Emotional Moments Part 1 #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

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.

Mellow Example
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.

Intense 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.

Mellow Example
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.

Intense example
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.

Mellow Example
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.

Intense example
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.

Mellow Example
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.

Intense example
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.

This post was written for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop where we share our new discoveries on the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, and blogging tips. Posted every third Wednesday of the month. For rules and sign-up click here.


19 thoughts on “Emotional Moments Part 1 #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

    • Thank you. That is very encouraging to hear.
      It’s part of a project I started a while back. I was thinking about articles I’ve read that talk about the conventional genres, and the emotional genres, but in my mind, they all seemed more focused on the big picture. I was thinking about how there are also beats, and how at any given moment a character is feeling something, though perhaps not very intensely. Hope you like the others as well.

  1. This was a really interesting post. Since I tend to write in Scene/Sequel blocks, this idea fits really well with the tension/release pattern of that technique. Thanks for sharing

    • Thank you. It’s good to hear, and if others find merit in it, that certainly validates the ideas.
      It’s actually part of a series I’m working on (probably 2-4 more posts). I have read a fair number of articles that outline the “different types” of things, but I also think there’s merit in crafting one’s own “inventory” of types of something, as a way of exploring what “I” think, and exploring how my own perspective may express the same ideas in different ways, and potentially vary from the ideas of others.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts as well.

  2. I like your definitions. You said, “In one sense, a story is really a series of emotional moments, which together create a sense of rising and falling.” I also like your ideas about earning a resolution, which I think is important. You have to earn your endings otherwise the reader can feel let down. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    • Thank you as well. I’m glad you found them helpful. I think scenes often function like pieces of music. The individual notes (beats) flow and blend together, and we as an audience simply ride along, but as writers, we need to understand the individual beats that make up the blended scene.
      Hopefully I can have another segment of this series ready for next week.

  3. Ah I love these examples! It could be the fact that I’ve never seen the Belgariad even *mentioned* anywhere else on a blog, thank you so much for that. But each example is very fitting to the emotion you describe. JK Rowling, especially, seems to have great talent for creating/sustaining/using emotion in her plots.

    The Mockingjay trilogy also comes to mind for those small moments of joy which sustain the characters through some pretty terrible stuff. The third book, especially, is nonstop terror and deaths so those little moments when the Mockingjay squad are sitting together, just talking…they stick out even more in comparison to the rest.

    • Good point. I’m reminded of how often suspense/thriller/horror movies have some of the most soothing melodies among their OST songs. Makes me wonder if those moments (or melodies) are actually designed to be more soothing (since they are such small segments of the whole) or if they feel more soothing because of what surrounds them?

      • Quite. After all, what is fear or apprehension without its opposite? We need the contrast to reset, prepare us for the next turn.

    • I agree. We need those moments to appreciate the stakes, and to help is reset, so the darker moments hit with full potency. I think if you look at it, we almost develop a wariness of upbeat moments, a “when is the turn coming?”

  4. Wow! Thank you for these detailed examples. You really laid out how we as writers can prime our readers and then meet those expectations. I was definitely reading along and comparing my book.

Leave a Reply