Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Emotional Structure in Your Novel

I'm a huge fan of novel structure. I believe that using structure doesn't make your story formulaic, it strengthens its core so that your story can carry an awesome premise to its fullest expression. Structure is the steel beam that you never see in your house, without which it would cave in on your head. Necessary. Invisible. Allows things like skyscrapers (bestsellers) to exist.

I keep a beat sheet at the ready, revising it often as I write, and track my adherence to the form using a beat sheet excel spreadsheet. But it wasn't until I read Peter Dunne's book Emotional Structure that I realized the character arc of a story has a similar underlying structure that holds up the story and makes it shine.

Some people know what their story is before they start writing. I'm not one of those people - in spite of being a hyper-plotter and structure-lover, the emotional evolution of my characters is something I know intuitively, but have a hard time expressing in words until I'm a draft or two into the novel. So I often revise to get the plot to follow the emotional arc, as I come to understand it. In my just-completed novel Closed Hearts, I understood the emotional arc of my character fairly well before the first draft - partly because it was heavily outlined and partly because it was the second book in a trilogy: I knew a LOT about where my MC had come from and where she was going. Yet, I still found myself going over her emotional arc again, even in the final draft, revising and rewriting to sharpen and strengthen her emotional journey.

But how do you do that exactly?

Dunne lays it out (in a somewhat meandering fashion) in his book Emotional Structure, and I encourage you to read it. But here's my Emotional Beat Sheet to get you started (note that when I say "dangerous" and "survival" this can be in the literal physical sense but also the emotional/spiritual sense):

Emotional Beat Sheet

THE OLD WORLD - Hero has survived by using practical ways to avoid pain (aka the Set Up in Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet)

This is our hero’s emotional starting state. He gets by in his day-to-day life, pretending to be someone else, covering old wounds, using skills carefully honed to deal with the troubles in his life. It’s working (sort of) and given his druthers, our hero would stay in this state. Of course, that can’t happen (or there would be no story). Sometimes there will be a “sigh moment” that signals how pitiful and unfulfilling this life is, so the reader knows: this cannot remain as is, because it is a death-of-the-soul. But the hero is determined to stay here, because it works for them.


PLOT HAPPENS: Something occurs that so that her defenses don’t work very well and she’s forced on a new path in order to survive long enough to get back to normal (aka the Inciting Incident)
The hero’s world is upset in some dramatic way so that her old way of operating in the world doesn’t help - in fact, using those old coping techniques may actually get her killed (or lose her job, or lose her boyfriend). Our hero scrambles to react to the new circumstances - just temporarily - because she's just sure if she fixes this one little problem, everything will go back to “normal” again.


IT GETS WORSE: Something happens that pushes her completely out of her old world (may be the shift into Act II, where our hero enters a “new world” of the story)
Now our hero's normal tools for survival aren’t working at all. Her emotional walls start to crack and her weaknesses are exposed (maybe weaknesses she wasn’t even aware of). She starts to question those old ways of dealing with the world, because they’re not working at all in this new world. The new world is strange and dangerous (to her emotionally) and she realizes that getting back to “normal” is going to be a lot tougher than she thought. She’s moved fully into this “new world” that requires new skills to cope.


LEAP OF FAITH: Things get so bad that her old habits become useless. She must be brave, take a leap of faith into the unknown (maybe the All is Lost or Dark Night of the Soul beat or possibly the Midpoint; this leap of faith is the emotional pivot point of the story)
Our hero has run out of old ways of dealing with the world. He’s tried and failed. He's beaten down by the plot (which doesn’t exist to beat our hero, but to force him to change). He finally is forced to take that leap of faith. To change. Because in his moment of vulnerability, he finds that he can learn, he can change, he can reach down into the depths and find that thing (that piece of the divine) that will allow him to move forward and triumph. In reaching deep inside, he will learn the secret history of his past - the thing that caused him to build up those defensive habits in the first place. He has to face those demons to move past them. The plot serves to force this to happen, to connect this moment to his physical survival.


THE NEW YOU: After the MC takes the leap of faith, he has to use these new emotional tools to solve his problems. He may be clumsy and frustrated at first, but he has to use them in order to survive (maybe break into Act III).
Our hero isn’t going to be super awesome with these new emotional tools right out of the gate. He may have figured out that he has to change, but may not know exactly how to make that work. He will try, again and again, through action and decisions, until we get to the climax of the story, where his use of these new tools will ultimately be critical to his survival.


If you line up this progression with your story, you may find spots where your emotional arc could use some propping up. This emotional progression may (or may not) line up with the Beat Sheet PLOT POINTS that I've mentioned above. The plot and emotional arc are interwoven, but the emotional arc is primary - the plot exists to force the character through their emotional journey.

My favorite quote from Dunne (paraphrased): The life-threatening plot doesn't exist to kill your character, but to reveal her.

In other words, the gun isn't there to kill your character, just to motivate them to change.

(Aren't we authors mean?)

19 comments:

  1. Great post, Susan! You've reminded me why I loved the book. :D

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    1. I was hoping you might stop by! (For those watching from home, Stina pointed me to Dunne's book well over a year ago now!)

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  2. Wow, those are great helps, Susan. I'm printing them out and bringing them to our writers' group today! I also added Emotional Structure to my writing book list. Thanks!

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    1. Yay! I'm glad it helped - and thanks for sharing!

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  3. Ooh, this makes a lovely check sheet! Thanks!

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    1. You are most welcome! Thank you for stopping by!

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  4. Awesome checklist! I've been compiling one for myself for my new wip, but I haven't really thought much about the Hero's Journey.

    Thanks, Susan!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! I hope it helps!

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  5. Sue, this is fantastic! Thank you so much. I'm going to pin this up on my tack board and use it.

    I love what you have to say about standard plot structure. I used to try to avoid it because I didn't want to create predictable stories. But no one wants their house to fall down on top of them because someone got creative with the foundation.

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    1. Thanks! I'm honored to be on your tack board! And yes, if you get creative with the foundation, it had better be an improvement, not just "it's too difficult to make this work."

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  6. Who needs a motivating carrot when you already have a gun?

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  7. Great way to describe the hero's physical and emotional journey.

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  8. I've been wanting to read this book. I've always seen the connection between between the character arc and the plot structure. To me they are inseparable but this books seems like it might help cement things and reveal more!

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  9. I have got to get this book. I can really see it adding more silk steel (grin) to my book. I also just read your stats for Open Minds and Closed Minds, that was fun - more words involved in the research than the actual writing, wow! Can't wait to see what your third book title will be. Free Minds?????

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  10. Wow, very interesting post. I love using Blake Snyder's beat sheet and other screenwriting books in improving my novel writing, so I can't wait to read this. Thanks!

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  11. Thanks, Susan, for all you've said and suggested. I'm working on a follow-up book on Emotional Structure for Novel and Memoir based on my workshops in that area. And I will definitely try not to "meander" so much. Thanks again. Peter Dunne

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    1. Eep! Caught out by the internet again. :) I've been recommending your book far and wide, and have a friend who purchased just recently, so in spite of my meandering comments, please know how valuable I found your guidance to be. And I'm so pleased to see you have a follow-up book coming! I will put it on my "to look for" list when it comes out. Thanks so much for stopping by! :)

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