173. Appeal to intellect or emotion?

Durncilla Drysdale

Do stories have to appeal to either the intellect or the emotions? Can they do both? Can they do neither and still work as stories?

I am instinctively suspicious of setting up a duality of intellect and emotion. What we know shapes what we feel and what we feel shapes what we know, Consider this passage from Night by Elie Wiesel:

“But we had reached a station. Those who were next to the windows told us its name:


No one had ever heard that name.”

This is a gut-punch. But only if you know what Auschwitz was Without that knowledge, the lines are bland.

All good stories have to appeal to our emotions, I think. That is to say, they have to engage us, make us care and want to read on. The most fundamental story technique for doing that is to make us empathise with the characters. But empathy is not the only technique or the only emotion stories deploy. 

Consider the well-known “hook”. This usually comes right at the beginning of the story: the device that makes us sit up and take the bait. The normal emotion here is intrigue, or curiosity. For example, this opening to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

Who can resist reading on to discover why she is in the sink?

Curiosity is an emotion with a heavy dose of intellect. It is the emotion that drives scientific enquiry.  Even in empathetic reading, there is a strong dose of curiosity. The reader asks themselves “If I were in this situation, how would I react?”, because reading fiction is, among other things, a rehearsal for social life. We may enter story worlds to engage with situations we have never experienced (at least not in quite the same form) and to learn how we might behave and how we might exercise greater courage or to discover a more authentic way of being ourselves.

I would argue that stories that deploy emotion without intellect are almost always composed of “easy” emotional ploys: tropes we instantly recognise without occasioning any need for examination or self-examination. The king is good, the stepmother is bad, the innocent princess is imperilled. Such stories are almost always sentimental, giving us a simple and affirming “hit” of emotion without troubling us in any way. The emotions have bulk, but they fail to nourish us, Similarly, stories can appeal to intellect without engaging emotion: they deploy puzzles where we are interested in discovering the solution, even if the characters are flat. Detective fiction often falls into this category.

Finally, can a story appeal neither to emotion nor to intellect?  I would argue not, but I stand open to persuasion.

2 thoughts on “173. Appeal to intellect or emotion?

  1. Hi Neil, I am a still learning the craft. I think that the reader’s perception is key to a good story. Each reader will determine how they feel emotionally and be challenged depending on their status in life.

    I wonder which of the two characters below, a reader may have empathy for?

    Jeffrey Jr slams down the phone, the bank won’t leave him be. He kicks the apartment door open; he needs some fresh air.
    Leroy sits outside his driftwood home drinking a cold root-beer.
    Jeffery Jr, dressed in designer clothes, strides past heading towards the cliff tops.
    Leroy shouts,”Yea man. Dem real nice rags.”
    Jeffrey pulls and struggles with his Wooyoungmi shirt and throws it towards him.
    He then stumbles in the soft sand and dashes off.
    ‘Life’s better when you are a nothing,’ he mumbles.

    Liked by 1 person

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