My current manuscript in first person, so the reader hears everything the protagonist thinks. Yet, as I’m revising the pages, I notice a recurring trend in my writing. Each time my protagonist runs into a complication, she thinks ‘Crap.’ That word is simply a placeholder for the missing emotional response. I need to figure that out, or my manuscript will be littered with crap.
Most writers are familiar with the graph showing the plot and the climax.
This always confused me. I wasn’t sure why the graph never dipped below the horizontal axis. And not knowing what the labels on the vertical axis (to indicate why we’re shifting up and down) seemed almost random. I’m a mathematical guy, so I like to see why the graph moves up and down.
Now, a graph like this does make sense when I think about a character’s emotional response and how frustrated she is throughout the story. So the plot of my current novel looks more like this:
She starts out miserable, but partway through, a turn of evens makes her intensely happy. This is followed by the worse moment in the book. The seesawing of her emotions creates tension the reader can relate to. We’ve all woken up feeling stellar only to have reality throw us a nasty curve ball. This isn’t contrived fiction, it plays off the character’s reactions to the situations.
This underscores the four key elements to building a good emotionally reactive scene.
- Break Through
These seem simple enough, but if used consistently, they can drive your character to react rather than be a passive onlooker.
Your protagonist needs to want something—an inner desire or need that compels him or her to get out and do something. The goal should tap into the character’s passion.
Weak goal: I want to buy a soda.
Really? Who cares.
Strong goal: I want to avoid being bullied today.
That’s something readers can sink their teeth into.
Some writers use conflict or obstacle here. I like complication because this can be anything from an outside force (the bully) or an internal struggle (the protagonist is the bully’s best friend). Whatever the situation, the complication must stop the protagonist from reaching the goal.
Here’s an example I use when teaching my sixth graders about writing.
Boy meets girl. Boy asks girl out. Girl says yes.
There’s no tension because the goal (asking the girl out) was achieved too quickly.
Boy meets girl. Boy asks girl out. Girl says no.
This has tension because the girl stands as an obstacle. Now the boy could give up (in which case we don’t have a story) or he can press on, making this obstacle a complication on his way to a solution.
Now we get to the meat of it. Our protagonist must react emotionally to the complication. If your character’s not feeling frustration at this point, then look back at her goal. Is it strong enough? Or perhaps the complication is too trivial. Amp these up, and when they slam together, you will have one frustrated character.
Think about most action movies you’ve seen. These flicks rely on external plot points to keep the story moving. Very little is done to flesh out the character. How many times have you see the hero react to a complication (like a gunfight or bomb) with a cool head? That puts him more in the mythical Chuck Norris category. Real people pee their pants, cringe, almost lose it.
This is the epiphany. The moment when our protagonist finds a way around the complication or a method to defeat the foe that stands in the way of his or her goal. Now a true character will also grow and become stronger from this ordeal. Thus the break through has two sides. On the one, your character solves the problem and moves on. But on the other, she discovers a little more about herself and this leads her along the character arc to her final destination at the end of the story.
So even though you might complicate and frustrate your protagonist at every turn, it’s not enough. Every writer throws obstacles at his or her protagonist, but the key is all about emotional response. How will the character deal with life’s complications? Scream in fury? Curl up into a ball and whimper? Run away from the problem? You must show his or her reaction to make the reader buy in to the story. Only then will the tension feel real.