Thursday, October 18, 2012

Emotion in The Three Acts

I was just doing a workshop about emotion, and we were talking about how to convey emotion in characters who aren't openly emotional, about making an emotional journey for them in the plot. That is, story emotion isn't just the immediate outburst following an event within a scene, but it can be a book-length exploration and dynamic, changing as the plot changes.

So let's think of the Three Acts of the story, and this is just the simple Aristotelian plot structure:

Act 1: Set up
Act 2: Rising conflict
Act 3: Climax and resolution

When I think of "book-length," I think in terms of "three" like above. How does this journey break into three parts? (My article about the book theme developed through the three parts, as an example of "the three.") So here's an "emotion journey" in three acts:

Act 1: Repression. (Protagonist starts out repressing an emotion like grief.)
Act 2: Suppression. (The rising conflict of the plot forces the protagonist to start feeling that emotion, and pro must actively suppress what previously could just be repressed.)
Act 3: Expression. (Finally, the climactic events in the end-- the crisis, the dark moment, the climax-- lead tha protagonist into accepting the need for that emotion, and expressing it.)

1. Willa had a complex relationship with her father, and the day after they have a big argument, he suddenly dies. Willa represses her grief, "surfacely" or ostensibly because she is involved with something important in the plot (solving a murder, finding a cure for this killer virus, run for election whatever) and grieving will interfere with her goal. But subconsciously, she repressed grief because grieving would reveal and force her to feel the guilt that she might have caused her father's death, or was never a good daughter.
    How to show? Well, start at the funeral. She wears sunglasses ostensibly to hide her red-rimmed eyes, but in fact to hide that they are NOT red-rimmed (she hasn't cried). What else?

2. In pursuit of the goal, she gets right back to work, but every now and again, the "need for grief" arises in some "reminder" about her father, like a friend calls to ask how she's doing, or a sibling calls for a consult on the gravestone, or.... Just repressing isn't enough now. She has to actively suppress the emotion, focusing on work, refusing to answer the phone when sib calls. 
      But there are repercussions to suppression-- she gets blocked in her work. She drinks too much. Her sister is furious with her. The voters think she's cold and the polls show she's going to lose the election.

3. Something forces her into confrontation with the suppressed emotion. (A misdirected letter from Dad arrives a couple weeks late?)  (And of course all the important stuff about her goal-getting external plot is coming to a head here.) She lets herself express the grief, or rather, lets down the suppression barriers, and grieves. Something in this grief, or the catalytic event-- the letter from Dad, whatever-- gives her the key or the will or the motivation to solve that external problem.  Now that she is expressing rather than repressing or suppressing emotion, she can solve that murder or cure that virus or find an emotional connection to voters.

Okay, that's pretty simplistic, but you can see how "emotion" can be turned into a journey over the course of the story, so that the character's experience of emotion develops along with and braided into the plot. What do you think? The journey of course might be a different set of three parts than this (it might be Involuntary Expression, Resistance, Understanding, for example), but RSE is an example of one way to create an emotion journey in the story.

Have you tried showing emotional change in the story acts, and having the change affect the plot? Examples?



Stephanie said...

My hero thinks he drinking at parties with his friends is just for fun when he's covering the rage he felt as a child over his father's death. After a friend is hurt in a car accident caused by alcohol, he has to work to suppress the anger. Finally, he realized his father's death was a tragedy and no one's fault.

ABE said...

Yes, in the main character; yes in the important interaction.

But you've given me a lovely way to look at improving the villain: she wants what she wants - Act 1; she NEEDS it - Act 2; she thinks she got it - Act 3, and then she loses it all.

Pinning it down and doing it deliberately is the writer's JOB - for the pleasure of the writing AND for the pleasure of the reader.

Alicia said...

Stephanie, that makes good sense. I'd say in the last part, he needs probably to "express" in some way-- visiting Dad's grave? Talking to Mom about Dad's death? What do you think?

ABE, that's interesting about your villain! I love that "she thinks she's got it"-- especially since probably that means the protagonist has "lost".

Shannon Donnelly said...

I actually believe the emotion needs to change in every scene--you need the main character in that scene to start on one emotion, and have an emotional arc in the scene that leaves the character changed by the scene. Those scenes then build an emotional arc for the story.