Thursday, May 30, 2013

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, May 30, 2013 12 comments
"Just because you've got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn't mean we all have," said Hermione nastily, picking up her quill again.
--J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (chap 21)

That line almost always makes me laugh out loud. But once it also kicked me in the teeth.

I'd been trying to figure out what isn't quite working in a story opening, and this idea of "emotional range" was a wallop to the incisors.

I realized that by the second scene, my protagonist was already deeply entrenched in her dislike of another character. And yet, by story's end these two will reconcile. But how would my reader even want that to happen? I've given no space for the possibility that my protagonist desires reconciliation. By starting at the wrong place emotionally, I'd left no room to grow beyond simply intensifying that one emotion. In other words, I'd given her the emotional range of a teaspoon.

For conflict to work well in a story, it needs space to escalate over chapters. This might mean rethinking the emotional starting place for your protagonist. In my case, my protagonist needed to start out motivated to have a good relationship, only to have her desire thwarted. With that change, I had the emotional pulse needed to carry the story forward, and more potential for escalation. I'd added range for her emotions to follow a larger arc:

desire for closeness > confusion and worry > hurt > frustration > anger > rage > explosion > despair > surrender > renewal.

See how starting at anger would cut my emotional arc in half?

Anyone else ever tackle this problem in a manuscript? What worked for you to widen the emotional range and stretch out the arc?

12 comments:

  1. I think it also helps to provide specific reasons for change or escalation in emotions. If the reader can see a cause for the emotion they're more likely to engage with it.

    mood

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Excellent point. Jumping conflict is jarring and confusing to readers.

      Delete
  2. I love that line, too! Hermione and Ron have some of the best dialogue exchanges in the series.

    I see what you mean. The emotional arc in a story can be difficult to get right. I agree with Mood; there needs to be a reason in each scene why your character is feeling the way he/she is. You seem like you're on the right track!

    Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you love the Ron/Hermione dynamic, you'll love John Granger's books that look at how they are catalyst characters that act like the prime agents of alchemy--sulfur and mercury--that turn base metals into gold. Great stuff.

      But I digress...

      Yes, emotional arc is perhaps THE hardest part to get right. Revising for emotion is something that should be part of every writer's process.

      Delete
  3. Great point. Sometimes it's hard to remember that the reader doesn't know the characters like I do--they only know what's on the page.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Right. And sometimes our fear of breaking the "rule" of not starting with back story means we jump in at the wrong place, either in the plot or in the character's emotional development.

      Delete
  4. This is a great point. I hadn't thought about this before, but I'll start looking at the start of my manuscripts this way from now on. Thanks, Laurel!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you found it useful. Giving characters enough range enables much better development over chapters and chapters.

      Delete
  5. Laurel, that is a fantastic tip!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Marcia. Sadly so many of the best lessons are learned the hard way--after one has made a mistake and has to figure out how to fix it.

      Delete
  6. Great point! Our starting off can be so important. Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome. This particular lesson was hard-won for me, requiring numerous rewrites to finally figure out.

      Delete