Friday, July 22, 2011

Busta Mood: Using the Emotional State of Your Characters to Craft Better Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When plotting, (or writing) it can be helpful to know where your characters are at emotionally when you start a scene. Everything that has happened to them up to that point affects how they’ll react to whatever you do to them. Past traumas or mistakes can contribute to your protag getting the wrong impression and doing something profoundly awful (from her perspective) yet wonderful (from your perspective).

Let’s check in with Bob and the zombies for some examples.(for those unfamiliar with Bob, here's all the pertinent info)

Bob is on the run with some particularly nasty zombies on his tail. He’s injured, barely keeping ahead of the undead and he’s been separated from Sally (his estranged wife) and Jane (the secret love of his life). He’s crawled into a drainage pipe sticking out of the side of a hill. It’s above the ground and out of reach of the zombies, but it’s dark inside and goes on for who knows how far. Suddenly, he hears scratching, like something crawling toward him from the darkness. What’s his reaction?

A) He calls out a hopeful greeting to whoever is coming down the pipe
B) He opens fire with the shotgun to kill whatever is approaching
C) He jumps out of the pipe, even though the zombies are still there
D) He readies the shotgun and watches the darkness

But wait…

You know that the person coming down the pipe is Jane, who found another way in and is coming to help Bob. Bob doesn’t know this, however.

How do you write the scene?

Plotwise, Bob could do any of the above. They’re all plausible reactions to the situation. Some writers would write it with the end result in mind, others would let him play it safe and compromise, and others would go full tilt and let the bullets fall where they may.

(Here's more on Getting the Best Response From Your Characters)

Before you choose, consider how Bob’s emotional state is going to determine how he reacts. Odds are he’s pretty panicked, or at least running on adrenaline. He’s in fight or flight mode with a bunch of zombies trying to get at him. Based on that emotional state, do you think his first thought would be “someone’s coming to help me” or “something’s coming to eat me?”

If it were me, I’d start shooting. Bob is hurt, alone, scared, and overwhelmed by the undead. That reaction makes the most sense for his emotional state. But where’s the tension there? The stakes? Although it seems exciting, it’s really kinda ho-hum since it doesn’t put Bob in any more jeopardy than he’s already in. We want to raise the stakes and the tension and capitalized on Bob’s heighted emotional state (and the way that can cause people to make mistakes). Strong emotions are opportunities to strengthen your story and cause unexpected twists.

Let’s pretend that the reader knows Jane is on the way.

This totally changes the stakes, doesn’t it?

Bob acting how someone in that position would act puts Jane in major jeopardy. Bob might kill her. Of course, readers know you’re probably not going to kill off the love interest, so while tensions go up, the outcome is still a bit predictable. You could do more if you looked deeper at Bob’s emotional state overall. What has been weighing on his mind all book? (Those who know the Bob and the zombies story can guess where this is going)

What if it’s Sally coming to help him?

(Here's more with You're So Emotional: Describing Emotions)

Now things totally change. Sally is the wife Bob wishes he could get rid of so he could be with Jane. Bob’s already had guilty thoughts that he could kill Sally and make it look like zombies got her. Here’s a perfect excuse to shoot Sally by honest accident and let Bob reap the shameful consequences.

Would you do it? The stakes are real this time. Readers will know that shooting Sally is something that could actually happen. It won’t stop the story like killing Bob or Jane might. And Sally’s death would complicate all the plots and subplots for Bob and Jane. It’s a credible outcome.

Try looking at your scenes and pinpointing the emotional state of your protag.
  • What is your protag feeling at the start of the scene?
  • How might this affect their decisions?
  • How might this color what they think is happening or about to happen?
  • What other emotions (and emotional baggage) are they carrying?
  • How might that baggage affect what’s going on?
  • Are there any ways you can use the current emotional state to cause trouble or make things harder on your protag?
(Here's more with Get Your Head in the Game: Character Moods)

Don’t forget the other characters in the scene. They can react based on how they feel too.
  • What are your other characters feeling at the start of the scene?
  • Can their emotional states make things harder?
  • Can the protag misunderstand how they feel in some way?
  • Can they misunderstand how the protag feels?
  • What are the emotional overlaps you can use?
  • What are the emotional opposites?
Strong emotions make for great scenes, especially if you can find ways to heighten those emotions. Small changes to something you already had planned can make huge differences to how a scene plays out (like switching Jane for Sally). Take advantage of those opportunities and you might just push your scenes to a whole new level.

