Emotion as Focal Point

img_0941.jpgWhen you write your next chapter, try something really different, plot the emotions of your viewpoint character. You’re probably centered on plot right now, or a spellbinding scene in your head? You’re pulling a new combination of quirks together for an interesting, round character with strong desires that contrast and clash with others.

I love that approach.

But here’s something to consider…

I’m reading Collin’s Hunger Games and scratching my head wondering what she might be doing to come up with that intense and continuous rotation of Katness through that broad array of emotions, every feeling integral to plot and scene. It’s as if the scenes and plot arise from the emotions. It seems impossible that the author came back to a dry scene and wedged in an extra expression of emotion here and there.

Collins is gifted. Maybe it all flows out of her at once, the characters, plot, scenes, dialogue and emotion. But if a lesser talent with little experience were trying to reach millions with a young adult novel, I would have to take one thing at a time. Zero in on emotions, letting everything else flow out from the feelings of the characters.

Instead of starting with plot or untested characters, I’d start with an emotion map. Everything would grow up and out from there.

Something like this:

“Viewpoint Character’s Emotions, Chapter 1 – Surprise, remorse, pride, self-loathing, love, regret, fear. Chapter 2 – Fear, relief, exhaustion, new hope, confidence, love, hate, sympathy, forgiveness, surprise, helplessness, desperation. Chapter 3 – Nostalgia, confinement, longing, loneliness, ray of hope, surprise, relief, fear, excitement, euphoria, exhaustion, love, loyalty, commitment.”

Can that even be done? I’ve never tried it, but I will. Probably a draft of my next chapter.

At the moment, I’ve already written characters, a plot that the characters ignore, scenes needing work and a paucity of emotion throughout.

This is my current process (long, tedious paragraph ahead, but well worth reading):

Johanna, my viewpoint, goes into an ancient submarine that was once a flying machine.  What are the emotions she would have in there?  She almost drowned on the way in, so she wakes up disoriented and confused with Max doing CPR on her.  It’s the closest she’s ever come to being kissed.  How does that feel? It’s new and powerful, but she pushes away.  Her mind is foggy and she’s coughing and catching glimpses of the inside of this strange vessel. This character has a curious, sharp mind. She would be analytic, excited by the novel technology as she figures out how things work. There’s a section of the control panel that the people who now run the sub don’t understand.  How would it make her feel? She’s overwhelmed by curiosity and fascination, and figures out a function that even the owners don’t know. This brings satisfaction and excitement. She would hide what she’s figured out, in case she needs it later. What do you call the emotion of hiding a secret? That’s what she will express in some way, maybe body language. She would be afraid that her kidnappers might not honor their word to leave her brother James out of the deal. She took Jame’s place to keep him safe. She would want reassurance from the kidnappers, a promise to keep their word. She would feel bold and want to threaten them if they touched her brother, but she would be afraid to bring up James name at all, for fear of drawing attention to him and getting the bad guy’s minds churning as to how they might still make use of her brother.  She would try to be hopeful that they’d forgotten about him. She’s smart and plans ahead, so she would try to get on the good side of the captors, getting them to like her, assuming that the two bad guys with her on the sub must be mere pawns in the hands of a powerful figure she’ll meet eventually. She would be afraid to meet that person.  She’s a good person so she would try not to hate the one behind the kidnapping, but it would be no use. She would plan her words for the meeting, plan threats, imagine a fight to the death. The crew would like Johanna, everyone in her past has at least respected her for her mind. The crew would speak fearfully to her of the mastermind behind the kidnapping (the Queen).  They would tell Johanna how to approach the Queen cautiously and appropriately to avoid any conflict. The Queen, they say, kills people on a whim these days. Something is wrong with her, they believe. Johanna would feel fear mixed with her anger and simmering hatred. Max, her friend, could have claustrophobia in the sub. That’s a specific and interesting feeling! Johanna would empathize and dream up a way to help him. Her ability to solve problems is almost legendary in her world of genetics, the world she’s left behind now. She would remember the place with a feeling of loss, separation anxiety and an intuitive knowledge that she will never see any of them again. What emotion would contrast with all the other I’ve got in the scene now? How about embarrassment?  OK, when Max was saving her from drowning, her legs were stuck in the coral. He pulled on her limp body so hard that he pulled her out of her jeans. When he was doing CPR on her, they wrapped a blanket around her. She’s still in that blanket. Now a while later she realizes she’s not wearing anything but her shirt. She’s embarrassed, having never been seen that way by a man before. What would she feel in addition to embarrassment? She’s going to be angry at Max for seeing her, but that is met by how grateful she is to him for saving her life.  And she’s starting to have new feelings for him, of a romantic nature. She could deny the romantic feeling, saying to herself that it’s just a normal sort of love you’d feel for any friend. Analyzing love would make her think of her brother, the person she loves more than anyone else, even herself. She would flash back on James, realizing that she will probably never see him again. She feels the loss, but even worse, she puts herself in Jame’s shoes and sees him calling her on the phone… endlessly, day after day, year after year. He would never stop. (He’s a teenager whose mind has made it to the high-functioning side of the autism spectrum.) He would only hear the lonesome indifferent ring of his phone. She sees James as an old man, sitting with his phone, calling her every evening to hear one more of the stories she would tell him every night. Johanna, sitting somewhere alone, breaks down and sobs.  Nobody sees her tears. She hides them, knowing they would make her look weak. Weak things are always attacked in the real world, she would say to herself.”

