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
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.
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?
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?
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?
More on emotions and character responses: