Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Emotional Moments

Stories are about change. A character comes in one way and goes out another. He is changed by the events of the story and we hope the reader is as well. But one does not simply decide to change and one who changes only at the will of another is nothing but a robot. In a good story, characters move the story forward by making a decision and following through, whether that decision is to battle his enemy, run and hide, or just to stand still and let another have his way. Whatever decision he makes, it is important that we show the emotions a character feels as he makes his decision. Emotions are important throughout a story, but every story has seven points that must have strong emotion. If you can get your readers to laugh or cry or shout for joy in the moments, you are a long way toward having an excellent story.

When I say moments, I do mean moments. A moment may be as short as a sentence or it may be several, but it isn’t as long as a page. The longer a moment is, the less punch it has. So what are these seven moments?

The Beginning

At this point, the reader knows very little about the world of our story. We have to introduce them to it and quickly. We need strong conflict to hold the reader’s attention, but the beginning is the most ordinary part of the story. The protagonist is doing what he has always done and he isn’t motivated to change. We need the strong emotion to hook the reader, but it must be different from what drives the story in other places. Consider Fahrenheit 451, which begins “It was a pleasure to burn.” Pleasure is one of the things that motivates the protagonist to remain unchanged. It there was nothing else, he would go on burning books for eternity.

Stasis Equals Death

The next key moment is the stasis equals death moment. It occurs in the setup of the story. As the name implies, at the stasis equals death moment we know what situation the character is in and we realize that if he stays in this situation he will be miserable. In a romance, this may take the form of a young woman feeling a sense of longing for the love she does not have. In a detective novel, this may take the form of a detective longing for the respect of his colleagues. Though we may also see multiple stasis equals death moments as we see why each person might want to kill the eventual victim in the story. Whatever the case, this is a moment full of emotion as a character realizes he is in a bad situation with no way out, unless he changes.

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is the next key emotion point in the story. The name itself tells us that it involves emotions. Unlike the stasis equals death moment, which could be experienced by any character, the inciting incident is reserved for our protagonist. It is at this moment that an event occurs that influences the protagonist’s emotions in such as way that he wants to take action. It could be that a bank robber points as gun at his wife and fears for the safety of his wife. It could be that someone offers him money and he thinks about that new boat he’s been craving, but there must be some emotion that drives him.


Smack dab in the middle of a story we have the mid-point. If a novel is three hundred pages long, look for the mid-point near page one hundred fifty. The protagonist doesn’t have to make any great decisions here, something far more important happens. It is as this point that the protagonist wins (or loses). We’ve been building to this point. That poor guy who saw a robber drag his wife out of the bank with a gun to her head just got word that the police have arrested the gunman. What would any decent man do if he heard that? He would be shouting for joy, doing his happy dance or singing praise to God. Whatever he does, it is going to be emotional. He doesn’t know that in a few minutes they are going to report that they didn’t find his wife with the man. That doesn’t matter. He’s emotional and we need to show it in our writing.

All is Lost

If our protagonist is happy at the middle of the book, we can be sure that won’t last long or we wouldn’t have much of a novel. We eventually hit the all is lost moment and it’s a doozy. That bank robber wasn’t working alone. While the police were chasing him, his buddies were robbing another bank. The security cameras caught them, a man and a woman. It appears that the woman is none other than the wife of our protagonist and this time she shot the guard. How far our poor protagonist has fallen as he goes from thinking his wife has been saved to seeing her shoot someone. The loss couldn’t be greater and you can be sure our character feels something. His world has completely fallen apart and the emotions he feels from this moment will impact his decision of what to do going into the final act.

The Climax

We go from the low point in the novel and we start building and building and building. We raise the stakes and the emotions get stronger. When we hit the climax, our protagonist lets them all loose. It’s at this point that he loves the deepest, laugh the loudest or becomes the angriest. He draws on emotion that motives him to give him that last bit of strength to overcome his enemy and reach his goal. Our protagonist refused to give up. He knows his wife, while the police do not. He finds his wife locked in a room. The robbers, including a woman wearing his wife’s clothes, are counting their money as he slips into the house and frees his wife.

The End

Lastly, we have the end. There should always be emotion as a reader reaches the last page and closes the book. Happy? Sad? Whichever way, we need strong emotion. Our protagonist faced his fears as he freed his wife, but that is nothing like the joy he feels having his wife safe and the assurance that she had nothing to do with the robbery.

Obviously, there are many times when the character’s emotions will appear in the periods between these moments. These moments are only the high points. These moments give us key points from which the other emotions in the novel flow.