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Evoking Emotion in Fiction: Seven Pragmatic Ways to Make Readers Give a Damn

Evoking emotion on the page begins with the man or woman at the keyboard. Dustin Grinnell serves up seven straightforward tactics for writing tear-jerking stories that make your readers empathize with your characters.

The spirit you bring [as the author] is the spirit we’ll feel as we read, and of all the feelings you can excite in your readers the most gripping and beautiful is the spirit of hope.

—Donald Maass

I’m not highly emotional, but rather bookish, cerebral, and contemplative. I live a life of the mind—thinking, analyzing, interpreting—out of touch with my feelings. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that I struggle to write emotion in fiction. The only book that ever brought me to tears was the 1961 children’s novel Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. The book is about a young boy, Billy Colman, who buys and trains two hunting dogs in the Ozark Mountains of Oklahoma. I wanted to understand what about the novel had made me cry.

Let’s first examine where the author was in his life. After years of failing to break into the publishing industry, Wilson Rawls had given up on writing, until his wife suggested he write “that book about the boy and his dogs.” In The Emotional Craft of Fiction, literary agent Donald Maass writes that the way an author feels while writing is how the reader will feel while reading. “How often do we read about the author who strives for years, perhaps trying to write for a market or emulate a favorite writer. After years of failure, they sit down and just write the novel they’d want to read, honestly and unselfconsciously.”

Rawls heeded his wife’s advice and wrote the book, which became a bestseller and has sold millions of copies. Evoking emotion on the page begins with the man or woman at the keyboard. Rawls jumped with no net. And he broke through.


Evoking Emotion #1: Positive moral judgments about the protagonist

In The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Maass advises authors to show their main character as good early in the story. By doing so, the reader can judge that the character is a model for such virtues as compassion, insight, commitment to justice, love, steadfastness, sacrifice, and selflessness. The reader sees Billy act virtuously in the first chapter of Where the Red Fern Grows. The story opens with Billy as an adult. He sees an old hound being attacked by a pack of dogs. He feels sorry for the hound; it reminds him of the dogs he had when he was a boy. “I had seen the time when an old hound like that had given his life so that I might live.”

Billy fights the dogs off and invites the wounded dog toward him. He says he almost cried at what he saw. “His coat was dirty and mud-caked. His skin was stretched drum-tight over his bony frame. The knotty joints of his hips and shoulders stood out a good three inches from his body. I could tell he was starved.” This description evokes sympathy, which is connected to the love we know Billy has for his dogs.

Billy nurses the hound back to health at his home. When the dog gets its strength back, Billy doesn’t want to let it go, but with tears in his eyes, he thinks, “I could have kept him in my backyard, but to pen up a dog like that is a sin. It would have broken his heart. The will to live would have slowly left his body.” By rescuing a dog and then letting it go, the protagonist has gained a positive moral judgment from the readers. We admire Billy and thus will follow him.

(How to Create Moral Stakes in Your Fiction)

Evoking Emotion #2: A protagonist who wants something really badly

Maass explains why characters draw in readers. “Although they are quite unlike me, they are like me in two ways: they have heart and they yearn. They feel deeply. They both want things and, we feel the ache of that yearning before we even know what they are yearning for.”

In the second chapter of Where the Red Fern Grows, we see Billy as a young boy who desperately wants two dogs to hunt raccoons with, but his family is poor and hounds are expensive. “It’s not easy for a young boy to want dogs and not to able to have one. It starts knocking on his heart; he gets all mixed up in his dreams. It gets worse and worse until finally, it becomes almost unbearable.” The “dog-wanting disease” becomes overwhelming. He dreams of dogs and begs his parents. He tells his mother that he will buy her a dress and hats with money from the sale of raccoon furs. His pleading makes his mother emotional, which in turn makes Billy sad. “That time I saw tears in her eyes. It made me feel empty inside and I cried a little, too.”

As readers, we may not be able to relate to a young boy from the Ozarks who wants two coonhounds, but we can empathize with his burning desire. Haven’t we all wanted something so badly that we can’t sleep? That we beg, plead, will do or say anything? Maass advises writers to create heroes and heroines who capture the idea of human longing that we can all feel. “The first task in building a compelling story is to create hope,” writes Maas. “The stronger that hope, and the more we fear it will not be fulfilled, the greater will be the emotional relief when things finally do come out okay.”

Throughout the novel, we constantly wonder how Billy will overcome the odds to get what he wants. Will he get his dogs? Can he train them properly? Will he catch a raccoon? Will he and his dogs stay safe while hunting? These possibilities create anticipation and hope.

