Character Emotion Makes the Plot

Posted by Martha Alderson, M.A. on

Some writers excel at pithy banter. Others create dramatic action. The writers I most admire are the ones who in their own natural style convey a character's emotional personality in scene through active, non-verbal communication with just the right frequency and intensity.

I have written extensively about how moviegoers and readers identify with stories through the characters' emotions. When we connect with the characters on an emotional level, the interaction become deep and meaningful. Well-written scenes that include characters' emotions allow the audience to viscerally take part in the story and bond with the characters.

In my work as a plot consultant, I developed the Scene Tracker Kit to help writers track their scenes one-by-one. To reinforce the significance of emotion in creating compelling scenes, two of the seven essential elements on the Scene Tracker template revolve around emotion.

1) Character Emotional Development: The character's emotional development as she moves toward transformation at the overall story level.

2) Emotional change: The character's more fleeting emotional reactions at the scene level.

Rather than get stuck in the character's head "telling" what the character feels, show the character's authentic feelings in action. Emotion has a strong physical component and is primarily felt in the body. "Show" emotions through the character's relationships and reactions to conflict.

Character Emotional Development versus Emotional Change

A) Character Emotional Development

The #1 Essential Element of scene on the Scene Tracker is Character Emotional Development.

Every story sends a character on an outer journey (dramatic action plot line) that ends up causing the character to undergo an inner transformation (character emotional development plot line). This ultimate character transformation is shown step-by-step through their Character Emotional Development. Emotional development is cumulative, based on all of the scenes over time, and is long-term and transformative.

* The protagonist is introduced in the Beginning (1/4) of the story with an emotional flaw.
* Each action taken by the character reflects her emotional development. In the Middle (1/2), as the stakes rise, the protagonist shows who really is in how she reacts emotionally under more and more pressure.
* Emotional development implies new emotional behavior and growth emerging overtime toward long-term mastery or transformation which is shown at the Climax at the End (1/4).

Plotting out the protagonist's emotional development over the entire story and tracking character's reactions to the dramatic action scene-by-scene on a Scene Tracker ensures a smooth and believable emotional transformation in the character. The character's transformation takes place in scene step-by-step and spans the entire story.

If conflict, tension and suspense drive the reader to turn the page or send the viewer to the edge of her seat, the character emotional development inspires and connects her to the story. Readers read stories and viewers go to the movies to learn about a character's emotional development. Therefore, character becomes a primary layer in the overall story.

The Character Emotional Development operates under the assumption that when a character is transformed by the dramatic action over time the story means something or, in other words, is thematically significant.

Character Emotional Development symbolizes the character's emotional transformation at the overall story level.

An example of Character Emotional Development at the Overall Story Level

In the first three chapters, which represent the Beginning (1/4) almost exactly to the page, Nobel Laureate William Golding's Lord of the Flies introduces 12-year-old protagonist and leader Ralph. We learn that the never-before-tested leader of the boys is sensible and self-confident and out to have fun.

Civilized life disintegrates in the Middle (1/2). Now thoroughly immersed on the island and the exotic world of life without parents or girls, Ralph is challenged by outer and inner antagonists: domestic order breaking down, the group of boys as they lose control, fear, Jack, the beasties, hardship, and primitive life. At the Crisis, the savagery in himself and the other boys strip Ralph of his innocence, a place to which he can never again return.
In the End (1/4), Ralph is able to alter his behavior due to a matured mastery over his emotional state. Now that he understands life and himself in ways he never could have without having experienced the dramatic action on the island, Ralph is changed forever.

Step-by-step, the character's emotional developmental is introduced in the Beginning, deepened in the Middle, and permanently changed in the End. The emotional growth the character undergoes throughout the entire story is represented scene-by-scene in abbreviated notes under the 1st column of the Scene Tracker template.

B) Emotional Change

Just as the dramatic action affects the overall character emotional transformation, the dramatic action also affects the character's temporary emotional state, too. Based on her authentic personality, the character's mood fluctuates depending on what is said and done within a scene.

A character jumps from one emotion to another within a particular scene, depending on the drama, while still retaining her personality consistency from one scene to the next until she undergoes the ultimate transformation at the End (1/4).

The dramatic action that takes place in each particular scene causes an emotional effect(s) on the character. The emotional reaction(s) the character experiences or emotional change(s) the character undergoes within a specific scene is often fleeting and temporary and fluctuates in intensity.

In the 6th column of the Scene Tracker template, abbreviate the character's change in emotional intensity within the scene at the scene level only.

Two Ways to Show Emotional Change

1) Following each turning point or setback scene (cause), the character experiences an emotional reaction (effect) or shows an emotional response as an action (which is also an effect and causes another action).

