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Un-Con Redux, Part II: Emotional Tipping Points

Second of three posts recreating workshops you may have missed at Un-Con 2019.

Most agree that the experience of reading a novel ought to be an emotional roller coaster.

Honestly, though, how many novels have actually provided you that experience: breathless highs followed by stomach flopping lows?  How many novels have truly left you feeling emotionally wrung out?  I’m betting not too many.

What in fiction causes us to feel emotional highs and lows?  Characters may be written with immersive emotional intimacy, conveying to us all the inner doubt, bewilderment, bemusement, suspicion, warmth, chill, compassion, irritation, sense of irony or anything at all from the vast menu of available emotions.  But is that the same thing as we—readers, I mean—riding an emotional roller coaster?  It isn’t.

Emotional impact doesn’t come from the rich portrayal of characters’ emotional lives.  It comes from story moments that clobber us, and maybe characters too, with something we don’t expect.  Only story events that surprise us, that subvert our beliefs or undermine our presumptions, have the force to produce a sense of change.

An emotional tipping point is a story event which, when it hits, leaves the world of characters and our own world too rocked and reordered.  We can’t feel the same.  We can’t be the same.  Too much is different.  A security we may have felt is removed.  A certainty in which we believed is false.  What was so is no longer so.

Let’s break that down a little further.  For a belief to be subverted or a presumption to be undermined, there must, in the first place, be a belief to tear down or a presumption to ruin.  In other words, a tipping point is planned.  It happens not in what happens, but in how what happens is set up.  Our expectations and understandings as readers are emotional dominoes, lined up to be knocked down.

There is also in emotional tipping points a sense of discovery: discovery about things in general, others or self.  I thought the world was against me, instead it is for me!  I thought you were one way, instead you are another!  I thought I knew myself, but I was wrong!  A world shaken is actually the same world, just one that previously was hidden, disguised, misapprehended or misleading.

So, what kind of story events and moments are we really talking about?  Emotional tipping points can come about in many ways.

That kind of thing.  Here are some ideas for setting up emotional tipping points on the macro-scale of your story:

As you can see, the emotional tipping point can’t happen unless reader expectations are pushed in the wrong direction.  By the way, smaller emotional tipping moments can occur within the context of an individual scene:

As you can see, emotional tipping points depend on surprise and surprise, in turn, depends on your protagonist—and we readers—having an incorrect understanding or expectation.  Think of it this way:

When your characters are fooling themselves, your readers are blind.  When they are, you’ll be able to shine a light or detonate an emotional explosion.

A roller coaster climbs up but then plunges down; it hurdles in one direction only to swerve in another.  It’s loops and spirals leave us dizzy.  Roller coasters make us feel inverted and a little sick.  Nevertheless, we are exhilarated by the ride.  We climb aboard the roller precisely so that we can feel wrung out.

No one reads a novel to float in an ocean lacking hurricanes.  Capsize us.  Plunge us under water, turning head over heels, emotionally speaking.  We won’t drown because in the end, somehow, you’ll bring us up to the surface for air.

What’s an emotional tipping point in your WIP?  How will you add another?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].