Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Chronology of Emotion

Last week we talked about putting feeling in fiction. This week we’re going to take that a step further. We’re going to delve into the chronology of emotion. Believe it or not characters in fiction have a chronology of emotions. Think about this. In our lives there are steps we go through as our mind breaks down information. Well, it’s important to have your characters live through these steps exactly as they happen. That way there will be no doubt as to the cause and effect of these emotions.

Here’s a scene that will help you understand what I mean.

Pauline, mother of two, has just spent the most wonderful Mother’s Day with her family. She’s tried to call her mother several times to wish her well, but she doesn’t pick up. The phone rings. It’s Pauline’s brother. He tells her he is at their mother’s. He came over to wish her a happy Mother’s Day and found her in the bedroom, still in bed. She had passed away in the night. Pauline becomes numb with shock. Waves of different emotions wash over her: sorrow, pain, and grief. She finds the nearest chair and falls into it as a ground swell of tears threaten to overcome her. She wants to give in and cry, yet she holds it together and asks if her brother knows how she died. He tells her he doesn’t, but the paramedics believe it was a heart attack. Her nitro-glycerin bottle was empty. Pauline remembers yesterday her mother told her she wasn’t feeling well and that she needed to get her prescription refilled. At the time Pauline was taking her daughter to a dance recital, but thought afterward she'd go by her mother's and make sure she had her medicine. But she forgot. Overwhelmed with guilt and sorrow she drops the phone.

Did you notice the cause and effect? Did you see the motivation and reaction? I hope so. All came into play, but also something more…a chronology of emotion.

Cause and effect: mother didn’t receive pills and died.

Motivation and reaction: Pauline learns her mother died and breaks down.

Let’s focus on the impact of emotion and what led to the ultimate break down. You and I know that a person can experience many emotions at the same time, but in writing it is impossible to do that. One word follows another word and so a writer has to examine emotion and list those emotions in the exact order as they are felt. You could probably just say, Pauline felt many emotions at the same time, but the tension of the moment is lost. An important, life-changing moment needs to be drawn out and experienced by the readers for them to truly feel the pain of the main character. A chronology of emotion will help a writer accomplish that.

First the reader learns that Pauline is 1) happy. It’s Mother’s Day and being a mother of two she is celebrating. Next you learn that she is 2) concerned. She can’t get hold of her mother to wish her a happy day as well. Then the phone call comes that will change Pauline’s life. Cause and effect are about to stimulate Pauline’s motivation and reaction. Her brother tells her their mother is dead and Pauline becomes 3)numb. Several more emotions envelope her 4)sorrow, which causes 5)pain that feds into 6)grief. Yet she holds it together in a sort of 7)denial as she asks if her brother knows how she died. He tells her a heart attack and that her nitro bottle was empty. Pauline remembers she neglected to go by her mother's which leads to 8)guilt. Then she collapses into full blown 9)grief.

Did you noticed all of the emotions going on? Probably, but did you realize those steps of emotion were deliberately put there to make you, the reader, feel Pauline’s pain as it happened? If you didn’t, you do now. Reveal these emotions step by step and in the order they logically happen and your characters will come to life.

I hope that I’ve helped you understand the chronology of emotion a little more and that you’ll use it now. Make your characters feel. In many ways, that’s what life is all about…how we feel.


  1. An excellent post! Do you teach this because I'd take a class from you in a second!

  2. L.T.,
    I'm so glad you liked it. I'm not scheduled to teach this, but who knows. If I do I'll post where and when on my blog. Thanks for stopping by and brightening my day. :)



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