Anyway, that’s a peek into my inner process, as it stands now.

So far, this process is at least giving me the enthusiasm to write instead of checking email.  (Looking back at this article from a later point in time, I should add that this focus on emotion has improved the page-turning quality of my story, in my humble and yet infallible opinion.)

Below is a list of some available human emotions. I will use it to get past the narrow range of emotions I seem to wear out:  fear, hate, love, anger, tooth extraction.  If my emotion map idea becomes a breakthrough for me, I’ll let you know.

Here’s that emotion list, not grammatically consistent or properly spaced. I’m sorry…

fear                                 calm, exuberant, robust, buoyant, faith, trust, love

greed                               generosity

helplessness                    confidence, Self-reliance

sadness                           joy

anger                                affection, not particularly perturbed, calm

feeling entitled                   thankfulness, feeling unworthy

dissatisfaction                   satisfaction

hunger                               feeling stuffed, satiated, full, nauseated at the thought of food

feeling afraid, chicken          confident, unafraid, brave, bold, courageous

boredom                             surprised, interested, excited, overstimulated, overworked, at wit’s end

feeling alone                        feeling that you belong, feeling like a family, befriended, in love

hopelessness                      hope, sensing a glimmer of what’s possible, determined

ashamed                             proud, bloated in ego, full of yourself, arrogant, unabashed, undaunted

remorseful                            impenitent, without pity, without regret

sorrow                                 rejoicing

regretful                               justified, feeling no regrets

embarrassed                        comforted, gladdened, unrattled, unflapped, undaunted, unruffled

self-conscious                     uninhibited, unaware of himself, self-assured, mater-of-fact, open, secure

hostile                                friendly, forgiving, cool-headed

abashed                               unabashed, blatantly flaunting it

chagrined                             unabashed, not disappointed

proud, grandiose                   humble, meek, lowly, a commoner, average, sub-par, self-effacing

disconcerted                        unconcerned, comfortable with, not worried about

worried, anxious                   confident, courageous, on Prozac, ambivalent

eager, anxious to go            dreading it, bored, wishing to stay

disconnected                       in touch with reality, feeling with it, belonging, having a purpose, motivated

rattled                                 confident, composed, poised, unaffected, unmoved, unruffled

unmovable                           moved to tears, convinced, talked into it, converted, persuadable, naive

undecided           convicted, convinced, persuaded, unconfused, brainwashed, not baffled, not perplexed

indecision                    decisiveness, confident leadership, conviction, mind already made up

fazed                                   unfazed, untouched, teflon, clueless, unmoved

unfocused                           in the zone, alert, bright-eyed, awake, wired, tweaked

mortified                              unmoved, no empathy, unsympathetic, insensitive, pitiless, callous,                   unconcerned, indifferent, too narcissistic to care

miffed                                  tickled, happy, pleased

distress                               holding up, stoic, gallant, bold

disgusted                            unaffected by, tolerant of, accepting, able to ignore it, accustomed to it,

humiliation                          feeling exonerated, honor, arrogance, self-righteousness, superciliousness

shamelessness                   guilt, self-depreciation,

shame                                pride

skeptical                             impressionable, brain-washable, unscientific, naive, not jaded, non-analytic, inexperienced

guilt                                    apathy, self-justification, blamelessness, pride, smugness

uncertainty                       conviction, assured, convinced, surety, oriented, doubtless

doubt                                 certainty, grounded in faith, healthy doubt, doubtless,

insecurity                           self-assurance, self-confidence, lacking normal insecurity, lacks self-doubt

hate                                     love, indifference

indifference                        love, hate

despondent                       rejoicing, overjoyed, no longer depressed, exuberant, buoyant

discouraged                      determined, never-say-die mindset, encouraged, hopeful

cornered                          unconfined, free, not jailed, able to escape, in pursuit, in the open

I think it will be valuable to have a list of emotions beside me, keeping subtle differences and broad contrasts in the front of my quark-sized mind as I write.  Not for the sake of finding better words, but for the sake of drawing rounder characters and more gripping plots.

Subtle differences matter to my characters, but for most readers, contrast means more.

My old voice teacher used to shout, “All sunshine and no shadow is boring, M.!” He was talking about tone quality, brightness and darkness. Without one, you can’t appreciate the other because anything you hear for a long time becomes background, resetting the norm for that listener for that moment.

It’s the same deal with emotions and the characters and readers who feel them.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Note:  If character emotion interests you, you might check out my article (above), “Valuable Procrastination.” It’s an update, I guess.

2 thoughts on “Emotion as Focal Point

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