What follows is the second part of a list of what I feel are the common emotional tones, with examples. (For part 1 please click this link.)
(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 section focuses on what I call Positive Passive emotional moments:
Positive Passive (2/6)
Positive emotions that often lead to inaction.
“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.
“You don’t know what this means to me.”
Gratitude or contentment are essentially the prize/reward. The character has struggled, and now they receive validation and encouragement, proof that they were in fact on the right path. This is one of the main ways stories establish meaning (rewarding the characters to embody the values of the story, punishing those who represent all that is “wrong” in the world).
Like joy, moments of gratitude provide a bit of levity, as well as a sense of growth and progress, giving the character a fighting chance in the conflict; unless the story is a thriller, horror, or tragedy, where the character is beaten and worn down, but even those genres can benefit from a certain amount of benevolence towards the protagonist. After all, first and foremost audiences continue because they want to know how the story resolves. If the story becomes too predictable, audiences have no reason to continue.
In Game of Thrones, Arya is frequently chided for not being more ladylike, until her half brother, Jon Snow, gives her a sword. Now, on the one hand, this is not condoned by anyone else, so everyone who objects to her behavior continues to do so, but the fact that someone supports her is a source of strength, and over time that strength finally convinces someone else in her life to relent and arrange for her to receive training in swordplay.
At the time it’s a small thing, but it shows Arya’s vulnerability (just a little) and establishes a warm relationship (unfettered by tension and conflict), both of which make Arya a more likeable character during those early sections of the story, when she frequently conflicts with others.
Near the end of Deathly Hallows (book 7 in the Harry Potter series), Harry sees Dumbledore once more. This scene is jarringly different from its immediate predecessor, which emphasizes the weight of all the emotions Harry is experiencing. And where that scene is a grueling struggle, the vision of Dumbledore serves as an equally intense soothing balm. Harry is praised for all that he’s done, his choices confirmed as the right ones, and his willingness to sacrifice so much is rewarded with the revelation that the actual price is not nearly as steep as he feared.
It is perhaps one of the most cathartic moments in the entire story, made all the more potent by how dark the series had become.
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