Nothing should be more important to an author than how their story makes the audience feel.
As an author, consider carefully the emotional journey of the reader or viewer as they progress through your narrative.
The audience experiences a sequence of emotions when engaged in a narrative. So narrative structure is a vital aspect of storytelling. The story should be touching the audience emotionally during every scene. Furthermore, each new scene should evoke a new feeling in order to remain fresh and surprising.
The author’s job is to make the audience feel empathy with the characters quickly, so that an emotional response to the characters’ situation is possible. Only this can lead to physical reactions like accelerated heartbeat when the story gets exciting. We have to care.
This “capturing” of the audience, making the reader or viewer rapt and enthralled, requires authors to create events that will show who the characters are and how they react to the problems they must face. The audience is more likely to feel with the characters as the plot unfolds when the characters’ reactions to events reveal something about who they really are – and how they might be similar to us.
One Journey to Spellbind Them All
Here we present a loose pattern that we think probably fits for any type of story, whatever genre or medium, however “literary” or “commercial”. It’s not prescriptive, just a rough checklist of the stages in the emotional journey the audience tacitly expects when they let themselves in on a story. The emotions are in more or less the order they might be evoked by any narrative.
Actually the movie poster, ad, or the cover and blurb of the book do the main job of arousing curiosity. But once the viewer has switched on or the reader turned to page one, your opening should ideally suck this recipient into your story quickly.
At first, on page one or during the first few seconds of the moving image, the readers or viewers are unlikely be emotionally involved yet. They are trying to understand the setting, get to know the main characters, and figure out what the plot is about. The opening is like a riddle – more of an exercise for the brain than the heart. Creating a question in the mind of the viewer or reader with a striking or mysterious first image or line is never a bad idea.
It is not your aim, however, to maintain curiosity as a mental exercise. As quickly as you can, you want to capture the audience’ attention with something stronger than curiosity.
You want to arouse and heighten your readers’ curiosity to such an extent that they stay with you beyond the first couple of pages or minutes. So the first scene ought to be attention grabbing in some way, perhaps by posing more questions than answering them. It pays to start with a strong kick-off event that makes the audience want to know more – not only on the conscious intellectual level, but also on an empathic one.
You need to establish an emotional connection with the reader or viewer as quickly as possible, which may require a particular incident, event or scene designed specifically for this effect. This might be something apparently minor or trivial, but definitely something very human about your main characters’ reactions to something that occurs. The way a character reacts to a cold coffee might be enough for us to react emotionally when something shocking occurs afterwards. If the shock comes without the prior human element, without us knowing anything about who the character is, the chances are we will not care. Creating a sense of moral outrage in the audience only works if the audience knows who this person is that something unfair is happening to.
There are alternatives. A spectacular incident might be enough. Or something mysterious. But whichever event you design as the emotional hook, the important thing is: you need to make sure the audience is feeling for the main characters.
By now, the reader has a feeling for how you are presenting the story, for instance what rules you have set yourself for point of view, as well as for what genre of story this is. This creates expectations in the audience’s mind about the scenes coming up.
Pretty soon after you have established the ordinary story world and set the scene, you want the reader to understand that there is a problem, or actually there are a couple of problems. The story is probably going to show how these can (or cannot) be fixed. If, for instance, the problem is a case and the protagonist a detective, the reader will expect some sleuthing.
The external problem is the incident that begins the chain of events that causes the protagonist of a storyline to set off on their journey.
Another scene that creates a sense of anticipation is the one that shows the audience what the real need of the character is, i.e. what they must learn.
Many authors deliberately conceive a scene which strengthens the audience’ interest in the fate of the characters. Sometimes called the “lock-in”, this scene is designed as a point in the narrative after which we may assume that the audience is properly hooked.
Such a scene is not to be confused with the “inciting incident”, the scene that presents the external problem. Rather, the commitment lock-in is a moment that confirms the earlier empathy moment. It is about making the viewer or reader feel some sort of identification with the character, often through recognition of their plight.
Once the characters have started trying to solve the external problem, have fixed their objective and set out on their task or mission, met the person with whom they will begin a new relationship, etc., the “fun & games” part starts. This is where the expectations you have awakened in your audience need to be satisfied, so that they feel they are getting what they paid for. If they have bought into a crime mystery, give them crime and mystery. If they want adventure, give them action and great locations. If they expect a romance, give them a burgeoning relationship that will develop into the love story.
