distinct lack of emotion. What makes novels and short stories so immersive is that it’s the only form of storytelling that lets you get inside the heads, thought process, and emotions of the characters.
Movies tell stories through pictures. Stage plays tell stories through spoken dialogue. Novels and short stories tell stories through insight into the emotional state of the main characters.
That’s why some novels translate poorly into movies and novelizations of movies often feel less satisfying than the actual movies themselves. Novels let you feel the emotional state of a character that movies can’t provide. Novelizations of movies often focus too much on describing the visual aspect of the story and fail to immerse you into the emotional state of the characters. Stage plays often fail as movies because they’re too reliant on talking and staying in one setting, which is necessary in theater but creates a deadly dull visual image in a movie. Just watch older movies that were little more than filmed versions of stage plays to see how limiting dialogue and a handful of settings can be in a movie.
Now when you read the stories of popular authors like Stephen King, John Grisham, Amy Tan, or Michael Crichton, study every paragraph and you’ll see that the author injects emotions of the character. It’s rare that even a single paragraph doesn’t invoke the inner emotion of a main character in some way. That emotion simply helps the reader bond with the main character.
Right now I’m reading a Stephen King novel called “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.” In just the first few chapters, I haven’t found a single paragraph that does not invoke the emotions of the main character. The story is about a girl who gets lost in the woods and every paragraph is about her reaction to her surroundings so you experience the same emotions that she’s experiencing at that moment. When she cringes in fear from accidentally touching a slimy snake, you as the reader also cringe in fear as Stephen King slows down the action to describe the dampness of the ground and the feel of the snake under the girl’s palm that slithered when she touched it.
Now go back to Ben Bova’s “The Green Trap” and you can find multiple paragraphs where no emotion is described at all. Instead, you can find paragraphs that simply describe events and surroundings from a clinical point of view, much like describing what a movie might show you.
It’s this lack of emotion in every paragraph that makes “The Green Trap” less compelling of a novel compared to the novels of other authors like Stephen King or Michael Crichton. Study your favorite novels and see if every paragraph is charged with a main character’s emotions somehow. Now study an obscure novel that didn’t sell very well and chances are good it will fail to engage you emotionally. Some novels fail simply because they don’t invoke any type of emotion at all, but some novels fail because they don’t keep the emotional state in every paragraph.
As a reader, look for the emotions win every paragraph. As a writer, make sure every paragraph invokes an emotional reaction in the reader. With Stephen King novels, every emotion is related to horror of some kind. With romance novels, every emotion is related to love and fear of not being loved. Each genre has its own emotions that are necessary so if you’re planning to write a novel, find out the dominant emotional state of your genre and make sure you keep that emotional state consistent in every paragraph.