Emotional structure

I’ve read enough of Peter Dunne’s book,  Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot, to start to say a few things about it.


First, some of you will shy away from this book because his method is one of outlining and quite extensive planning ahead. But you might find his method a bit more appealing than some because Dunne distinguishes between plot and story. Story is the underlying emotional arc, while plot is the action-oriented narrative arc. In some ways, this mirrors the thoughts of inner and outer problems.

What’s unique is that Dunne finds easy ways to address both arcs during the planning process. AND–that difficult second act, the act that is always the hardest to plot because, well, almost anything could go there–Dunne has distinct ideas about that. He says the first act is plot, the second act is story, and the final act is plot. The actions of the beginning set up the emotional arc in the middle which sets up the actions of the ending. Interesting way of thinking about it.

His process of outlining is has seven steps to it and you have to think hard about each step, considering both story and plot. It goes from a broad three sentence outline to a detailed outline of scenes.  I expect the whole process to take quite a while.  But then, I’d expect the writing to go faster than normal.  Shrug.  We’ll see if that prediction hold up.


Second, Dunne sets up his stories with a co-protagonist. I first encountered the idea of a co-protagonist in the Dramatica Pro software; it’s a complicated system of planning a story and one that I don’t really recommend. But the idea of a co-protagonist is interesting.

This is someone who is involved with the protag and is the goad that helps the protag change. It’s not just a sidekick character; it’s a strong character who represents a different take on things and their presence pushes the protag to consider new options, to open their eyes to other possibilities. In a way, the co-protag is the tease, the bait, the prod. It’s not a mentor character, either. The mentor teaches, or provides valuable information, or points the way. The co-protag does none of that directly. The co-protag also needs their own competing problem to solve.

Dunne uses the example of Harrison Ford’s movie, The Witness. In this story, an Amish woman Rachel (Kelly McGillis), has lost her husband, so takes her son to town to visit a relative. The boy goes into a bathroom and there, witnesses a murder. Book (Harrison Ford) eventually comes to live on the Amish farm, where in the last act, the murderer (one of Book’s fellow policemen) finds them.

Act 1: Action of the murder.

Act 2: Book and Rachel try to sort out their different life styles and learn from each other. Book needs to learn to accept a peaceful existence; Rachel needs to reconcile to her life as a widow. They change each other.

Act 3: The murderer disturbs the peace of the Amish community and Book has to choose what to do.

The co-protag is often the love interest, as in The Witness. If you’re writing a love story, then, this is a good paradigm to use.  Or if your character has a strong friend or enemy that you want to include.  Another way to think of it: the co-protag is often the part that wins the Best Supporting Actor/Actress awards.

The point here is that Dunne follows this paradigm of a co-protagonist pushing the protagonist to change somewhere in Act 2.

So, Dunne advocates outlining, but with the twist of a process of successively more detailed outlines that cover both the inner and outer arcs. He also advocates the paradigm of a protagonist who is strongly affected by a co-protagonist.

Yes, I’m going to try this. I’m working on the first level of outlining and will discuss it tomorrow.

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