The simplest kind of story is where the goal of the main character is clear and all-encompassing. He has nothing else to distract him, at least not for very long. It’s all about the thing.
This kind of story is usually a genre piece, a crime, a romance, a mystery, something like that is driving the MC, and their emotional state is pretty easy to work out.
However, not all stories are that single-minded. Often a character will switch moods, or have more than one thing to deal with. And when they switch, whether because of time passing, or having to deal with different people, the writer has to transition the reader from one mind-set to another.
This is a good thing, even the most engaging stories can become monotonous if there’s no variation in tone. But if you just go from one emotional state to another without due care, it can be very jarring for the reader.
Sometimes, when the context makes the situation clear, the writer doesn’t need to do very much. If Malcolm the cuckold is having a heated argument with his wife, and their 6 year old daughter walks in and Malcolm suddenly loses all traces of his anger and is very calm and relaxed as he speaks to his kid, you know why he’s done that, and even though what he says to the little girl may be completely innocuous, you will probably sense some tension in there.
On the other hand, if Johnny the fireman is having to deal with a string of arson attacks that are leaving charred corpses all over Chicago, and on top of that the prime suspect is his brother Jimmy, and the stress is really getting to him, you can see how tough Johnny’s life must be. If he then starts to have feelings for the lead fire investigator looking into the case, and she seems to have feelings back, suddenly switching to light flirting and sexy thoughts is going to come across as weird.
For someone in the middle of a personal crisis to get into a romantic situation is not unheard of . Often the high pressure encourages that sort of thing. But the tone of the character’s behaviour isn’t going to see-saw back and forth. It’s going to retain elements of the overriding storyline (in this case people burning to death).
Johnny may even go on a date with the investigator telling himself he deserves a night off from all the worry and guilt, but do you think he’ll really be able to forget his brother may be out there setting people on fire? Not unless he’s a schizo.
As well as the story throughline (how everything relates to the main storyline), there is an emotional throughline too. What a person feels, why they feel it, and how they show it, is something to be aware of at all times. It doesn’t always have to show up, a character can act one way when they feel another, but you, as the writer need to be in control of that and make sure it’s a deliberate choice on your part, not at oversight.
When scenes change and a character learns or has to deal with new information, you have to take into account where they were (mentally) before, and how that will temper their behaviour in the future.
You can’t just assume readers will go the same way as you have in your head, you have to give indications in the text. And if you compartmentalise their behaviour too much, so how they act bears no relation to what’s gone on prior, they will end up looking like a sociopath. Which is fine if they are a sociopath. Not so much if they’re the romantic lead.
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See you on Thursday.