In real life, most of us are capable of handling ourselves when things are going well or working in our favor. Throw in some sort of disaster, conflict, roadblock and we find out who we truly are. This same principle applies in stories. Moviegoers and readers benefit when dramatic action causes an emotional effect in the character both superficially and at a deep developmental level. How characters respond emotionally when things turn messy, challenging and stressful, when all is lost demonstrates where the character is in her emotional development.

Storytelling involves more than lining up the action pieces, arranging them in a logical order and then drawing conclusions. Yes, dramatic action pulls moviegoers to the edge of their seats. And yes, conflict, tension, suspense and curiosity hook moviegoers. Yet, no matter how exciting the action, the character's emotional reactions and emotional development provide fascination. Any presentation with a strong human element increases the chances of audience identification.

In a compelling story line, the characters grow and change step-by-step because of the dramatic action. This growth is not meant to be only on a physical level. Often, in their zeal of showing off high-tech special effects, moviemakers and writers forget the power of character emotional development. The challenges a character faces must effect the character emotionally, and the deeper and more honestly the better.

An effective way to keep track of these incremental steps is with the use of a Scene Tracker. A scene tracker asks you to fulfill seven essential elements in every single scene. Emotional Change is the one essential element that deals with the ever-changing and even contradictory character emotion at the scene level only.


In the Beginning (1/4) of Lord of the Flies, after surviving a crash on an island with Piggy (cause), Ralph strips off his clothes and runs and jumps (effect). When Ralph learns Piggy's secret (cause), his reaction (effect) shows his emotional development at the beginning of the story. He shrieks with laughter and taunts Piggy so openly and innocently, Piggy grins himself.

Ralph shows his free spirit by these two actions he takes in reaction to what happens externally in the scene. He does not think about his freedom or talk about it. He takes action. Plot and track his emotional change from one action to the next and building in intensity in each scene on the Scene Tracker.

2) Temporary emotional change within each scene is shown through facial expressions, body language, gestures, posture, vocal cues, tone, inflection, pitch, quality, rate, and touch that are genuine and appropriately motivated. Each movement conveys an emotional message that is authentic to each individual character.

Telling how a character feels through internal monologue and the use of clich'd actions is easy. More difficult, though much more effective, is the showing of character emotion though character action that is fresh and innovative and reflects the authenticity of the character herself.

There can be no doubt in the reader's mind as to what the character is feeling. The fresher and truer the character's unique personality is shown through her non-verbal communication, the more unique the character becomes. The clearer the character conveys her individual emotion, the more closely the audience identifies to her.


"'You. Hide here. Wait for me."
[Ralph] found his voice tended either to disappear or to come out too loud."

Ralph's dialogue is delivered as clipped orders, using vocal cues, tone, inflection, pitch and rate.

Seven lines later, Ralph's "mouth was tight and pale. He put back his hair very slowly. 'Well. So long.'"

Each of these changes in emotional make-up is plotted and can be critically tracked scene-by-scene on the Scene Tracker to produce a pattern of exactly right emotional behavior unique to the protagonist.

The more viscerally the audience experiences every expression and gesture and attitude from the character's point of view, the better the development of the character personality and the deeper the connection of the audience to the character.

Walt Disney made his stories real by translating the feelings of imaginary characters into personal actions authentic to the character's personality traits. Readers and audiences are adept at interpreting posture, body motions, facial expressions, eye movements, mouth gestures, and arm and leg movements in relationship to the dramatic action and, based on those interpretations, making judgments about the character's emotional development overall.

Try tracking scenes both for the characters' step-by-step movement toward and away from their ultimate overall story transformation and for their more fleeting, temporary emotional reactions within each scene.

In each rewrite, attempt to hone and deepen the emotional non-verbal behavior for every character until each emotional gesture is high-powered and uniquely different.

Do not worry if tracking the emotional components within your story is difficult for you. Most writers have strengths and weaknesses in their writing. For instance, many writers are particularly adept at creating quirky, likable protagonists who feel emotions strongly. However, more often than not, these same writers have difficulty creating dramatic action and coming up with lots of conflict and, thus, fail at portraying the ultimate character transformation.

Other writers are just the opposite. These writers can create all sorts of amazing action scenes, but break down when it comes to developing characters who feel emotions and react and respond emotionally and who are ultimately transformed emotionally as caused by the dramatic action.

Whatever your strengths and weaknesses, be aware of them. When you are feeling brave and energetic (if, at this point you were tracking yourself in the "Change" column on the Scene Tracker template, you would receive a "+" for the positive emotion you were experiencing) spend time in the area that is the most challenging for you as a writer. When your energy is low (here you would receive a "-"), stay in your area of strength.

Read a screenplay or novel for the overall character emotional development transformation and the moment-by-moment emotional reactions within each scene. Determine what moves you and why. Try using similar techniques in your own writing as you plot and track each emotional component of your characters scene-by-scene on the Scene Tracker template.

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