Sad doesn’t Work? Try Happy: Contra Emotions

English: Managing emotions - Identifying feelings
English: Managing emotions – Identifying feelings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sequels are one of those elements of the writing craft that I came kicking and screaming to. Here, I find a suggestion by Don Maas invaluable: build on unexpected emotions. (Here I mean sequels as in Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure, not movie sequels.)

I’m not one to display my feelings and having my characters show emotion has been just as hard for me. But sequels solve so many problems in writing that they are one of the foundations of story telling. Are scene transitions rough, characters too distant from the reader, actions opaque, too much interior monologue cluttering up your dialogue? Put it all in a sequel following the scene and let the character first feel (react to the scene) then wonder what to do, then decide on a next step. Sequels were certainly missing from my early writing and, along with telling more than showing, absent sequels are the most common thing I notice in developing writers when I critique or judge contests.

Cover of "Scene and Structure (Elements o...
One of the top three most useful resources for me as a writer. I highly recommend it.

Currently, I’m doing a major revision (3.5% so far, woohoo :)). Most of it is rephrasing, improving descriptions, purging backstory. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a large amount of re-write required but one place that stands out are the sequels. Since they don’t come naturally to me, many are awkward.

Sometimes the sequel just needs some polishing. Sometimes it needs to be pitched. In the latter case, starting over on the same emotions is especially daunting. This is where Don Maas’s suggestion proves handy. I pick a different emotion to work with. Is my protagonist moping too much because he’s afraid that the signs point to the end of the world? Let’s try happy. Sound stupid? Well, it could be but it might just unlock my first chapter story.

You can’t just pull something from nothing: readers expect characters to show some rationality. Why? Because unpredictable means un-invested: why worry about what happens to a character if anything can happen? There must be some literary fiction out there that proves even this assumption is false but in mainstream fiction, it doesn’t work for me and probably won’t for 99% of your readers.  (Come to think of it, this is probably why I hated The Sound and the Fury.) So, the contrary emotion must fit the story, but there’s usually a way to make it work and if there isn’t yet, go back and create a reason.

Contrary emotions work on several levels. For you, as a writer, they free you from re-visiting an emotional state in your story that no longer resonates with you, for whatever reason. For the reader, they provide something unexpected: what does it say about the character if, faced with signs of the end of the Age, he is happy? It can be bad, of course, if it says: this character is insane and the author doesn’t know what he’s doing. But it could be good if it says something like: now I know that the tangles in his childhood matter even more than impending doom, more over, here is a character that smiles in the face of adversity. Which I’ve achieved in this particular draft only future feedback will tell but I think it is worth a shot and at least it helps move the revision along. If nothing else, it turns dread at facing a problematic sequel into anticipation at a fresh challenge. And if it doesn’t work, at least when I go to revise it, I won’t be trying a 3rd attempt at the same emotion. Kind of like, rather than your teacher telling you, you failed, now write it again, you get a whole new assignment instead.


One thought on “Sad doesn’t Work? Try Happy: Contra Emotions

  1. I tend to think I dwell on emotion too much. But maybe not. My writing coach once said that everything must be based on some emotion. I’m not sure if I agree, but she’s been right about everything else! I’ll have to check out Scene and Structure. Thanks for the post.

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