Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Leveraging The Emotional Spectrum in Your Writing

By Bonnie Randall

Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor) 

Every base emotion—love, sadness, anger, envy, happiness—resides upon a spectrum. Such spectrums range from pallid to intense, and an emotional response will be variant depending on the precipitating event, the personality of the individual experiencing it, and that person’s history. Consider the following chart:

Low Spectrum → Base Emotion → High Spectrum → Off-Chart/Dysfunction

Content → HAPPY → Euphoria → Mania

Melancholy → SAD → Despair → Suicide/Homicide

Indignant → ANGER → Rage → Wrath/Destruction

Snarky → JEALOUS → Obsessive → Sabotage

Restless → NERVOUS → Paranoia → Psychotic Break

Satisfaction → PROUD → Arrogance → Tyranny

Uneasy → FEAR → Panic→  Hysteria

Between the low spectrum and high spectrum of each Base Emotion, several nuanced forms of feeling also reside. Example: Indignant → Annoyed → Irritable → ANGER → Outraged → Infuriated → Rage → Wrathful / Destructive.

An emotionally motivated character experiences events in a story that either turn the dial of emotion up or down, depending on the plot, their personality, and where they are at, in terms of circumstance, when the story starts. A well-developed character will always appear to be a ‘bead on the string’ of the emotional spectrum, and the reader will be able to track their trajectory, either forward or backward, if the emotions stay ‘true’.

For example, Jay Asher’s Hannah Bakerin 13 Reasons Why starts her story on the Off-Chart/Dysfunctional end of Sadness; she has committed suicide. And, as her story unfolds,the reader moves alongside her backward in time, and sees that, in true bead-upon-string fashion, Hannah experienced several pivotal events that moved her from sadness to despair and beyond.

However, even before she was subjected to any adversity, she was a melancholic personality—which, of course, is one of the thrusts of this novel: that some people have resiliency over monstrous and incidental events, while others, like Hannah, do not. We just never know what someone’s rock bottom might be…until we examine their emotional spectrum and the movement of the bead-upon-string.

Walter White is a forward-trajectory example of bead-upon-string. When Breaking Bad opens, Walter’s intellectual property has been pirated by a colleague, upending his rightful reception of a Nobel Prize. Then he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer, and so his place on the Anger Emotional Spectrum has solid footing in Indignation → Resentment. Events unfold, and the bead is moved even further on the string because suddenly there are two Emotional Spectrums at work: Anger and Pride (a lethal combination) which culminate, of course, in Destruction/Tyranny.

And while Walter’s disintegration into dysfunction is understandable (albeit morally unacceptable), some characters’ foray into dysfunction is both understandable and acceptable. In Bird Box, Josh Malerman’s heroine, Malory, is trying to navigate the way for herself and two pre-schoolers into a haven safe from a creature who drives people murderously mad upon sight. To get to where she and her children need to be, Malory needs to blindfold all three of them. And so, blind and vulnerable, they are stalked then preyed upon as they try to master their journey. Understandably, and with so much at stake, Malory’s bead-upon-string crosses the threshold from panic into hysteria—and so does the readers’.

With that said, though, an even more jarring scenario occurs when the Emotional Spectrum moves backward as the stakes intensify. Consider the nonfiction experience of Patty Hearst, the infamous victim of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. Hearst’s bead-upon-string of Fear moved backward until it was off the chart entirely, becoming, instead, sympathy for her terrorizers—a reaction every bit as fascinating as it is tragic.

More provocative still are the times when the bead-upon-string is on an Emotional Spectrum you do not expect for the situation at all; when the emotions of the character do not fit for the unfolding events and their ever-increasing stakes. In The Shining, part of what makes Jack Torrance so monstrous is that, as the haunting and depravity of The Overlook Hotel escalates, his bead-upon-string response is not even on the Fear Spectrum like the rest of us.

Instead, it is on the Happiness Spectrum where at first—when the Hotel provides him with both accolades and alcohol—he is euphoric. But then, feeling more and more ‘at home’, his bead travels backward to Happy, only to move as far back as Content as he relaxes into the hotel, believing that The Overlook, a place psychically infected and morally depraved, is, at long last, somewhere he finally feels like he belongs. Chilling, right?

Upon which Emotional Spectrum is your character’s bead-upon-string? Hopefully this analysis helps you leverage that emotion to a place that delivers the maximum impact within your story.

As always,

Bonnie Randall Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About Divinity & The Python

Bonnie Randall Divinity and the Python
Divinity - Where deception and desire both hide in the dark...

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  1. Thanks for this, Bonnie. What a great resource-- definitely a "keeper" post, not only for gauging the emotional level of a character's arc, but even the tone of an entire novel or one's work as a whole.