So, I’ve been reading Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking About Difficult Stories by Loren Niemi and Elizabeth Ellis, a book about writing difficult stories. In one of the last chapters, they discuss a story’s emotional arc story, but they mean something slightly different by that term.
Character’s Emotional Arc
Usually, I think of the emotional arc of a story as the main character’s emotional arc, how events impact the MC, where the MC starts emotionally and how the story’s events move them to a different place. In other words, it’s the arc of the MC’s internal conflict.
Reader’s Emotional Arc
Niemi and Ellis, though, are discussing the emotional arc of the audience, as they listen to or read the story. They make the point that this is a different thing. For example, if the MC is Hitler and he’s just learned that he’s successfully executed 1000 Jews, his emotions might be pleasure at his success. But the audience’s emotions will be horror at his callous attitude.
Of course, I’ve thought about and talked about this issue before: what do you want your readers to think or feel at this point in the story. But Niemi and Ellis brought it to the forefront and in the context of difficult stories, they say the audience’s emotional arc is very important.
Do you want to write about a teenager’s rape? Then, what do you want the audience to feel at that point? Outrage? Do you want them to walk through the actual feelings of the victim? For some audiences, that might work, but for middle grade kids, you probably don’t want them to feel the specifics of that event. What would be appropriate?
Shape the Reader’s Experience
I’ve no answers. It’s just that the intersection of audience and the emotional response you want the listener/reader to feel is an important issue. Especially when you write about a difficult topic for a young audience. You must shape the material to let the audience glimpse the emotional difficulties, yet not be overwhelmed by it. It’s a fine line to walk.