What Is Emotional Context And Why Does Your Story Need It?

From Writers Helping Writers:

Have you ever had an editor or critique partner say “go deeper”? And you throw up your hands and glare at the screen because you DID go deeper.

Deep point of view is a writing technique that aims to create an emotional connection for readers by immersing them in real time in the character’s emotional journey. Because this is something my readers frequently ask about, I’ve been exploring it at my blog. 

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Something that trips writers up is that their character’s emotions lack context. Your character has a reason for feeling the way they do and reacting the way they do. In deep point of view, everything is filtered through your POV character’s perspective. What does this situation mean to THAT character, RIGHT NOW, based on their own unique past experiences, prejudices, fears/concerns, priorities, and goals (emotional context)? Even when a truly new experience presents itself, the brain is always searching for context, for something from the past that will help keep us safe in the present. Understanding this as a writer helps you show the WHY behind your character’s emotions, thoughts, and actions. 

Emotions Serve A Purpose

Emotions (I talk about them like they’re people – stay with me) are preoccupied with keeping us safe by giving us information, warning us about something, or raising a concern. The longer your character suppresses or denies an emotion, the louder and more insistent it should become. 

This is how emotions work. Take a look at one of the more emotional scenes in your WIP. Can you identify what function the emotions in that scene are serving? How are they trying to protect your character, warn them, or get their attention? 

The Kids at The Table

Back to emotions as people. Imagine your character has a table in their heads and around it sits their younger selves from key moments in their past, but the seat at the head of the table is empty. The character hasn’t decided how to act or what to feel yet.

When a difficulty arises, each kid at the table does a quick evaluation, and those with a concern raise a hand and start talking over each other. Each of them believes their concern should be the character’s priority and the solution they used last time is the way to fix this current problem. Why isn’t your character listening – this is IMPORTANT!! (The pitfall is that putting a terrified five-year-old in charge of the emotional reaction to your adult boyfriend’s anger probably isn’t going to be helpful. The concern can be valid while the proposed solution can get the character in hot water.)

Internal conflict isn’t when more than one kid at the table is upset, it’s when those kids can’t agree on what to do or which concern should be the priority.

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The kids want to keep the character safe – they mean well. Does your character just give the head seat at the table to one of the kids? Or do they acknowledge the kid’s valid concern and attempt a new way ahead with a different solution? In essence, which past experience is going to inform the current reality? The emotion your character prioritizes will be influenced by their goal for the scene.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers