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Whose emotion is it anyway?

June 15, 2010

There can be few more frustrating reader comments than I didn’t really connect with the story emotionally. Give me some plot holes to fill any day, anything but some intangible touchy-feely emotional problem. If you can barely pin it down, how to fix it?

Please note, Dear reader, lest it seem I claim to know what I’m talking about, these are notes to myself, and when I say “you” I really mean “me”. And in this post I’m only going to cover the basics. If I come up with any more specific advice, I’ll let myself know.

First up: before getting bogged down in the details, sweat the big stuff.

As Bill Martell said the other day:

…the big problem with so many films ends up being basic screenwriting stuff. Those are the lessons that most need to be learned… even by pros!

The basics are just that: basic. But they’re easy to lose sight of when you are in the trenches, knee deep in mud and blood and shit and piss looking for the emotional heart of your story. Or maybe that’s just me and my desk.

I don’t remember where I first read it, but I last read how to distill everything you really need to know about screenwriting into three questions at John Roger’s Kung Fu Monkey blog:

First off, a quick reminder: the only eternal storytelling hard-and-fast truth is that there are three questions every story must answer.

1.) Who wants what?
2.) Why can’t they have it?
3.) Why do I give a shit?

The sequence approach to giving a shit

It seems to go without saying that the emotional heart of the story must lie somewhere in step 3, but that neglects the key role steps 1 & 2 play in drawing us into the story and connecting with the characters, particularly the main character.

Mea culpa — I’ve done it myself, and recently, focused so intently on my characters’ motivations, backstory, transformation, favourite pizza toppings, that I’ve neglected to adequately communicate who the story was about, what they wanted, and what was stopping them from achieving it.

If you get feedback saying the reader didn’t really connect emotionally with the characters, this should be your first port of call, because we are more likely to emotionally connect with a character if we are rooting for them to achieve something (or, conversely, hoping the smug fucker gets that smirk wiped off their face.)

“You’re either with me, or against me.” Good. As long as I’m not indifferent to you.

This talk of emotions, we need to clarify just whose emotions do we mean?

Well we know that emotion is grounded in character, right? So, we’re talking about the characters’ emotions, yes?


The emotions we need to worry about are those of the audience (or reader).

They may be aligned with or in opposition to those of our characters, but emotional characters do not necessarily mean an emotional audience.

An extreme example of the disconnect between the emotions of a character and the reader is if the character dies, he ain’t feeling much emotion anymore, but hopefully the reader will be feeling it in spades. Although we can do better than hopefully, because we are the architects of our stories.

So, we are not talking about characters displaying their emotions, but about provoking an emotional response in the audience.

It stands to reason that a bunch of teenagers emoting about the sudden and unexpected death of their parents has got to be emotional, right? Tears, frustration, anger? For them, yes, but not necessarily for us. Put that scene at the start of your story and it will leave us cold: Sorry, it’s not that I don’t care, I just don’t know you, and you are a work of fiction. There may be good reasons to have such a scene at the start (a good opportunity to establish character and smuggle in exposition for the story that is set to unfold, for example), but creating an emotional response isn’t one of them.

But put the exact same scene late in the story, it may well have us in tears, leave us angry and frustrated, if we have travelled on a journey with them, become invested in them, learned something beyond the generic about their relationships with their parents, with each other. We will by then feel what they feel, and perhaps more, with the benefit of the larger picture they are not privy to.

That example, about responding to extreme loss, is a typical one that comes to mind when thinking of emotional scenes. But of course there is a whole gamut of emotions to explore, positive (joy, love, hope) as well as negative (fear, disgust, hate).

And if we want emotionally resonant stories, the more emotions the merrier, right?

Ermm, not exactly.

If all of your characters are emoting all of the time, it will quickly become a big fingers-down-gullet turn-off for your audience (especially for British rather than American audiences, who lap up all that love-you-son, love-you-mom! crap. Probably.)

If you try the scatter-gun approach to stimulating the emotions of your audience, you will like-as-not confuse them or simply miss the target altogether. Sticking with this metaphor, a weapon with a telescopic sight will serve you better. Pick an emotional colour, any colour, and explore that in detail.

Robert Plutchik has handily produced a visual guide to that gamut of emotions, with eight primary emotions which are the root source of most others (varying in intensity or combining with others to produce secondary emotions).

While there are other theories of emotion, Plutchik’s is practically useful, pairing the basic emotions with their opposites. So in the diagram, Joy is opposite Sadness, Trust opposite Disgust, Anticipation opposite Surprise, and Anger opposite Fear.

Rather than try and cover all bases, or octants in this diagram, stick to one axis at a time, varying the intensity of that emotion and contrasting it with its opposite. That’s not to say you can’t mix it up with different emotions at the same time, but one of them should be your primary focus. That’s particularly useful if you use the sequence approach to writing, and can colour each sequence with a different dominant emotion.

Best give light purple a wide berth, though.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2010 4:27 pm

    Story might be king (or queen) – but it’s a funny thing: the same story will have different effects on different people. But that’s cos they’re stories and not say, facts. And if they have NO effect, yes you do have to ask yourself why. But when to do this? You could ask 100 people to read your script and get 70 people saying they have no emotional connection – and 30 saying there is one. Which side is more “valid”? Where does the balance tip – 50/50, 70/30, 90/10, 95/5… or 99/1? The FACT is, when it comes to STORY — no one has a clue. So if you know your craft is good, but readers and feedback-givers are telling you they have no “emotional connection”, that doesn’t necessarily mean *anything*, it could well be a get out of jail free card – they couldn’t think of anything else to say.

    • terraling permalink*
      June 15, 2010 4:59 pm

      I agree, absolutely, some people will come back with the line about not feeling the emotional connection when they can’t really pin-down what it is that’s wrong with the story. And it can be a real head-fuck trying to work out where you’re going wrong, which is why it’s helpful, I think, to go back to basics and make sure you have the fundamentals covered, because, as I say, it’s easy to overlook some key things once you are into the minutiae of your story.


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