Note: After rereading last month’s post, I decided to restructure it, and revise some of the entries.
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 gray-scale of emotions. To explore the various hues of the emotional spectrum, let’s consider a few examples.
Below you’ll find 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.)
For a full list, please scroll down to the bottom of the post.
Positive emotions that often lead a character to act.
“Don’t ask me how I know. I just know.”
Faith and hope represent some of the most powerful forces that can exist within a character. Some are born from past experiences, while others are rooted in desire, but what truly sets faith and hope apart from other emotions is how a character clings to them in times of woe. Where other emotions falter in the face of pain and tragedy, faith and hope often (though not always) flourish, because in dark times, characters cling to faith and hope as a sanctuary from the storm, something to cling to and thus stay afloat.
Faith and hope are what galvanize a character to action, prompting them to work hard in pursuit of a goal, and double down when things get tough. As a result, they are often found at the beginning or the middle of a scene, before the character takes action, and often during the action.
Granted, what a character hopes for or has faith in may be good or bad, and what they choose to do in service to their faith or hope can be similarly ambiguous, but I think most would agree that the emotions of faith and hope are themselves a positive, independent of the consequences.
In Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles), Kvothe frequently searches the local inns and taverns, hoping to meet Denna again.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, during one of the climactic scenes, Harry finds himself witnessing a tragedy unfold, but he refuses to give up, clinging to hope, to the belief that things will work out (which, owing to the genre and tone of the story, they do, for the most part).
“I won’t give up”
Resolve bears a striking resemblance to faith or hope; both frequently involve characters continuing to reach for a goal even as the goal seemingly becomes less attainable. But where faith and hope are about believing in a positive, I would pro pone that resolve is rooted in refusing to accept the possibility of a negative outcome.
The character doesn’t “know” that they will or can succeed, they simply see no worthwhile alternatives, so they keep at it. This makes a character more likely calmly consider alternative possibilities, if the character believes said alternatives actually have merit.
In Name of the Wind, one of Kvothe’s primary goals is to learn the legendary art of “Naming,” and once he zeroes in on Elodin, he persistently appeals to the eccentric instructor to take him on as a student, refusing to be deterred by Elodin’s various strategies for discouraging him.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry finally learns the full scope of Dumbledore’s plan for him; he realizes what he has to do.
“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 “trade-off” 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.
Duty or obligation is another emotion that typically comes before action, and may extend into it.
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.
Positive emotions that may lead characters to act or not.
“This is nice/fun/good.”
Stories are about conflict, and an essential component of conflict is the question “what are we fighting for?” Scenes of joy and contentment often represent the answer to this question. They are the simple pleasures that show audiences who the character is when they are in a good place, and as memories they often serve as the light at the end of the tunnel, the hope that characters cling to as they struggle.
It’s also worth noting that while stories are rooted in conflict, audiences often need some brief respite after one conflict resolves before diving into another. These brief times of joy and contentment help audiences recover from the tension of the prior conflict, so that when the next conflict does arise, they are rested and ready to appreciate it, instead of ragged and/or desensitized. Contrast, after all, is an essential component of good storytelling, part of the rise and fall that every story utilizes (to some extent).
This means that joy/contentment almost always precedes or follows conflict. If it precedes, then it’s either the joyful status quo that is about to be disrupted, or the brief calm of a prior conflict resolving, before it (the joy) is disrupted once again.
What makes a character happy and/or content goes a long way to communicate values to the audience. Some stories favor the pastoral life of a farmer or gardener, while others extol the hustle and bustle of a busy urban environment.
Common examples of contentment include savoring the arts (literature, visuals, music, and/or food), training/competing (playfully), socializing, or simply savoring the act of “not doing anything,” i.e. relaxing.
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.
Full List of Emotional Moments
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