David Farland – The Emotional Puppet Master

Looking at the careers of Brandon Sanderson, Stephanie Meyers, Eric Flint, James Dashner and Brandon Mull, it is clear that David Farland is not only a master storyteller, but also a gifted teacher. Having struggled with constructing an effective outline, I read Million Dollar Outlines a few weeks ago. I expected instruction in that one aspect of my craft, but what I received was infinitely more useful.

Farland explains that readers are like runners; instead of putting stress on their bodies, the reader seeks emotional exercise. As the reader’s proxy, the protagonist provides a controlled and safe emotional experience allowing the reader to benefit from the protagonist’s emotional journey. The truth of this is evident in how fiction is organized in bookstores. With the exception of science fiction and fantasy (wonder stories), fiction is grouped by the primary emotion the story inspires. As such, Farland spends the first third of Million Dollar Outlines focusing on the emotional beats of a story.

Farland’s insights come from years spent green-lighting and story doctoring in Hollywood. During that time, he was involved in research into the concept of emotional beats. By defining an emotional beat as stimulus that creates a specific emotional response in a watcher, the researchers were able to examine how different arrangements of movie trailers would attract viewers of specific age and gender groups. The studies also found that by mixing and rearranging the emotional beats used, the trailer could appeal to either a wide or very narrow audience.

The research demonstrated that consumers were attracted to emotional beats that mirrored their own struggles in life. Farland calls this the “emotional draws” of a story. For example, young readers, male and female both, are often attracted to wonder stories. This makes sense as children are in the discovery stage of their life where everything seems strange and new. As the reader matures into adolescence, the hormones of puberty change the tastes of male and female readers. Young men, filled with testosterone and adrenaline, will seek out action, adventure and pornographic sexuality. Meanwhile, young women tend to gravitate to books with a strong appeal to romance and relationships. As their hormones stabilize into adulthood, early twenties readers will favor stories about exploration and self-discovery. As men and women age into their 40’s and 50’s the interest in sex will wane a bit, and so they will seek out dramas, thrillers, and stories about struggle grounded in contemporary reality.

David Farland’s Million Dollar Outlines taught me that writers are emotional puppeteers. The protagonist, a proxy for their own lives, allows the reader to experience a safe and controlled emotional workout. Readers recognize and process emotional beats on a subconscious level, and are drawn to stories that mirror the primary emotional turmoil in their own lives. It is the author’s responsibility to orchestrate that controlled experience, and therefore, be mindful of their effect on their readers.


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