Emotional arcs deepen our involvement with characters and their stories. When carefully constructed, we go through the emotions in an authentic, memorable way. But the construction is key. It must feel true, without jumps and reversals that we instinctively know are wrong. When a character arrives in a new emotional space in a way that doesn’t feel right, it’s as troublesome as a plot that defies logic or relies at a deus ex machina.
I recently participated in a workshop with author Mat Johnson. He spoke of providing a foundation of authenticity by exploring our own emotional arcs. Most of us can think of emotional events in our life, many of which point toward genuine emotional arcs, hearts at work.
A personal example, not a template, was provided in the workshop, but I played with abstracting it. I’m not sure I’ve got it right now. (I need to delve into some examples to improve it.) Nonetheless, this may be enough to spur some thought. And, just as your personal examples of emotional arcs will be the most powerful in your work, this unfinished series may help you create your own template that will support better emotional arcs for your stories.
Discomfort - Contentment or indifference is shifted into something that feels odd by the comments, actions, or even just the presence of another person. This could be a compliment, a slap in the face, or an attractive person sitting down at a nearby table. We have this experience all the time and let it pass, but the story begins to happen with the character does not let it pass.
Awareness - The incident with the other person registers in some way. It draws an acknowledgment through body language, comment, a gut feeling, or an action. If your character nods his or her head at an attractive stranger, that might signal awareness. What happens next in real life can be simple or complex. The arc may end with a middle finger response that sends a person away as a stranger, a meet cute fumble (like spilling a glass), a suave pickup line (accepted, rejected, or parried), and more. In a story, for an memorable arc, the relationship begins and/or begins to change.
Observation - We are always looking for cues. Think of the endless discussions of teens about slight (even imagined) clues about sexual interest. This is gathering data to assess and reassess the relationship. In this case, it is likely to lead to emotional shifts that may be small, but move back and forth, or may crash toward bigger possibilities (and more risks).
Testing - One of the revelations of the workshop was how — even when we have it all wrong or are barely aware of emotions on the other side — testing occurs in the arc. Chances are, one character will deploy an arsenal of tests to resolve the initial discomfort with an emotional understanding of the relationship (or a bid to change it). The other character may respond consciously or unconsciously.
Articulation - This may happen repeatedly from Awareness on. Often, it will be objectively incorrect or incomplete (complicating this arc). It can also be part of the culmination, with, for instance, a declaration of love or “Prepare to die!”
Choices - For a realistic arc, it’s always valuable to include choices along the way. These can be explicit or the options may only be obvious to the reader/audience (irony). Clearly, these can be choices about action/confrontation, but they also can be choices in terms of what might be explored, questions, alliances, and prioritization.
Culmination/Resolution - At some point, the emotional arc is completed. We should travel to the end with the protagonist, in my opinion. I understand there are artistic reasons to leave things open or complete the arc “off screen,” but usually that’s a mistake. I’d recommend at least writing it down before deciding to leave it out.
The above is a relationship template — fitting the man vs. man conflict model. I have not explored man vs. nature (which could be a mountainside, an incomprehensible alien, or a disease). I have not explored man vs. himself, either. These might suggest more useful templates.
If you have trouble coming up with examples of emotional arcs from your own life, look toward moments in stories that touch you deeply. The likelihood is that these high emotion scenes that easily come to mind are parts of emotional arcs in the stories. Go back and re-experience them. (For a movie, you might want to look at the scripts.) Then look for changes in the emotions and see if you can name all the steps that helped make the emotions real to you. Don’t be afraid to look in both directions (earlier or later) in the story, even if it seems like the scene that captured you is the beginning or the end of an arc.
Once you’ve done this, you may find it easier to look more closely at your own emotional history, and that’s likely to show you why you responded so deeply to this story you care about. It also will provide you with something more fundamental to work with as you develop your stories.
One warning: The better you do your job, the more a character in your story will resist the presentation of the full emotional arc. Scenes are likely to remain incomplete, and the temptation will be to not use all the steps in your template. Look closely, and you may find the character is protecting himself or herself. Get out a microscope, and you’ll probably find you are protecting yourself. Press on. Get it all on paper. Even that which you don’t need or don’t want. You’ll end up with a deeper story.
A (nearly) month-long e-course I teach begins on Monday. It's Flash Fiction, and includes lots of hands-on exercises.