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How to structure emotion in stories

Structuring emotion in Othello.
The structure emotion in Othello.

This article explores how to structure emotion in stories.

I recently talked about how to avoid interrupting the creative impulse resulting from excessive preparation of a novel or screenplay. (To view, click here).

I suggested that for some writers knowing the protagonist’s obsessive desires is enough to get us writing.

Here is Lajos Egri on the subject:

Egri states that it isn’t enough to identify a desire in the protagonist. We need to uncover its underlying causes too: Is Othello’s action driven by jealousy? If so, we need to know that before jealousy there is suspicion; before suspicion there is antagonism—a primary motivator of hate; before antagonism there is disappointment.

“Learn how to structure emotion in stories as a precursor to writing success.”

Identifying the underlying emotions that drive our characters will help us propel them through the story. Strong ambition, for example, implies the need for fame, wealth, power. But all of these might stem from a suppressed but potent sense of insecurity. In constructing that particular sort of character, then, the writer knows that she has to include scenes which explore these emotions.

In my YA novel, The Land Below, Nugget’s hatred for Paulie, the story’s protagonist, arises from jealousy. Anthea, the girl he loves, seems to like Paulie, a mere labourer, more than him. Being a Senator’s son, Nugget believes he is the superior choice. Her preference for Paulie, undermines his fragile confidence in himself. 

Additionally, he fears that his failure to procure Anthea will diminish him in the eyes of his father, whose success is difficult to emulate. Coming up with a plan to defeat Paulie, therefore, stems from his jealousy, which in turn, springs from his insecurity.

In brief, then, exploring the chain of emotions that results in a character’s obsessive desire, is a useful spur to the writing process.

Summary

To properly structure emotion first understand the chain of emotions that lie behind your protagonist’s desire to achieve some tangible goal.

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Inner and outer motivation in stories

Sarah Connor: Inner and outer motivation in The Terminator.
Sarah Connor: Inner and outer motivation in The Terminator.

What is the difference between inner and outer motivation? Merriam-Webster defines motivation as:

1a: the act or process of motivating. b: the condition of being motivated.

2: a motivating force, stimulus, or influenceINCENTIVE, DRIVE.

Typically, the hero’s inner motivation springs from his or her mental life – values, needs, background. These elements, in turn, guide the physical actions that arise in response to some outer challenge or opportunity, in other words, the outer motivation.

Importantly, it is the outer goal that first catches a reader’s or audience’s attention, ordering the events of the story in a visceral way—as in a story about a man who uses his superpowers to try and save the world. Any inner persuasion lies beneath the surface of the tale and is revealed as the story progresses. The outer motivation, then, is the initial cause that starts the hero down a certain path.

Inner motivation, however, is important because it helps to keep the hero’s physical actions to that path. Together, outer and inner motivation form an integrated unit – the description of the event-driven action and its justification.

“The combination of inner and outer motivation serves to explain character action reaching for an external goal.”

The Terminator, for example, is about a waitress who wants to prevent a time-traveling cyborg from murdering her. That is her outer goal. But her ability to do so needs to be grounded in her traits of resilience and determination.

Ghostbusters is about a fired university researcher, and his team, who wants to make cash by ridding clients of ghosts. Acumen in the paranormal field and the need to survive in a harsh real-world environment outside the university result in the creation of a ghost-busting business.

In Breaking Bad Walter White’s desire to provide for his family in light of his seemingly fatal illness, drives him to cook meth. But as the story progresses we realise that he is increasingly propelled by a desire to regain the power and reputation he lost when he sold his share of his company years previously, for a pittance. In one telling moment of hubris, he demands of a dangerous drug distributor, “Say my name!” 

The hero’s inner and outer motivation, respectively, then, can be understood as his physical pursuit of the goal, guided by the reasons that drive him.

Summary

Inner and outer motivation explain why the hero physically responds to some external challenge or opportunity in the way that he or she does.

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The evolution of story

Inception is an example of a closed multiform narrative that points to the evolution of story.
Inception is an example of a closed multiform narrative that points to the evolution of story.

In life as in culture evolution is inevitable.

In his book The Screenwriter’s Workbook screenwriting guru Syd Field wrote this about the screenplay: […] I think we’re in the middle of a screenwriting revolution, a time where screenwriters are pushing the form in new directions.” 

My PhD thesis, Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema, traces the impact of digital media on the story-telling form. I suggest that since stories are structured to reflect our experiences their form is likely to change when our experience of the world changes. 

The increasing non-linearity of life, reflected in the web environment in which we spend so much time, must influence our understanding of action – even of time and space. 

Context, and our interpretation of it, which rests on our understanding of how time and space structures experience, has to shift under such pervasive and persistent pressure.