(What Backstory Can Do for Your Story)

Evoking Emotion #3: A protagonist who pursues their desires

In the third chapter, Billy’s burning desire transforms into a seemingly impossible goal to raise $50 to buy two Redbone Coonhound pups from a magazine listing. Billy overcomes many obstacles to save money. He sells fish and berries, chops wood for neighbors, and exchanges chores for cash. After two years of saving, he has enough money. This kind of commitment, persistence, and hard work is admirable. When Billy wants something, he goes after it. As readers, we root for a striving protagonist. We hope he gets what he wants, and we keep reading to see if he will.

Billy carries his puppies home in a sack cut with holes for their heads. He opens the sack, and they blink their eyes in the sun and whimper. What reader’s heart isn’t warmed by this visual? This is adorable; it’s emotional gold. As Billy makes his way home, a mountain lion circles their camp, threatening Billy’s life and his dogs’. The boy is on guard, though. He would die for his dogs. He shouts and throws rocks, and his dogs growl and bark. They fight off the lion as a team, a family. It was their first trial together.

The next day, Billy sees two names carved into a tree: Dan and Ann. He names his dogs Old Dan and Little Ann. Each dog is well characterized; Rawls gives each a personality. The male dog, Old Dan, is bold and aggressive. The female, Little Ann, is smaller and timid. Old Dan is the brawn; Little Ann is the brains. Old Dan “strutted around with a belligerent and tough attitude. His body was long and his chest broad and thick. Little Ann was always playing and what she lacked in size she made up in sweetness.”

(Working With Objects to Create Emotion in Characters)

Evoking Emotion #4: A protagonist who never gives up

On Billy’s first hunt, Old Dan and Little Ann chase a raccoon into the biggest tree in the forest. Billy knows he must abandon his first coon, as the tree seems impossible to cut down with his axe. The dogs are impetuous. They circle the tree and bark at the frightened animal. By abandoning the coon, Billy knows he will be letting down his dogs. “The message I read in his friendly eyes tore at my heart. He [Old Dan] seemed to be saying ‘you told us to put one in a tree and you would do the rest.'"

Tears build up in Billy’s eyes. He becomes angry. His dogs did their job, so he should do his. He grits his teeth and decides to cut the tree down, even if it will take a year. After days of back-breaking chopping, he cuts down the tree and his dogs kill the raccoon. He wins the respect of his dogs. Most importantly, he wins self-respect. His grandfather tells him, “‘I think it would be a good thing if all young boys had to cut down a big tree like that one once in their life. It does something for them. It gives them determination and willpower. That’s a good thing for a man to have. It goes a long way in his life.’”

(Creating Characters)

Evoking Emotion #5: Characters who do the right thing

From my perspective, chasing and killing raccoons in the middle of the night is a peculiar hobby, perhaps even a morally reprehensible one. Is hunting raccoons right or wrong? The reader is constantly presented with these gray areas. The story is a morality tale. Is it right to hunt and kill raccoons for sport? Is it right to cut down a majestic sycamore tree? The narrator makes us privy to Billy’s thoughts, and we discover that the young boy is often conflicted. When he deploys a highly effective trap to catch raccoons, he feels guilt. He admires the towering sycamore and mourns its loss.

Billy even sympathizes with his prey. One night, he and two bullies, the Pritchard boys, hunt the infamous ghost coon, which has evaded hunters for years. The ghost coon plays tricks on Billy’s dogs all night until Old Dan and Little Ann finally outsmart the coon and corner it in a tree. Billy climbs the tree to scare the coon to the ground. He thinks, “As I started toward him, my dogs stopped bawling. I heard something I had heard many times. The sound of a ringtail coon when he knows it is the end of the trail. I never liked to hear this cry, but it was all the game, the hunter and the hunted.” Billy doesn’t want to kill the animal. He takes a moral stance and decides to let the coon go free.

According to Maass, research shows that fiction can stimulate moral elevation: reading about good people can cause us to better ourselves. “Taking a stand for what’s right is without question one of the greatest emotional tools available. Moral stance and struggles have an emotional power, and it’s important that a story generate such moments and achieve that power. All characters can rise above their selfishness, for a moment, to become gracious, insightful, generous, or self-sacrificing,” he writes. “When we are moved and inspired by the actions of characters what we feel are higher emotions. They are the timeless virtues extolled in every religion and recommended by every great thinker. Higher emotions make us ponder. They make us change. They make us better people.”

(5 Moral Dilemmas That Make Characters (& Stories) Better)

Evoking Emotion #6: The benefits of sorrow

Under the right conditions, readers don’t mind a good cry but are looking for sorrow, not sadness, according to Maass. “Sorrow adds something to sadness. Sorrow happens when we have not only lost someone but also miss them. Their absence isn’t emptiness, which is final, but a feeling of incompleteness. When death is sad, it is a door closed; when death triggers sorrow, the door is still open. But to what? To something good that we don’t want to give up. To a person we care about. And the more we care, the greater the sorrow be.”

