To a new fiction writer, there are a bewildering number of story elements that are essential to the story and incorporated into the work. To mention a few, there are character development, plotting, setting, point of view and others. These story elements are explained in depth in any number of books and are easy to research.
However, there are three other story elements that are just as vital but are hardly mentioned in books on fiction writing. When they are mentioned, the description is vague and hard to understand, let alone use in stories.
In this article, I’ll discuss these three elements which are: dominant reader emotion, the character arc, and the emotional arc.
Dominant Reader Emotion
This is the emotion you want (hope?) the reader will experience whenever a character is in a scene. For the story’s protagonist, you want the reader to have positive emotions such as empathy, sympathy, delight or intrigue. For the bad guy, the emotions can be animosity, irritation, pity, hostility, and anger.
When I’m developing a new major character, the DRE is one of the first characteristics I assign because it affects the way I develop and write about the character. For instance, if I want the reader to admire the character, then I can’t have this character kicking puppies or running away from a fight. The DRE dictates that I develop the character’s attributes so the reader won’t be turned off by the character.
In short, the character arc is how the character’s life changed as a result of the events in the story. If nothing changed then the story is a ‘who cares’ because everything after the story is the same as before the story. So, nothing happened except the character got a bit older.
The character arc can be physical or mental but a mental change is more interesting to readers than a physical change. In a mental character arc, the character learned an important lesson. In a physical one, the character’s situation changed for better or worse.
Here are a few examples of character arcs.
- A character starts out as a bigot, but during the course of the story, learns to be less bigoted and becomes more open-minded.
- A proud or pompous (or both) character gets humbled as the story unfolds.
- A lazy character gets motivated.
- A character evolves from an uninterested bystander or a follower into the leader of a movement.
Most writing books don’t emphasize, if they mention it all, that the main character in a scene must undergo an emotional change. To put this another way, whatever the character’s emotional state is at the beginning of the scene, it must be different at the end of the scene.
Further, in the next scene with the same character, the starting emotion is the ending emotion from the last scene.
In the case of the protagonist, these emotional changes are negative as his failures to solve the plot problem take a toll. Thus, the emotional arc can start at happy at the story’s beginning and change to annoyed, startled, alarmed and desperate as the story progresses. By the time the character is desperate, the story tension will peak at the climactic scene at the end of the story.
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