“As we evolve so must the stories we tell. Nothing reflects this evolution as much as the change in structure—from linear into non-linear story telling.”

This may explain the popularity of films such as The English Patient, Cold Mountain, 2046, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Donnie Darko, Inception, and many others.

These films muddle our understanding of linearity, of cause and effect. They rearrange past, present and future, making the status of what is real problematic. The idea is to reflect, at the level of structure, the bewildering complexity and multiplicity of contemporary life.

The danger in tinkering with the traditional form defined by Aristotle as a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end, however, is that the emotional impact on the reader is lessened. Stories that fail to evoke strong emotions through character action and consequence fall flat. Inception works as a film because it innovates form while placing the characters in life-threatening situations within the story.

Authors and screenwriters who choose to use evolving, non-linear forms, then, ought to ensure that their characters continue to evoke powerful emotion such as passion, sadness, joy, disdain—the strength of traditional story-telling. 

An evolving form and structure, then, should never dazzle us at the cost of lessening the emotional impact of our characters. Not if we want our audiences and readers to care about them.

Summary

The evolution of story form should not get in the way of characters who engage readers and audiences through emotion.

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Understanding Layered Conflict in Stories

Fight Club contains many examples of layered conflict.
Fight Club contains many examples of layered conflict.

Conflict, especially layered conflict, is the driving force behind every story. It supports narrative cause and effect and provides fuel for the tale. Conflict arises from forces that oppose each other and operates on multiple levels. Here are three types of conflict: external, internal, and mixed.

External conflict is typically represented through protagonist/antagonist interaction, but it can also take the form of environmental opposition such as a threat presented by a volcano, or a cyclone. 

Internal conflict pits the protagonist against himself, in effect, turning him into the story’s antagonist — as in Fight Club where the conflict is between the character’s wishes, goals and desires, and between defining traits). 

Mixed conflict is the most common form. Here the protagonist is confronted by a mixture of inner and outer obstacles. 

One of my favourite films, The Matrix, is a great example of how conflict plays out across the layers. At an internal level, the protagonist, Neo experiences conflict between his belief that his current existence is real, and his growing conviction that the world as he knows it is an illusion. It is only when he comes to accept that he is The One that he is able to resolve his inner conflict and defeat the antagonist, agent Smith, and the machines, which have enslaved humanity. Neo’s struggle to attain the story goal, then, is pitted against a multilayered conflict.

Summary

Layered conflict is the fuel that powers your story. The layers can be described as external, internal, and mixed.

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How symbolic ascension makes your story universal

A story replete with symbolic ascension!

What is symbolic ascension?

Every great story is both particular and universal. Being rooted in a local context paradoxically allows the story to reach beyond its social and cultural boundaries. In his book, Story, Robert Mckee refers to the process by which a story becomes universal as symbolic ascension

Like the images in our dreams, symbols permeate our unconscious mind. They deepen our experience of a story in ways that are not at once apparent. 

If rendered crudely, we immediately recognise these images as mechanical devices, destroying their effect. Slipped in skillfully and surreptitiously, however, they move us profoundly. 

Symbolic ascension works in this way: At a first encounter the setting, events and specific actions of characters represent only themselves – they are denotative or literal in meaning. But as the story progresses they acquire greater significance. They acquire connotative or figurative meaning. By the end of the story these very same settings, incidents and actions come to stand for universal ideas.

“Symbolic ascension is the process in which actions, events, settings and objects are transformed into universal symbols through repetition and association.”

In The Deer Hunter, the protagonist, Michael (Robert De Niro) progresses from a beer-drinking factory worker to a worrier—the hunter of the film’s title. A man who kills. 

But the film shows that if you keep killing you eventually will turn the gun on yourself—as does Nick (Christopher Walken). 

Nick’s death precipitates a crisis in Michael. Armed, and in camouflage, he ascends to a mountain top where he spots a magnificent elk emerging from the surrounding mist. The setting resonates with significance harking back to Moses receiving the transformative knowledge of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

The action (the ascension), and the setting (the mountain), are symbolically significant. But they are also literal events. It is this spontaneous duality that gives the story its enduring power.

Summary

Symbolic ascension is the process by which seemingly ordinary and specific settings, actions and events acquire universal meaning.

Catch my latest YouTube video on managing dramatic beats through scene sequencing by clicking on this link!

Symbols – how they operate in stories

The power of symbols is clearly in evidence in Shutter Island
The power of symbols is evident in Shutter Island.

Symbols are narrative objects that have significance over and above their denotative presence in a story.

