Here is Why “Emotional” Beats in an “Epic”.
In past articles I’ve talked about how, as reader’s age, people of different genders tend to crave certain kinds of emotions. A child at the age of five craves wonder in fiction, along with humor and horror. An older woman is more likely to crave romance from her mid-teens into her early forties, but might find herself drawn to mystery and drama as she ages.
So as authors we try to target the emotions we arouse to the proper audience. Sometimes, a certain emotion becomes the whole point of the story. For example, we’re coming up on the season where you will see articles asking, “What’s the scariest movie or book you’ve enjoyed?” Meanwhile, as we look at Christmas, people will be seeking tales that arouse wonder and nostalgia and warmth. And when February comes along, we’ll be talking about romances.
Indeed, many books and movies are categorized based upon the primary emotion they arouse: thriller, comedy, horror, romance, porn, adventure, drama. When you’re writing an epic novel like Lord of the Rings or Dune, there are a couple of things to consider when choosing your emotional draw.
Part of what makes an epic an epic is that the reader tries to get a panoramic view of life, to experience a wide range of human emotions. I think that Tolkien handled this well in LOTR. He has a lot of warmth and humor and nostalgia in early parts of the story, but then he builds up to terror, despair, and horror. There is some triumph and tragedy and a lingering sense of isolation and remorse for our hero, too.
That’s part of what makes an epic an epic: the author tries to capture a wide portion of the character’s life, often from birth, through childhood, up to first love, marriage, the joys of parenting, the worries of a young parent for their offspring, along with grief, suffering, acceptance and death.
In short, that’s why I sometimes describe a story, particularly an epic tale, as an “emotional symphony.” As I’m writing scenes, I’m often looking at the emotions that I’m trying to arouse and thinking about how I can set the scene for the next movement.
For example, let’s say that I want to arouse horror. I could start my story somewhere neutral and simply use foreshadowing in my description to arouse horror. For example, I might have my character start the scene in her living room and walk outside onto her back porch. Her dog is missing, and she thinks it might be in the woods behind the house. Here are some words that I might fit into my three paragraphs before I get into the scene: black, rot, night, lonely, nervous, cold, bone, death. I could craft a description of the woods behind the protagonist’s house and load it with these trigger words before getting to the horrific part of the scene.
But maybe I don’t want to be so direct. Sometimes we can arouse horror more strongly by preparing the reader for its opposite. For example, a protagonist could find herself feeling giddy after a wonderful romantic date, then slip into her college dorm—only to find that one of her roommates is decapitated on the kitchen floor, and the killer is in the next bedroom torturing her other roommate.
That transition from a positive emotional state to the negative suddenly becomes a much stronger arc if you try to picture it visually.
And just as a horror scene becomes more pronounced as you move from its opposite, a positive scene can be more powerful if the reader moves from a negative state. For example, if I have a young student who has failed at school returning home in defeat, I might have him imagine his father’s rage at the news, or his mother’s tears of disappointment—only to find complete love and acceptance instead. So by arousing the specter of disapproval, I can heighten the positive emotions that I want to bring out.
Thus, writing an epic becomes an interesting balancing act. I don’t want to focus on one primary emotion—like romance or wonder. So I may ask myself questions like, “Do I have enough strong, positive emotional scenes here?” Or, “Do I want to arouse the negative of the state I desire,” just so I can get more variation?
I might look for ways to add in humor and warmth and nostalgia by showing scenes that at first seem… extraneous to the narrative. It’s only when you understand the whole symphony that you see that what seemed extraneous is indeed integral to the tale.
My “Epic Novel Writing Workshop” starts in two weeks. You will have a number assigned readings and assignments to complete before the online event in January. You can learn more and sign up here: http://mystorydoctor.com/live-workshops-2/
We have best-selling indie author Chris Fox on the schedule for Saturday, 8/22/2020. Apex is an online writing community where authors can gather to create writing groups, critique groups, accountability groups, and more. With the membership you also get access to all of Daves courses and material.
To learn more and join, simply go to https://www.thecompleatwriter.com/
November 12-14th I will be teaching a Masterclass at Fyrecon! You can learn more here: https://www.fyrecon.com/master-classes/david-farland-master-classes/