Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Writing Emotional Tension

So I found this post, Anatomy of a Tear Jerker, from the Wall Street Journal, really fascinating. It explains scientifically why so many people have an emotional reaction to Adele's song, Someone Like You. The key to it, and other songs like it, seems to be an  appoggiatura (yeah, I didn't try to pronounce it either), which is a note that is dissonent with the expected progression of the music. In other words, it's a chord that's out of place, and when the song returns to the harmonious melody, it actually causes a release of tension in the listener. When multiple appoggiaturas are stacked one after the other, it has the effect of raising tension and releasing it in an ever heightening pattern.

Sound like something we learn about in writing, doesn't it?

I've mentioned before that I use the outlining method of Helene Boudreau  (author of several novels including Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings).

The way she structures her climactic scenes reminds me very much of the appoggiaturas from the article. Briefly, her stories are split into 17 sections, with the inciting incident in chapter 1, plot point one in chapter 4, pp2 in chapter 7, and pp3 in chapter 10. All that is fairly routine.

This is where it gets interesting to me:

Chapter 11 or 12: False Victory - a resting place for emotions, may even be lighthearted
Chapter 13: Lighting the Fuse - introduction to the stressor
Chapter 14: Watch it Burn - the dominoes start dropping
Chapter 15: Kaboom - finally we see the culminating event
Chapter 16: Denouement - letting all the tension out
Chapter 17: Resolution

Before finding Helene's method, I had never considered how important a long build-up was to the climax. Since then, I've found this pattern employed over and over in smaller plotlines of stories as well as in final confrontations.

Here's an example of its use in a subplot from the Hunger Games:

False Victory - Katniss has allied with Rue. They help each other, they have plenty to eat. Katniss sees Rue as a surrogate for Prim on so many levels. They even have enough confidence to hatch a plan against the Careers - things are working out, there is a lull in the tension.

Lighting the Fuse - After the bomb blast damages Katniss's hearing, she makes her way back to the rednezvous camp. Rue isn't there. Something not quite right, but Katnniss isn't really worried yet.

"When I reach the site of our first meeting, I feel certain it's been undisturbed. There's no sign of Rue, not on the ground or in the trees. This is odd. By now she should have returned, as it's midday... She's probably just being cautious about making her way back. (HG, p 229)

Watch it Burn: Katniss eats and hangs out, even saying, "...this is the most relaxed I've been since I've entered the arena." But finally, she goes in search of Rue.

"In less than an hour, I'm at the place where we agreed to have the third fire and I know something has gone amiss. The wood has been neatly arranged, expertly interspered with tinder, but it has never been lit... Somewhere she ran into trouble. I have to remind myself she's still alive." (HG, p 231).

The dominoes are dropping.

 "And that's when I hear the scream. It's a young girl's scream, there's no one in the arena capable of making that sound except Rue. And now I'm running, knowing this may be a trap, knowing the three Careers may be poised to attack me, but I can't help myself." (HG, p 232)

Kaboom: We are in full panic mode.

"When I break into the clearing, she's on the ground, hopelessly entangled in a net. She just has time to reach her hand through the mesh and say my name before the spear enters her body." (HG, p232).

And by this point on the first read (okay, and the second, maybe the third) I was bawling my eyes out because the build-up of emotion through those stages was so strong. Do you notice, too, how there's a brief moment of hope - 'Oh, it's just a net, Katniss can get Rue out of that,' we all think - that hitches the emotion all the more when that spear comes out of nowhere and kills Rue?

Denouement: Katniss removes the threat (by killing the boy), and then that aching scene where she sings until Rue dies. The emotion is just flooding out by this point.

Resolution: She covers Rue's body in flowers, both to bury her and to shame the Capitol for what they make children do to one another. We begin to feel the strength of her resolve and understand that she's now fighting for more than her personal survival.

Okay, I've never been good at summarizing things and wrapping them up with a pretty bow. But here goes: Taking the time to allow a climax to unfold provides a more emotionally satifying experience for the reader. This unfolding includes the early signs of tension and trouble, as well as spending enough time on the aftermath to allow the reader to process the event before moving on to the next. In this way the reader can become fully invested in the action and feelings of the characters. And by employing these steps throughout a story in smaller plotlines, it gradually heightens the emotional level of the entire piece until the final climactic scene.


  1. That whole appoggiaturas thing is fascinating. My music ear isn't developed enough to hear it in that song, but I do find the song emotionally moving and very beautiful, so something is working there.

    I've never thought about the steps rising to a climax, but what you have here makes perfect sense. I really like how you broke it down with the Rue thing in Hunger Games to illustrate it. That was tremendously helpful.

    I think there are all these different patterns that go in into story-telling that even if you can't see then, you can feel them on a subconscious level. But I really like analytic break downs like you so brilliantly did here. Because if you understand the patterns, you don't just know when it isn't working but why and how to fix it.

    So thank you so much for sharing this. I know this will be a post I'll come back to whenever my climatic scenes aren't very climatic.

  2. This is amazing! Thank you so much. I agree with MaryAnn--this is something I'll come back to again. It's exactly what I need.

    I heard that appoggiaturas piece on npr too, and thought it was awesome, but I never tried to relate it to writing. Well done.

  3. So cool. I'm gonna have to refer to this one often, I think.

    Well done.


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