They manifest as audio-visual images, which recur throughout the story. Each iteration is an echo of a previous instance, reinforcing the main concerns and themes of your tale. These images function in two ways—they are part of the actual “physical” world of your story (denotative), but they are also reflections, or symbols, of your story’s interior concerns—the inner landscape (connotative).

In Shutter Island, symbols add resonance and depth to the story by utilising images of water, the sea, and wind, whipped up into a hurricane, which is closing in on the island housing a mental hospital. The hurricane is an important plot element that ups the ante as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) races to conclude his investigation of the disappearance of a mental patient, who he suspects is hiding on the island, before the storm hits.

“Symbols are representations of elements that have significance beyond their denotative aspect.”

Aggravating the frenetic search for the patient is Daniels’s own deteriorating mental condition, as images of his past life as a soldier, then as a husband and father, flash before him, adding to his overall instability and confusion. The image of the hurricane, therefore, is more than a major plot element. It is also a symbol of his inner landscape, a warning of the potentially tempestuous and uncontrollable behaviour that smoulders in all of us.

In the film, The Piano, images of water, the sea, and mud are deeply embedded into every aspect of the story—they are a part of the setting, which sets the tone and mood of the tale. But these images, drawing on basic psychological analysis, also connote the sexual and emotional tension of the characters, becoming stronger each time we encounter them. The piano perfectly captures the two-fold function of imagery. The instrument is as much a vehicle for the plot, as it is a substitute for Ada McGrath’s (Holly Hunter) lost voice and suppressed passion.

Summary

Symbols are images in narrative that point to a significance beyond their denotative aspect.

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The Power of Dilemma in Stories

The power of dilemma is in full display in Dona Flor and her Two Husbands.

Wherein lies the power of dilemma in stories? What makes for the best dramatic conflict? The two questions are related.


In his seminal book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that the choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is not a choice at all. It might generate conflict at the level of the plot between the protagonist and his world, but this conflict is two dimensional.

Conflict Through Dilemma

McKee illustrates the point by asserting that Attila the Hun would never be conflicted about invading, murdering, plundering. It is, after all, why he led his armies across two continents. He has no choice but to act in the way he does. It is only in the eyes of his victims that he is seen as evil.

In order to generate conflict within the character, as well as between him and those who oppose him – to make the conflict three dimensional – the character must experience a dilemma.

In the supernatural romance, Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, Dona faces a choice between a new husband who’s warm, secure, faithful but dull, and her old one who’s exciting, sexy, but dead – although he appears to her in the flesh and as insatiable as ever. She is caught between choosing a boringly safe life versus a mad, macabre, but emotionally exciting one.

“The power of dilemma is most evident at the turning points of a story.”

In my bestselling first novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, has to choose between two conflicting scenarios. In a world that has been reset to eliminate the death of the woman he loves, he can declare his love for her once more, but risk the possibility, no matter how remote, of recycling the events that led to her death. Or he can keep his feelings for her a secret and eliminate the risk. His uncertainty makes his choice a hard one, since there is no evidence to suggest that telling her he loves her would endanger her life at all. That is the nature of a dilemma – no clear choice.

Placing your protagonist in a dilemma, then, is a powerful technique that not only drives the plot forward, but makes the character’s actions unpredictable and engrossing.

Summary

The power of dilemma escalates the tensions within your protagonist and the other characters, making the story more gripping.

To watch my latest YouTube video on High Concept click on this link.

How to come up with winning story ideas

Red Corner is based on a gripping story idea which feeds off the dangers present in communist red China in the 1990’s.

How do you come up with winning story ideas?


In the absence of hindsight, use High Concept:

1. Set your story in a unique or challenging environment such as communist China, (Red Corner).

2. Ensure that your story ideas contain high stakes. This sets the stage for a big story – Air Force One where POTUS is held hostage on his plane, or 12 Monkeys in which a virus threatens to wipe out humanity.

3. Choose the correct protagonist: Liar, Liar (a lawyer who has to tell the truth for a whole day).

4. Pick a fresh and powerful dilemmaJohn Q (a father takes the hospital hostage demanding they perform a heart transplant on his dying son).

5. Select a unique strategy for your protagonist to pursueMemento: A man who can only remember a few minutes at a time tries to track down his wife’s killer by tattooing his body with key words and instructions.

“Winning story ideas benefit by drawing on High Concept.”

Of course, success depends on your getting many other factors right too, but using these suggestions will increase the commercial potential of your story.

I used some of my own advice in my first novel, Scarab, which grabbed the number one bestsellers spot on Amazon.com and amazon.co.uk in its genre of hard science-fiction upon its release. Here’s the core idea:

“Buried in a hidden chamber beneath the great Sphinx of Giza, lies the most potent secret in history. Older than the pyramids, older than Atlantis, it has the ability to change the world. Powerful men will do anything to possess it. There is just one thing standing in their way – the living Sphinx itself.”

