Sometimes we write passages or whole stories that fail to engage our readers emotionally, even though these passages or stories engage our own emotions. We fuss about with the plot, the dialog, the structure of the scenes but sometimes we still get nothing out of our readers. I believe one common cause of this is lack of emotional tension for the characters themselves.
A mistake I made when I began writing was to forget that I knew a lot more about the characters than the reader did; I carry around a whole world in my head, and I know what my characters think and feel about everything that happens to them. Sometimes I didn't bother putting any of that on the page. No matter how high the drama of their situation, my characters didn't seem emotionally invested in their own story. They didn't react to events in their own lives.
This is an easy mistake to make when writing as we balance plot, theme, setting, character and pace over the span of tens of thousands of words. It's an even easier mistake to make when we revise scenes. We put our characters into novel situations, hair-raising danger or whatever, but we forget to let our characters be alive within those situations. I just found a scene in my own book where a character gets a piece of very bad news, but her reaction is neutral when it should be almost violent. I was too concerned with writing flowing action in the scene to pay attention to how she felt about that action.
A good scene should be a complete drama in miniature. It should have a beginning, middle and end, and there should be an emotional arc for at least one character. The scene should increase the tension for someone, or release the tension for someone. Either way, someone's emotional state has to change. If your characters don't feel anything, neither will your reader. If nothing has changed for your character by the end of a scene, your reader will also be unmoved. Even if you've moved the plot along.
This also means that your characters must be emotionally invested in the outcome of both the main story, and of each plot point along the way. What happens must matter to them. And we have to show readers that this stuff matters to our characters, and how our characters are affected by the events all through the story. Otherwise you have flat characters that your readers won't follow along on the ride.
One way to show increased/resolved emotional tension is to use a technique called "scene and sequel," which means that after a significant action, characters react. Action and reaction. Does a scene leave a character angry? Show it. Does a scene leave a character relieved, or sad, or confused, or defeated, or triumphantly evil? I suggest that you go through your stories, scene-by-scene, and after something happens, ask yourself how the involved characters feel about what just happened. Give them the opportunity to react to the events. Raise and lower the emotional tension as appropriate.
Yesterday Michelle talked about character motivation, and how essential it is for writers to know the answers to the questions:
What do our characters want to happen?
What are they doing about it?
How will they feel if it does/doesn't happen?
All of these questions come into play in every scene you write. Think especially about the last of these questions, and how your characters (not just your protagonist, but your antagonist and support characters, too) will react to the actions of your story as they find themselves closer to or farther from their goals at the end of scenes. Show those reactions, or your readers will react with a yawn and a search for something else to read!