Director’s Corner: Tracking Your Character’s Emotional Arc

jeanneJeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust, which is in its 20th year of operation.  She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles.  She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.

Find out more about Jeanne here and more about the Odyssey Writing Workshops here.

This post was first published in January 2015 at K.M. Weiland’s “Helping Writers Become Authors” blog at: 

Most authors try to understand what a character is feeling at a particular moment: He’s angry here. He’s happy there. Many authors also consider how the character’s emotional arc changes over the course of the entire story: He begins insecure. He ends confident. But few think about how the character’s emotional arc develops over the course of a single scene.

In my research last spring, I came across a fascinating guide called Book on Acting. The title arises from the author’s name, Stephen Book. He’s a Jeanne Cavelos Book on Acting famous acting teacher. Book directs actors to consider how their characters’ emotions develop over a scene. He calls this the character’s emotional arc. I quickly realized this was great advice for writers too.

A character whose emotions don’t develop or change in a scene is static and not terribly interesting. On the other hand, a character who is jumping from one emotion to another in each paragraph is unlikely to seem believable. So it’s important to create limited, focused changes.

1. Change the Intensity of Your Character’s Emotional Arc
The simplest type of a character’s emotional arc is a change in intensity. The basic emotion remains the same, but the intensity of it changes over the scene.

For example, a character may feel happy in a scene, but the intensity of his happiness may change, starting at its lowest intensity as calmness and then building through contentment, pleasure, amusement, gladness, happiness, cheerfulness, giddiness, jubilation, elation, joy.

Generally, it’s more powerful to show the emotional intensity increasing rather than decreasing. You don’t want to start the scene with the emotion too high, because then there’s no room to build. When you do increase the intensity of the emotion, it shouldn’t happen too quickly–unless something startling drives it–so it seems believable.

One common weakness in a character’s emotional arc is plateauing, reaching a certain level of intensity and then just staying there. Every arc doesn’t need to start at the lowest level of intensity and go all the way to the highest–for example, from calmness to joy. You could just as well go from amusement to happiness. But reaching happiness halfway through the scene and then leaving the character stuck there makes the events in the scene seem less important, since they have no emotional impact on the character.

2. Switch From One “Emotion Family” to Another
A more complex type of a character’s emotional arc involves not just changes in intensity, but changes between emotion “families.” Book calls these changes “emotion switches.”

For example, a character might be in the happiness emotion arc we discussed above. Perhaps his boss is telling him he performed well over the past year, and as she makes several compliments, the character’s happiness increases from contentment, to pleasure, to gladness, to cheerfulness, to elation when his boss says he’s getting a big promotion. The boss then suggests they should go out to dinner to celebrate. This triggers an emotion switch to a new arc, which we might call fear. He might begin at a very low level of fear, feeling cautious (is this sexual harrassment or is he misreading her?), then build to nervousness, anxiety, apprehension.

Similar to the single-emotion arc, the emotion switch should generally start with the second emotion at a somewhat low level of intensity, so there’s room to increase it. In order for a character to switch from one emotion family to another, the scene needs to offer an important event to trigger the shift.

You can see a great example of an emotion switch in this scene from the movie Goodfellas. For those unfamiliar with the movie, these characters are mobsters. Tommy (Joe Pesci, the guy doing most of the talking) is in charge, and he has an explosive temper, as has been established earlier. Watch how Henry (played by Ray Liotta, the guy with the cigarette on the right) becomes more and more happy, until Tommy asks, “What do you mean I’m funny?” There you see Henry’s emotion switch to fear, and you can see it grow and grow. This is one of the strongest scenes in the movie because of the powerful emotions conveyed and the threat underlying everything.


3. Up the Complexity With “Umbrella Arcs”
According to Book, an umbrella arc is:

           …an accumulation of separate feelings from different emotion families that adds up to a singular emotional response.

Umbrella arcs describe more complex emotional states. Your character may be feeling several emotions at once within an overarching umbrella. These umbrella arcs may be labeled with conceptual terms, such as abandonment, betrayal, or denial, which are not emotions in themselves but can carry emotions.

For example, abandonment may bring with it emotions of hurt, loss, fear, sorrow, and anger. The character may be feeling a combination of all these at once. However, he shouldn’t be jumping back and forth between these emotions. That would feel too random and disjointed. Perhaps he’s feeling hurt, loss, and fear, but the fear grows stronger over the scene, or he shifts from predominant hurt to predominant fear, due to some turning point.

It’s important to acknowledge that people experience emotions differently, so “happiness” may not go through the same gradations for one person as for another. Similarly, people feeling an umbrella concept like “abandonment” won’t have the same exact combination of emotions. Dig deep to discover the emotions characteristic for each of your characters.

What I see often in the work of developing writers are characters whose emotions wax and wane several times in a scene, leaving us with no clear sense of progression–or characters whose emotions move from one feeling to the next to the next with no sense of focus or causal connection–or characters who seem to feel the same emotion at the same intensity through the whole scene–or characters who feel nothing at all. Becoming more aware of how you want to shape your character’s emotional arc in each scene can lead you to much more powerful scenes.

Tell me your opinion: What is your character’s emotional arc in your most recent scene?


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