Tuesday, September 21

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, September 21, 2010 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 recently it also kicked me in the teeth.

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

I realized that by my 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 needs to start out motivated to have a good relationship, only to have her desire thwarted. Now I have the emotional pulse needed to carry the story forward, and more potential for escalation. I've 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?

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  1. I'm really impressed that you were able to see this! It's hard to distance yourself from your characters (and your story) enough to see their emotional arcs. Was it a eureka moment as you studied the question of why things weren't working or did you deliberately step back and look at the emotional arc? I know there are some people who methodically look at their draft piece by piece in this way, but I'm not one of them (but maybe I should be!).

  2. Hmmm. I wish I could give you some awesome advice, but I tackle that problem all too frequently, and not always successfully in my writing. In my mind my characters have full emotions that go beyond the range of a teaspoon, but on the page . . . aagh. I've changed my first, opening scene a number of times to fix this problem, but that is sometimes very painful and hard to do, since it affects the whole story or novel.

  3. Just like all the senses, we need to cover all the emotions. Or, at least a range of them. In the first chapter, we need to both laugh and cry with the MC.

  4. I did that with one of my characters too. I started the relationship with unrelenting hatred, but didn't give a viable reason. Not that I wanted the characters to reconcile, but it affected how all the other characters had to interact with these two.

    I guess it was my characters themselves that got me to notice the writing didn't have the impact I needed because of this "teaspoon" effect. (I like that phrase too, very catchy.)

    It wasn't even all that much re-writing. I allowed her to voice her reasoning, stand firm on her stubbornness, and both the characters and readers finally understood what was behind the emotion.

    Can't say it always works out that easily though. But hey - I was happy.

    I like how you solved your problem. Working it through is always satisfying.


  5. Good point. I did the same thing, letting my MC get angry too soon. I had to go back and let some desire, some curiosity precede that anger. There is so much to think about!

  6. In an odd sort of way, reading of your effort to generate a believable emotional range has reminded me that in real life we also need to 'give space' for an emotional arc. We are often too quick to rush the process. Watching characters as they negotiate the variance of their reactions is a wonderful reminder that this is what relationship is about.

  7. My big problem is I don't like my characters staying in trouble, so I keep giving them a quick way out. It's making the emotional arc more like a roller coaster ride :)

  8. Very interesting, Laurel. I never thought of your story that way. Now I'm very curious to see how you'll revise the opening 50. :)

  9. Jenna: great questions! I knew something wasn't working because I've had good agent responses to my query, but not to pages. Specifically the first 10. So I turned to one of my fave revision books _Fiction First Aid_ and the advice there about making readers invest in your character gave me my eureka moment. But yes, it did take external evaluation for me to see there was a problem in the first place.

    Tyrean: In my case, fixing some early scenes didn't change the arc of the later part of the story, it simply made the whole arc feel more motivated. But I can see how starting wrong *could* do that. Alas, writing is often discovery, and sometimes a massive rewrite does need to happen.

  10. Mary: I'm not sure I agree on the "laugh and cry in chapter one." It's good to keep broadening the MC's emotional range over the course of the whole book. I think the alchemy of creating a character readers will invest in, one who's clearly capable of growth--that's the real work of chapter 1.

    Donna: I'm glad you found a solution, too. When reconciliation isn't a final goal, you don't necessarily need to start lower intensity (or hint that the opposite feeling is possible or even desired). But being high-intensity out of the gate does shorten the track for that emotion, doesn't it?

    Tricia: As realistic as hair-trigger angry people can be, that trait isn't so good for a sympathetic character. It takes patience for us to write the slow-build kind of anger, though. But our readers will connect more, so it's worth the pain (and revisions!).

  11. Lori: Great comment. I agree that our current culture does tend to encourage impatience in all things. Patience is a virture we writers need in spades, both to navigate the publishing process and to do justice to our characters.

    Jemi: I know what you mean about the quick way. For me, I like a quick way in to the high-intensity scenes. Just my impatience. Slow simmer is actually more page-turning, if harder for me to write.

    Simon: I'm learning that sassiness in a teen character has to be handled very carefully. No one wants to follow a grousing malcontent for 200+ pages, so it was important that I let her soft side show a bit more, at least as I initially introduce her. You'll get a chance soon to judge for yourself whether I've achieved the right balance.

  12. Great description of character arc! This was a very useful post - thank you.