We’ve been working with the Plot Arc Exercise I posted three weeks ago. We looked at our plots for conflict and tension. Now it’s time to check the emotion. I asked you to list the major emotions for each scene, and underline the primary one. If you have little emotion, or only happy emotions, you probably don’t have a dramatic plot. In that case, you want to focus on making things harder for your characters.
Hopefully you have a strong emotion in every scene, probably a negative one—fear or grief or anger, for example. Strong emotions drive the story forward. But any emotion, no matter how strong, seems to flatten out over time. If you have a suspense novel where your character is on the run and constantly terrified, it becomes emotionally exhausting and even tedious, no matter how exciting the action. The emotion flows in a straight line, and straight lines become boring. Instead, you want ups and downs.
In Writing the Breakout Novel, Albert Zuckerman describes a scene from Gone with the Wind, where Scarlett is going to confess her love to Ashley. She’s nervous but excited. She starts out hopeful. He doesn’t respond as she wishes, and she starts to get anxious. She becomes determined and tries harder. He admits that he cares for her. She’s elated! But then he explains why they can’t be together. She flies into a rage. He leaves. She’s devastated. Rhett Butler pops up from where he’s been laying on the couch. She’s humiliated that he overheard. He tells her she’s too good for Ashley. She gets angry at Rhett....
See how many different emotions are in that one scene? And I’m going on memory here, so I may be missing some. Scarlett displays not only a variety of emotions, but strong ups and downs, from devastation to elation. Granted, Scarlett is an unusually emotional character, so your main character may not react with such extremes. You still want to make sure that he or she has a variety of fairly strong emotions. In that suspense novel, you want your character to feel relief, because she escaped. She’s exhausted, she just wants to rest. But she’s worried about will happen next. She tries to puzzle out the clues. She starts to get angry. Wait—what’s that sound? The fear comes back... and then you lead into another action scene. The low allows your hero’s—and your reader’s—adrenaline to drop, so that the next rush is a more powerful experience.
This holds true even if you’re not writing action books. Even a relatively “quiet” story about interpersonal relationships should still have a variety of strong emotions, though they may be expressed in different ways.
I recently finished an adult suspense manuscript. I tend to be a strong plotter, and I started with an extensive outline, so my first draft of a scene would have plenty of action and dialogue. Then I’d go back through and flesh out the emotion. I’d make sure I was giving my main character time to react and express her emotions, if only in her own head. On the surface, it might seem like this would slow down action scenes. But by fully exploring your character’s reactions, you increase the drama and keep your reader invested in the main character’s experience. We’re not just seeing what happens, we’re seeing how it affects our hero or heroine.
That’s a long lead-in to a short (but important) section of the exercise. Go back to your Plot Arc Exercise and analyze your scenes as follows:
- How many emotions do you have in each chapter/scene? Can you add ups and downs? (For example, your MC feels happy anticipation, then anxiety that things aren’t going as planned, followed by a shock, which causes humiliation, then anger, then despair.)
- Do the main character’s emotions escalate over time? As events get more serious, and the stakes rise, the emotions should also increase.
One caveat here—you want to avoid getting melodramatic. Remember, you want ups and downs, so quieter or less extreme emotions can provide some of those. Unless you’re creating another Scarlett O’Hara, don’t have your main character react excessively to everything. Save the powerful emotions for powerful events.