In Where the Red Fern Grows, Billy and his dogs frequently encounter dangerous situations: The dogs battle enraged raccoons; they fall through the ice in winter; they brave treacherous weather conditions; and they nearly die several times. As readers, we dread that Billy might lose his dogs. We dread this because we know it will destroy Billy. He loves his dogs. They are the world to him.

Maass captures another dimension of why it would hurt as readers to witness the death of Old Dan and Little Ann. “To make death poignant, make living beautiful. To make us miss characters who will die, make them the very best thing about being alive.” Rawls does this effectively.

Near the end of the story, Billy competes in a raccoon-hunting contest and advances to the final round with three other teams. During the boy’s turn, a terrible storm creates treacherous conditions in the woods. Billy, his father, his grandfather, and a judge continue hunting, as Billy only needs one more raccoon to win the championship cup. Old Dan and Little Ann become separated from Billy. A man from a search party says that he found Billy’s dogs in the storm. “‘They’re frozen stiff,’ he says. ‘They’re nothing but white ice from the tips of their noses to the ends of their tails.’” Billy faints. When he regains consciousness, the man says that his dogs aren’t dead; they’re just cold and nearly frozen. When they found Old Dan and Little Ann, the dogs had been running in circles around a tree to keep from freezing. This shocks everyone. One man claims it’s loyalty, or rather love—the deepest kind of love.

Billy wins the championship and $300 in prize money, which he gives to his father, but the near-death foreshadows the real death that occurs later when the dogs fight a vicious bobcat. In this violent scene, Billy steps in to help his dogs and as the bobcat turns on him, the dogs throw themselves into the bobcat’s jaws. The boy sinks his axe into the cat’s back, and the dogs bite its neck. The bobcat dies, but his dogs are badly injured. Little Ann is bleeding and battered, but Old Dan seems mortally wounded and bleeding from many wounds. As they make their way toward home, Old Dan catches his stomach on a branch, opening his stomach. It’s a fatal wound. The family cleans and bandages the wounds, but Old Dan dies. After Billy buries Old Dan, Little Ann becomes despondent and loses the will to live. She lies down on Old Dan’s grave and dies as well.

“Certain moments in life are a sure bet for tears,” says Maass. “Graduation from college, college, send-offs, breakups, vows at a wedding, goodbyes at the airport, the death of a pet.” These are transitions, when a treasured time of happiness is over, he writes. While tragic, the death of his dogs is a rite of passage for Billy. He matured with his two best friends. He came of age. Their death is a symbolic rebirth into manhood.

Billy’s parents insist that they died for a reason. The money Billy earned from the championship allows the family to move into the city and pay for school. Billy’s father says that they had planned to move the family into town but would have (at least temporarily) left Billy behind with his grandfather so that he wouldn’t be separated from his dogs. His parents claim this was fate.

The next spring, as the family is leaving for town, Billy visits his dogs’ grave and discovers that a red fern has grown in the soil above their graves. According to an Indian legend, this means the spot is sacred. Billy believes this to be the work of God, and this takes the sting out of his grief. As the family leaves home by wagon, the red fern is visible on the hillside.

(The Power of Vulnerability)

Evoking Emotion #7: Characters helped by unseen hands

When Billy first returns home with his dogs, he explains the hardships he endured to his mother. “With a smile on her face, she asks, ‘Do you believe God heard your prayer?’ “‘Yes, Mama,’ I said. ‘I know He did and I’ll always be thankful.’”

Maass writes, “Readers go to story to visit places they may never see, feel emotions they may need to feel, and learn lessons that navigate these short, mysterious lives. They also go to story to reinforce deeply held beliefs. That there’s more to life than status, family, and even love. That we’re not alone in this cosmic whirlpool. That perhaps there are unseen forces beyond the material world watching, helping, nurturing as we find our way through this human life.”

Where the Red Fern Grows reinforces a need we all have: that our faith will be rewarded. After trying to chop down the massive sycamore tree with his axe, the boy quits. His body aches, and his hands are covered in blisters. The tree is almost cut in half, but his body and mind can’t continue. Billy walks away and sobs. Then he prays to God for strength to finish the job. Suddenly, there’s a breeze and the tree starts to sway. “Another gust of wind caught in the top of the big tree. It started popping and snapping. I knew it was going to fall.” After the tree falls, Billy says, “I firmly believed that I had been helped.”

Whether we believe in a higher power or not, many of us have experienced the seemingly supernatural effects of being helped my unseen hands. Where the Red Fern Grows is a story about hope. After years of work, Billy gets his dogs. After chopping at the big tree for days, it finally falls. His dreams are fulfilled, and his hope is rewarded. The story reinforces our instincts that if we nourish hope, if we dream and work as hard as Billy, then we too may realize our dreams. 

When you take this online writing course, you will learn how to create believable fiction characters and construct scenes with emotional depth and range.

When you take this online writing course, you will learn how to create believable fiction characters and construct scenes with emotional depth and range.

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