Structurally, within this stage of the story a pinch point event may occur that shows the audience that the journey is serious, and might make the main characters realise that they will have to face more severe obstacles and difficulties than they thought. The fun for the audience is seeing the characters out of their comfort zone.
The midpoint of a story is a pivotal moment. In the middle of the narrative, a goal may be reached, a moment of truth may occur, a revelation take place, or some great turning point transpire. While the event need not be spectacular, and may even not be recognized in its significance by the audience at the time, it is something that will stir them up eventually.
The midpoint is one of the most powerful emotional weapons in an author’s arsenal. It is not so much about eliciting one particular emotion in the audience here. The feeling the event causes could be anything from horror to awe to premonition. It could be momentous, as when the Titanic hits the iceberg in James Cameron’s Titanic, or ironic, as when Luke Skywalker finds princess Leia in Star Wars. It could be spectacular, as when Indiana Jones finds the Lost Ark. Or scary, as when the Alien breaks out of Kane’s chest. Or nail-biting, as when future Godfather Michael shoots the police chief and the rival mafia boss.
Structurally, this event marks a turning point for the characters. Emotionally, it can cause any number of feelings in the audience.
If your story ends happily, then at some point in the narrative you need to present the opposite of happy in order for the ending to work. Something should happen to make your readers or viewers sad, such as a death, possibly a metaphorical one.
And vice versa, if your story ends tragically, there must first be joy to make the tragedy all the more poignant.
To soothe the audience’ the nerves, give them a moment of calm – before the storm. A sort of communal campfire scene, in which the main characters reveal something about their pasts that sheds light on their behavior, can make your audience feel for them all the more in the later climax. A moment of calm can also heighten the sense of threat and dread when the characters head inexorably towards the approaching crisis.
Things may go terribly wrong for the protagonist, the threat to the characters looms so great that there seems to be no way out. Your audience might be wide-eyed and holding their breath, scared, and virtually clueless about how the seemingly insurmountable final obstacle might be dealt with.
The second pinch point may be the conjunction of the fear that all is lost with the revelation that there is still a way to resolve everything …
A moment of hope! Brought on by a realization or revelation, an idea, or a new plan. Your readers’ hearts should be beating faster here as they, and perhaps (but not necessarily) the characters too, gain a new awareness.
In many ways, this moment is the most important in the story. It is the scene that narratives are composed to lead to. Perhaps the effect is exemplified best in mysteries or crime stories, because in this scene the veil is lifted and the truth revealed. The mystery is finally cleared up, the identity of the criminal made known to the audience. The whole story leads up to this revelation. What is so very distinct in a whodunit counts for other forms of storytelling also.
The revelation scene works emotionally on the audience only because it has been foreshadowed. Specific earlier events “set up” the big “pay off” of this all-important point in the story. The audience experiences a powerful “aha moment” because a number of events that seemed insignificant at the time are suddenly cast in a new light.
Just because the audience or the protagonist now knows the truth doesn’t mean that the danger is over. There may be an awful moment of crisis or decision, where the audience are aquiver with anxiety while waiting to see if the hero will do the right thing.
Perhaps the hero in a romance has finally realized the truth that he or she cannot live without her lover. Now the worry is, will this character perform the action or make the choice the audience wants them to make? The tension reaches a high-point.
The decision made, the audience roots for the hero as she lives through the final confrontation. This is the climactic excitement of a great finale! Time for nail-biting.
Relief! A great exhalation of breath as the last great confrontation is dealt with. The final obstacle is surmounted, and even in case it did not end well for the main character, for the audience there is the satisfaction of seeing all the storylines come together in a well-rounded, well-deliberated ending. Even if one strand is purposefully left open (for effect or for the sequel), this story is now at an end, and the audience is left feeling satisfied as after a good meal.
A story is a journey for the audience. As an author, you are like a tour guide through your story. You control what the audience feels and when. These feelings build on one another, and the more highs and lows you build in, the better.
From their general mood the emotions should at best alternate between positive and negative from scene to scene. Emotions work best when they are contrasted and placed into juxtaposition. That is, hope must be felt that things are looking up for the characters, only to be dashed by some surprising turn of events.
The narrative is constantly manipulating the emotions of the audience, leading them to feel one way, but not long enough for them to get used to this feeling, instead forcing them to feel something new. In this way, a great range of human emotions can be packed in a very controlled manner into one story.
Focusing on what the audience should feel during each scene is, we believe, more important still than structural paradigms or organisational principles for plot. The most important person of a story is not really the hero, nor the narrator, not even the author. The most important person in a story is each member of the audience.
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