Great stories take us through the peaks and valleys of emotion, capturing our hearts along the way. Unfortunately, I come across promising stories all the time that cram too many emotions in one scene. As a reader I feel whipsawed, and it’s impossible for me to care about a character during such scenes. In fact, I may put down the work and find something else to read.
I suspect this comes from the moment-to-moment experiences of writers identifying with their characters. My first clue on this, oddly enough, was when I read a friend’s work. In one scene, just 1,500 words, he had a character smoke eight cigarettes. He had identified so closely with his hero that he had him light up every time he did. Since he wrote the scene over several days and he was a chain smoker, the results were unintentionally hilarious.
Since writers can explode with ideas for a scene, a lot can happen. There may be a dozen inputs for a character to respond to emotionally. Having a lot of ideas is good. Knowing how your character will respond or feeling it yourself is also good. Tossing everything at the character in a short number of words will confuse and dismay readers. It is as impossible to flip though diverse emotions in a few paragraphs as it is to comfortably suck down a bunch of cigarettes in a few minutes. Choking is not a welcome experience.
Unity is an important value in storytelling, and it is essential to the creation of an emotional landscape. As a rule of thumb, look toward no more than two big emotions in a scene. There can be movement between these (corresponding to three to five beats in a typical scene), but it needs to be measured. Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions provides a good guide to smooth transitions. (I actually have found Kaitlin Robbs’s wheel and this one from Christine Winston of more practical value.)
The smooth movement through emotions that link allows you to cross an emotional landscape without jumps that loose readers. You can twist and turn and climb up and down hills without jumping (or teleporting). This does not mean you can’t fall off a cliff with a sudden disappointment or pleasant surprise. It does not mean readers can’t be distracted with comic relief — reducing defenses against fully feeling something crushing or elevating. One of the great tricks of architecture is designing landscape so the journey’s path produces unexpected reveals.
As an exercise, it might be valuable to chart the intensities of negative and positive feelings in a scene that moves you. Go sentence by sentence and plot up to +10 (good feelings) and down to -10 (bad feelings) as the story progresses. You’ll produce a two-dimensional landscape that will provide a sense of how the writer paces changes in feelings. As you get more sophisticated, you may be able to see a more complex emotional landscape in work by writers you love and for your own work. This can help you develop a facility for pacing and transitions in emotions.
As a simpler guide, you might just focus on the three Ts of the emotional landscape — tangible, turns, and transitions.
Tangibles are objective elements that contribute to emotion. Setting (a dark and stormy night), images (a bloody knife), actions (a punch), and sensory experiences (the smell of gunpowder). Or, setting (a field of flowers), images (a Christmas tree), actions (a hug), and sensory experiences (the smell of cookies in the oven). Tangibles can be ironic. The field of poppies in The Wizard of Oz is a trap set by the Wicked Witch of the West.
Turns are usually power shifts. With every beat in a scene, a character gains or loses power (and often another character has the reverse fate). If your reader identifies with the character, success or failure will create feelings. Again, this can be ironic if the reader has knowledge that undercuts the character’s view.
Transitions usually show the character’s emotional responses shifting or getting more or less intense. There is a carefully wrought scene in Lord of the Rings where the hobbits are distressed and talking out their concerns with Gandalf calms them bit by bit until they mention something that jolts Gandalf. They (and readers) don’t even understand why he’s unsettled, but it creates an amazing sense of dread. If it shakes Gandalf, with all his power, what does it mean for a hobbit?
Of course, careful presentation of emotions is not enough. Readers must empathize with (if not like) the protagonist. For many writers, creating such characters comes naturally. Others need to do deep dives into descriptions (for themselves, with sampling for readers) and design scenes that signal readers (such as save-the-cat episodes).
And it is important throughout that attention is paid to clarity. As much as the literati love ambiguity, most readers need to quickly apprehend what’s going on, intentions, choices made, action taken, and consequences.
If the situation is unclear, it’s impossible to explore options for the character. If the intentions aren’t clear, readers can’t align themselves with character hopes and concerns (and occasionally think “oh, no!” as a character leans toward a decision that cannot turn out well).
Specific, well-understood character choices allow readers to anticipate what might happen, often looking forward to results or worrying about what might happen (two of the great experiences for readers). And readers should always be able to follow action without reading it twice so they can shadow the character moment by moment. The consequences, of course, provide both the story payoff and a powerful emotional moment.
One more thing. Pacing emotions is not the same for every audience. In general, love scenes are gradual and smooth. Moments are lingered on. On the other hand, a fight scene in a thriller tends to be fast-paces pivoting repeatedly between victory and failure. The emotional landscape for a drama like Ordinary People or Agnes of God will slip into deeper and deeper valleys. The effects linger. Guardians of the Galaxy never pierces the heart with low points, but it provides a fast-paced rollercoaster ride without losing emotional engagement. We need lots of different stories that give us powerful experiences. When you write yours, deliberately craft emotional landscapes that fit your intentions.