The concept formed the basis for an intriguing story, as indicated by the book sales.

Summary

Use High Concept to generate winning story ideas with high commercial potential.

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The moral of the story – how it drives the tale

Breaking Bad’s Walter White is the embodiment of the moral premise: Crime leads to ultimate loss.
Breaking Bad’s Walter White is the embodiment of the moral of the story: Crime leads to ultimate loss.

A story is the result of a central idea, the moral of the story, that has been turned into powerful and visible action and projected on the page or screen.

The story’s events arise out of a mixture of character action motivated by outer challenges. It is the means by which the writer first expresses, then probes an idea.

Another way to put it is that character action must be driven by a moral premise – a guiding principle that traces the consequences of the action of characters in the story, as they try to achieve their goal. We can also think of this as the theme of the story. 

Think about the crime genre. What idea, or moral premise lies at the core of genre? How about: Crime does not pay?

But how does the writer embed this theme? Hopefully not through trite, on-the-nose dialogue, such as:

“You see, Frankie, my boy? It’s as I always said. Crime does not pay!”

This is too direct.

Rather, show a character committing a crime, then expose the character to the consequences of her actions.

“Every tale needs a clearly defined moral of the story to drive it. Its absence leaves the story rudderless.”

The television series, Breaking Bad is an example of powerful storytelling that exposes how the crime of manufacturing meth, pushes those involved to lie, betray and murder.

Additionally, great storytelling explores the theme or moral idea from differing perspectives. The protagonist represents one perspective. The antagonist another. The supporting cast of characters still more. The author’s judgment, arguably the defining perspective, is revealed only at the end of the story when the theme is proven – when the protagonist, representing a specific moral view, wins or loses the fight with the antagonist.

In The Land Below, for example, the judgement of whether Paulie’s decision to leave his apparently safe existence in a converted underground mine to reach the surface, can only be established at the end of the story. 

If things go well for Paulie and his followers, then the theme of the story might be: Courage, imagination and steadfastness lead to freedom. If things go badly, then the theme might be: daydreams and stubbornness lead to defeat. 

As with all stories, the outcome can only be established at the end of the story. It is only then that the reader or audience can understand what the story is really about.

Summary

Narrative events describing character action in pursuit of a goal culminate in yielding the moral of the story.

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The Sympathetic Protagonist

Othello is a sympathetic but flawed protagonist.

An important requirement in writing is that we deploy a sympathetic protagonist in our story, since the protagonist is the character through whom we experience the tale. 

This does not mean that our protagonist has no weaknesses in his or her character. Indeed, character flaws are what make for a strong character arc – the movement from ignorance to self-awareness, from wrongful to rightful action that drive the story.

But, creating a sympathetic protagonist has become more and more challenging. For who, after all, are our real-life models? Scandals involving politicians, military and religious leaders have eroded our trust in those exemplars.

The result has been the rise of the anti-hero, or, at least, a deeply flawed protagonist who routinely breaks the law and is not redeemed by a positively-trending character arc. 

“A sympathetic protagonist is at the center of readable and watchable stories.”

The notion of a flawed protagonist, as mentioned above, is not new. The great stories of the past are strewn with them – MacbethOthelloHamlet. These tragic protagonists are often redeemed only by their death. But the surge in popularity of flawed heroes in recent times, is noteworthy.

DexterBreaking Bad‘s Walter White, and Ray Donovan are but a few of the protagonists who routinely murder and rob to keep themselves, their businesses, and families safe. 

And yet, we like them enough to drive these shows to the top of the charts. How have the writers of these deeply flawed characters achieved this? Here are some suggestions.

1. The protagonist finds himself/herself in a situation of undeserved misfortune: 

Breaking Bad’s Walter White, for example, is a brilliant chemist who is trapped in a low paying teaching job. To make matters worse he learns he has cancer that requires medical treatment he can’t afford. We cannot help but feel sympathy for his plight. Even when he begins cooking meth to pay for his bills.

2. The law-breaking protagonist is smarter than the law-breakers around him:

Dexter is driven by a pathological need to rid society of serial killers – despite the fact that he himself is one. His father taught him how to kill and he has gotten very good at it. We can’t help rooting for him as he keeps outsmarting both the police and his criminal victims.

3. The protagonist acts for a cause other than his own: 

Ray Donavan lies, conceals, and gets rid of other people’s problems. He often breaks the law to do this. Additionally, he places himself in peril in order to protect his brothers, his wife, his children. We cannot help but admire his loyalty and commitment.

Summary

Understanding how these characteristics operate in deeply flawed protagonists, then, helps to soften our critique of them.

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