Emotions in Structure

I’ve posted about emotions before.  They’re important to anything you write, whether essay, story, or Post-It note.  The emotions make it real for the reader, more than anything else in the narrative.  Emotions from scene to scene have to contrast, the emotions for different sentences have to feel real, everything has to work together.

What I didn’t truly realize until yesterday, when I was watching The Dark Knight Rises, was the importance of emotions in story structure.

What is a low point, after all?  It’s the low point– the place where every good character is in the worst place they could be.  They thought they planned this thing out, but now everything’s gone pear-shaped.  The love interest has a gun to her head, the main character is in the dungeon, and the side characters are off chasing shadows trying to save everyone.  With a tiny push, the antagonist can prevail.

Another question: is this the time for the main character to quote Dora?  “We can do it!”  Is it time for him to laugh confidently and say, “Ah, we’ll figure it out.”  Is it time for him to be confident at all?

The correct answer would be no.  Everything has gone haywire.  Does that mean anything to him?  If he’s emotionally involved in his own quest, it should.  Victory has left the building, taking with it his hopes and dreams– if anything, he should be pounding the walls in despair while the love interest is begging for her life, with the side characters realizing they had it all wrong and running back the other direction in a panic.  This is the time for all the negative emotions and doubts everyone has had since the beginning to come flooding out.

That’s the point at which we have the dynamic character sit the main character down and complete his character development.  That’s the time when the side character– notice, not the main character– gives a pep talk that rouses them him out of his funk.  It’s time to beat this villain once and for all.

If this is so, why, in The Dark Knight Rises, did they have Bruce Wayne’s emotional low point at the midpoint?  At the actual low point, they went to a thriller default and put everyone in mortal danger, but they had already decided they were going to win no matter what.  There was a low point, but it was far from emotional.

The reason was they wanted his turnaround from reaction to action.  The only way to do that was to do his emotional resolution there instead of at the end.  But that’s a foolish solution, and it left the low point lacking and, well, short.  That’s the thing when everyone’s suddenly in mortal danger– it’s sudden, and it’s short.  The emotions provide time as they wallow in their despair, increasing the suspense.  Without the emotions, it just seems too easy.

That’s the thing about heist low points, I think.  When it appears that all is lost, you can feel everyone’s disappointment.  It isn’t enough that if they fail they’ll go to jail for the rest of their lives; they’re invested in this emotionally.  To fail in such a carefully planned endeavor is devastating.

Of course, when it’s an action movie slug-fest like Batman, the plan matters less to the characters because, well, there was no plan.  But when punching everyone in sight isn’t working, something has to give way inside the main character, whether they’re dressed up as a bat or not.

Now, this doesn’t mean main characters should be sore losers.  Just because they got beat up by the villain doesn’t mean they should throw a fit.  The emotions must be real.  Whatever the quest, there has to be a reason the main character will want to win, and when it seems impossible, he will break down.  But breaking down doesn’t necessarily mean being a sore loser.  If the game was never fair to begin with, however, it might be okay to let your main character yell at the villain for cheating.  As long as it gets the emotions through clearly and realistically.

The low point has to be impacting, monumental.  Nothing is impacting without the emotions.

Now, as I said, The Dark Knight Rises put Bruce Wayne’s emotional low point at the midpoint.  It shouldn’t have happened, but emotional tension at the midpoint is a more common occurrence than you might expect.  After all, what is the midpoint?  The change from reaction to action, from asking questions to answering them, the point of no return.  The midpoint is as monumental as the low point.  And what is monumental without emotions?

Just before the midpoint, the questions are piling up.  No one has the answers, but the questions keep coming.  Obviously, this would be a little disheartening.  Not only that, but the main character has been reacting this whole time– he’s probably getting restless.  That’s an emotion too.  Furthermore, he’s still thinking about going back home and forgetting about the quest– but once he makes his decision, there’s no going back.  That’s indecision.

All these emotions make for a midpoint that looks a lot like an emotional low point.  The story, however, isn’t ready for its low point yet, so these emotions are quickly defeated as questions begin to be answered, actions begin to be taken, and everything begins to rest on the success of the quest.  The emotions are defeated– but not destroyed.

All the emotions that hit at the midpoint will come back later at the low point.  The indecision will hit harder as shame; the main character did the wrong thing.  The disheartening thoughts will come back– he still doesn’t know enough to defeat his enemy.  The restlessness, too, will turn into self-reproach, making him wonder whether he was too eager to run into this fight.  (These are all just examples.  I wouldn’t expect anyone to copy these emotions blow for blow.)

The midpoint, then, is a little skirmish between the main character and his emotions.  He puts them behind him and marches on, but they all come flooding back at the low point.  The latter is what The Dark Knight Rises did not do.

You don’t have to make a list of the emotions that show up at the midpoint and then copy them for the low point.  It was merely for example.  However, it is good to have in mind the emotional impact of both the low point and the midpoint.  If there is none, the resolution will seem less amazing and the story less emotional.


19 thoughts on “Emotions in Structure

  1. Huh. So, question: when you get to the low point and this is the time when the dynamic character encourages the MC to keep fighting, how does one do this with out making it cheesy?

    1. This is not an exact science. Cheesiness is a matter of taste, but it can be abolished completely if done well enough. I don’t know that there’s a formula, but too much confidence always destroys suspense.



    Good post. I’m rewriting my climax right now, so I’ll keep this in mind as I finish up. I knew already that I was doing the emotions wrong, but this gives me something specific to think about.

    1. 1500 followers! Yay! I keep hitting ~ when I go to hit the exclamation point! (That last one was an @ instead.)

      I’m glad you liked the post. Emotions are tricky, but they’re worth the time.

      1. I do things like that too. (Like typing “think” instead of “things”. Or, my personal favorite, “thinkgs”). And I can’t seem to hit the Z unless I’m typing “Lizzie.”

        I just noticed that my ~ button is at the bottom of the keyboard instead of at the top, like it is on the family desktop. Weird.

        I’m glad you’re glad I liked the post.

      1. Ah! I had not thought of that use!
        ~~~O.O ~~~
        ~~~/ | \ ~~~
        ~~~ / \ ~~~

        And someone about to die of heat exhaustion. Ooh! Or!

        / | \
        / ~ \

        A princess in a ruffly dress!

  3. Okay, I looked up the actual uses of tildes (there aren’t very many in English), and I’m going to experiment with code.

    In theory, this should be a capital A with a tilde. I have little faith in its success.

    From my sister:
    Behold! A Space Cat! With a helmet!

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