Twilight is one of only two books I’ve been tempted to throw across the room.
Because my copy was from the library, I restrained myself. But the English teacher side of me wanted to weep over its on-the-nose dialogue, cringe-worthy “romance” scenes, and pathetic portrayal of vampires.
However, despite all the scorn heaped on the series, it still sold like crazy. Why did these books become bestsellers when higher quality stories haven’t? As ambitious writers striving to grow in our craft, we should ask this question every time we read popular books. Even terrible novels can teach us about writing.
Twilight is popular because it capitalized on the power of fiction by appealing strongly to readers’ emotions.
Unless you can do the same, your story won’t sell well—or transform lives.
Why People Like Twilight
When I began reading Twilight as research for this article, I was surprised to actually enjoy the first couple chapters. This worried me. What kind of literature major and English teacher would I be if I became a fan of Twilight?
Thankfully, my doubts about Twilight were confirmed once the vampires appeared and the book took a quick, negative turn. However, this demonstrated its effectiveness in forming an emotional bond between readers and the protagonist.
Twilight captivates emotions in three ways. First, it has a genuinely funny protagonist. Her sarcasm was endearing and helped me to sympathize with her during the first two chapters. Even after I began rolling my eyes at the book, the protagonist maintained her sense of humor, which kept me entertained for parts of Twilight.
Second, Twilight features a generic protagonist that readers can imprint themselves on. This is one of the reasons many teenage girls love Twilight. Readers easily identify with Bella, which allows them to intimately experience her emotions.
Finally, Twilight gives the protagonist the “perfect” boyfriend. Edward expresses his emotions freely, is attractive, shows intense passion for Bella, is incredibly loyal (to the point of being overprotective), and exercises considerable self-restraint. Many critics have thus accused Twilight of being wish-fulfillment.
However, this is also why the book was so popular. Once readers have connected with Bella and Edward enters the picture, they are swept along because they enjoy vicariously experiencing this perfect boyfriend through Bella.
Even with its faults (from Bella’s stupidity, to Edward’s obtuseness, to the creepiness of flirting over how tasty someone’s blood is), Twilight is still incredibly effective. Even as a male teacher in my twenties, I could understand and feel the book’s attractions. Though I disliked how Meyers used that emotional pull, she did know how to handle it deftly.
That’s why Twilight became a bestseller.
The Power of Emotions
Some of you may be wondering why emotional pulls are good. If Twilight semi-manipulates readers, do we really want to imitate this technique? Especially when Twilight involves clichés like a Mary Sue protagonist and a perfect love interest?
Some of the methods in Twilight are definitely problematic. But this is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As I’ve written before, the power of fiction lies in its unique ability to engage someone’s imagination and emotions. Emotional appeals aren’t inherently manipulative in fiction—they’re its greatest strength.
Nonfiction persuades through verbal, rational arguments, whereas fiction persuades through compelling examples of characters who live in different ways and reach different ends depending on their choices. Characters who succeed through their virtues or fail through their vices affirm the truth of reality. And these stories stimulate emotions.
The fact that emotional appeals can be manipulated doesn’t negate their impact or advantages. Likewise, the fact that rational appeals can be manipulated doesn’t negate their importance. But it does warrant caution.
Twilight may be manipulative in its emotional use at points. But it at least provides what readers are looking for—which is why it sold.
Why Your Book Doesn’t Sell
To write gripping fiction, you need to engage readers’ emotions through a sympathetic protagonist who has relatable desires. Although Twilight hijacks the emotional bond with a couple cheap tricks, it still contains four valuable insights that can help you increase your book’s emotional impact.
First, form a bond between readers and the protagonist as quickly as possible. The sooner readers care about and empathize with the protagonist, the better. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to reveal a key flaw or weakness.
As writers, sometimes we fret that readers will dislike our protagonists if they aren’t strong and cool enough. But, in real life, few things bond us to someone else as much as realizing they have similar flaws and struggles.
The opening chapters of Twilight capture the fear of moving to a new place, the insecurities natural to teens, and the worry that you aren’t good enough. Readers see their own flaws in Bella, and as a result, they immediately latch onto her.
Second, develop a strong narrator voice. Many people emphasize the importance of this, but figuring out how it should sound can be confusing.
Essentially, publishers and readers are searching for a unique point of view that makes a story distinct. Humor is one of the best ways to achieve this. A genuinely funny protagonist is as endearing as a witty friend is in real life. In Twilight, Bella’s humor combined with her flaws causes readers to instantly sympathize with her.
Third, capitalize on moments where characters have to make pivotal decisions. Force the protagonist to choose between two horrible or two favorable options, then draw as much emotional tension from the scene as possible. Think about Jean Valjean’s decision to reveal himself as Prisoner 24601 in Les Miserables, Peter Parker’s decision between saving people as Spiderman or pursuing Mary Jane in Spiderman II, or Hamlet’s decision between avenging his father’s death or letting the killer remain on the throne in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
If you’ve already forged an emotional connection between readers and the protagonist, the protagonist’s inner turmoil should move readers and force them to consider how they would respond to the dilemma. These choices are often at the center of a novel’s theme. Twilight uses this tactic with its love triangle between Jacob and Edward. I don’t personally like the triangle, but it was effective for most of its audience.
Finally, tighten the screws on emotional plot arcs to keep readers’ interest. Once you’ve identified your story’s emotional turning points, don’t waste them—and don’t let the protagonist easily succeed. Instead, make it increasingly harder for the protagonist to triumph. If readers care for the protagonist, this will heighten their emotional involvement and the tension so that they are holding their breath along with the protagonist.
In Twilight, Edward and Bella rarely have conflicts, but external obstacles like Edward’s vampirism, Bella’s father, and a rogue vampire threaten their ability to be together. This isn’t the strongest way to tighten screws. It would have been better if Edward and Bella had real conflicts in their relationship. However, for readers enthralled by their emotional love story, it’s enough to maintain interest.
Learning from Twilight
I didn’t enjoy Twilight. Bella’s mixture of lovesickness and stupidity eventually turned me off from her, and the wish-fulfillment aspects of the novel annoyed me. Nevertheless, Twilight sells despite its faults, because it understands human nature and the power of emotion.
You have an opportunity to produce better stories as an author. If you build a tight emotional bond between readers and the protagonist, you can deliver a more meaningful experience than a love story with a sparkling vampire. The only question is whether you’ll do so or not.
Use the lessons of Twilight to create an emotional and compelling story for readers.