Stories are many things, but one of the things I find most interesting is how the stories manage to provoke such a variety of thoughts and emotions in us, even though they are almost entirely composed of words we already know (otherwise we wouldn’t be able to understand the story). In one sense, a story is really a series of emotional moments, which together create a sense of rising and falling.
There’s also the idea of stories making “promises” and “earning” their resolutions; examples of how audiences develop expectations as they experience the story, and whether the story manages to fulfill, exceed, subvert, or disappoint our expectations often informs how satisfied we are with the story.
In general, one could say that all stories represent a combination of positive, neutral, and negative moments, with intense, medium, or mellow levels of tension. But this spectrum is merely the grayscale of emotions. To explore the various hues of the emotional spectrum, let’s consider a few examples.
Below you’ll find the first part of a list of what I feel are the common emotional tones, with examples.
(Note: Many examples may represent spoilers if you have not read/seen the story, though I will do my best to refrain from being too specific.)
“This is nice/fun/good.”
First and foremost, stories are about conflict, but an essential component of conflict is the age old question “What are we fighting for?”
Joy and contentment represent the answer. They are the light at the end of the tunnel, the hope that characters cling to during their struggles, and the reward that awaits them when the work is done. And while often rare (within a story) they also provide both characters and audience with a necessary respite.
They help audiences reset, creating contrast between each negative turn, ensuring audiences don’t go numb, and they ensure that audiences are having fun, cause at the end of the day that is one of the primary reasons why audiences engage stories.
A joyful/content scene will usually feature one or a few characters together; training, eating, talking about mundane topics or personal interests, or simply enjoying the beauty and wonder of the moment. If there’s any competition, it’s playful. There’s no risk of anyone getting hurt, and the outcome has no reward or penalty, beyond someone’s pride that is.
Celebrations are also common. After all, what can be more joyful than “the work is done,” and, in some cases, “We won. Time to claim the prize.”
This is often when audiences get to see how the character is when there’s no stern task or difficult choice. These are their personal interests, in contrast with the duties that weigh heavily upon them.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (book by JK Rowling), when Harry is playing Quidditch, and manages to overcome a pair of “dementors” and win the game. Harry is happy that the team won, and that he was able to overcome the “dementors,” but since the only stakes were the game (and house cup), and since the “dementors” are revealed to be fakes, I would consider this a mellow example.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (book by JK Rowling), when Harry receives an opportunity to move, and live with someone other than the Dursleys for the remainder of his school years. This represents a radical change to Harry’s lifestyle, one that he has repeatedly sought, and in a later scene, when things get dire, he clings to this hope as a source of strength.
“Good/Oh thank god.”
Closely related to joy is the feeling of relief, the perception that one’s worries and fears were either unfounded, or that the danger has passed. It’s the feeling of letting go of a great weight, and savoring the absence of the strain/tension needed to maintain it.
It’s often a moment of raw vulnerability, where the character reveals their own weakness, which humanizes them, and reassures audiences that “it’s okay to be weak/vulnerable sometimes.”
These scenes typically come right on the heels of a fresh threat, or in the immediate aftermath of a conflict. The greater the tension, the greater the release. In some cases they can also be a false safety, designed to trick audiences into lowering their guard so that the next turn hits them all the harder. This is particularly common in suspense/thriller stories, where the story almost lays siege to the audience, keeping them on edge as much as possible.
However, it’s important to use false safety sparingly. Stories rely on contrast, and if audiences become distrustful, and refuse to lower their guard, then the next turn will lose its potency.
In Fellowship of the Ring (film directed by Peter Jackson), while Frodo and Sam are traveling from the Shire to Bree, there’s a scene where Sam loses sight of Frodo and begins calling out to him. But after a few tense moments Frodo reappears, surprised by Sam’s concern, to which Sam replies that Gandalf told him “Don’t you lose him.” On the one hand, it’s clear that Sam is concerned, but his reaction to Frodo’s return shows that he wasn’t very worried (yet), in contrast with later scenes where Sam is clearly very concerned.
Return of the King (film directed by Peter Jackson), near the end, Frodo awakens in comfortable accommodations, surrounded by close friends, and it’s clear from everyone’s enthusiasm that the resolution is complete, and they are overjoyed by the outcome. The fact that “this” is the big resolution of the conflict that has spanned the entire trilogy lends a great deal of weight, as does the intensity of every character’s reactions.
“I can’t wait/let’s get started.”
This is the unique blend of charisma, ambition, and hope that launches characters and audiences into the thick of a conflict. There’s no plan as such, just enthusiasm, and a confidence that’s rarely justified, but often intoxicating.
These are the moments that often stand out, the calm before the plunge that captures the audience’s imagination with half-formed possibilities. It’s a moment of vague promises, but somehow the story earns the audience’s trust almost immediately.
It’s a delicate balance, hinting at the protagonist’s skill and resolve, while also keeping their opening remarks/actions humble enough to only hint, rather than outright show.
Of course then the story has to deliver on those promises, both the ones that have been made over the course of the entire story, and the ones that have been made in those opening moments that precede the “big fight” or “big reveal,” though in many ways a big fight is its own big reveal. Audiences get to see how skilled/powerful the characters really are.
In Mistborn (book by Brandon Sanderson), there are numerous instances where one of the protagonists enjoys going out at night. They enjoy moving around at a time when most are afraid to step outside, and revel in the protection that night and mist offer, allowing them to more openly use their abilities. It’s an activity they repeatedly miss and complain about when circumstances prevent them from doing so.
In Mistborn (book by Brandon Sanderson), perhaps around the 2/3 or 3/4 point, one of the protagonists steps out to fight. Their motive is to help someone else, but as they step out, there’s an eagerness. They think back on all the wrongs they’ve suffered, and it’s clear this is their revenge. They fight without reservations, demonstrating all of their skills
“It was the right thing to do/I had to do it.
Internal conflict is one of the richest forms of conflict in fiction; and a sense of duty or obligation is a great example of strong internal conflict. A character is forced to choose between two things they desire (i.e. personal gain vs their own moral code). It’s these kinds of “tradeoff” decisions that often define a character, and create really rich and engaging narratives.
A sense of duty or obligation is a great way to justify having a character act in a specific way, even if those actions are contrary to their own desires & goals. It’s also a great way to create tension between allies, while also postponing the actual confrontation. For example, in the 2011 Thor film, Heimdall frequently disagrees with Loki’s decisions, but always submits to his authority. Scenes between the two are full of tension, but it isn’t until very late in the film that Heimdall feels he is free to act on his hostility and distrust.
In the Belgariad series (by David Eddings), there is a noblewoman named Merel, married to a man she does not care for. As a result she is very stern and stoic. She finds little joy in life, waging her own subdued campaign against her husband, even as she fulfills the letter of her obligations as wife and mother.
In Game of Thrones (by George RR Martin) as well as season 1 of the HBO show, Robert Stark repeatedly acts out of duty. He becomes Hand of the King out of duty (to his friend and to the kingdom). It’s clear that he’s reluctant (initially refusing) but later accepting once he learns the diverse threats that pervade the kingdom’s leadership.
When he discovers the truth about the heir to the throne, he insists on following the letter of the law, even though he is repeatedly warned that few will support his choice. Ultimately his sense of duty becomes his downfall, as few see any personal gain in supporting him, and many believe greater opportunities lie with his adversaries, who are more utilitarian.
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