Do you think the emotional state of characters matters? How often do you consider how a character feels when you start a scene? Do you plan for emotion at the start, or do you revise it in? And most importantly, would you shoot Sally or not? Why?

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great advice. I probably don't think about this enough and how a switch like from Sally to Jane could heighten the tension. I do think it depends on your story on whether you can switch characters like that. But you could always think of ways to heighten the internal conflict for the main character to make these scenes more exciting. Thanks.

  2. Another awesome post. I think I need to slow down and give my characters emotions a bit more thought.

    I just finished reading The Shifter. Loved it! I've scheduled a book review post for next Friday of it. It's really short and almost more about the love affair I have with your blog. :)

    Feel free to stop by next week and check it out.
    My Writing Journey

  3. Natalie: True, the story won't always let you fiddle like that, but I've found you can shift a lot of little things to surprise folks. I did that with my own WIP recently when I realized the girl my POV was going to find wasn't the one he actually found. I never planned it until OI got there and it just hit me, "what if she isn't there?" Required a little tweaking to adjust the plot, but it works so much better.

    Charity: Thanks so much! Can't wait to read it :)

  4. Thanks for a thought provoking post. I have a tendency to let my characters off the hook too easy thus killing the tension and often the whole conflict. (I had the same issue with parenting.)
    It might be a good practice to go back over my story to find places where the tension can be tweaked in the way you suggested.

  5. Readers feel the perceived emotions of the character, so I would say that emotional state matters. I plan for emotion from the start but tend to layer it in over more than one writing. I find this deepens the sensation.

    Would I shoot Sally? No. I'd shoot AT Sally. Make it close, maybe put a pellet or two through her clothes or scrape her skin. Bob misses the chance opportunity, but the tension would increase dramatically. If I kill Sally, then there is remorse and closure. Unless it's the climax or I plan to redeem Bob (or kill him) before the end, killing Sally isn't the best option. Leaving her alive but threatened draws the tension out longer and increases the directions the story can build towards.

  6. Thanks Janice, for this post. I had been going over a scene that just wasn't working. I had my MC sneaking off alone to go get help and it just didn't have much tension...even though she has little chance of survival in the wasteland between point A and B.

    Originally, I had her swipe the equipment of a couple of minor male characters before her trek. But now I added those guys in. They wouldn't let this helpless, untrained female go it alone!

    But at the critical point of no return, one of the guys gets hurt and can't go on. They have never been to point B, the MC's homeland. So, the guys hobble back and my MC has to go it alone now, with only some hastily given advice from the more experienced fellows and the danger seeming much more real.

    Thank you, thank you!!!

  7. I'd have Bob accidentally shoot Sally, but not let her die (yet?). Now Bob can feel guilty about shooting her since they're both in the same wounded boat, but at the same time still kind of want her to die already, and they'll have to work together for either of them to survive. That'll go down well with ole Bob. Then you could have a later scene where Sally has the chance to save herself while wounded Bob is slowing her down or vice versa since this is his story after all. (I kind of want Sally to save Bob though: it would make her more sympathetic and he'd have even more reason to feel guilty because he'd owe her a life debt.)

    Huh, maybe I'm starting to get the hang of this stakes and plotting thing? If I am, it's mostly thanks to your blog, Janice!

  8. Klerosier: I think so, but then I'm evil to my characters :) The higher you can get the tension though, the better the story.

    Gene: Love it :) No closure for poor Bob!

    Amelia: Most welcome! Always makes my day to hear when a post helps a troubled scene like that.

    Sophia: I think you got it! Hmm...maybe I should start doing some seed story ideas for plot practice? Help folks work on the brainstorming plot muscles.

  9. I wonder what would happen if Bob actually shot and killed Jane, ending up forced to work out his relationship with Sally? How would that toy with his emotions?

    1. Yikes! I think the poor guy would be devastated. Although I think I do turn her into a zombie in the sample synopsis I wrote for the Planning Your Novel book. :)