Emotions that escalate: how to build tension successfully
by Angela Ackerman
When emotions escalate in a story, it means tension. The character has more to lose and readers are glued to the page, frantic to find out what will happen. They are invested, they care, and more than anything else, they want things to turn out well for the hero.
But sometimes emotions will escalate too high or go on too long, creating melodrama and impatience. Melodrama is when the emotional responses of the characters are so heightened and overly-dramatic that the reader is yanked out of the story because it feels unrealistic. Melodrama can break the spell, and is something to avoid at all costs.
Impatience occurs not so much from an unrealistic level of emotion, but because the escalation hits a ceiling and stays there. After awhile, the reader grows frustrated that the tension is not progressing. It feels like the moment has stalled and the emotions within the scene have reached a long, drawn out plateau.
As writers, we want to take readers on an emotional roller coaster, allowing them to experience many different feelings within the scope of the book. One way to avoid building too high and causing melodrama or hitting that flat tension plateau is to apply this idea of emotional scope to each scene. Instead of a steady, predictable rise of emotion, we give readers a jagged climb.
Let’s take an example from The Emotion Thesaurus. If we look at the entry for “Confusion” it suggests that if this emotion escalated, it might lead to feeling OVERWHELMED, FRUSTRATED, RESIGNED and INSECURE.
Now, a possible character situation to illustrate how emotions can fluctuate (I’ll name the emotions just to make them easier to spot!):
Sixteen-year-old Josh is sitting down to write his final exam in Science. The test begins and he opens the booklet. He blinks, pulls back, then brings his nose right up to the paper, baffled. All he sees are physics questions, yet his friend Erik said the teacher told the class to concentrate on studying notes from their chemistry unit.
Then it dawns on him. Maybe Erik didn’t mention that he should study physics too because it’s a small part of the test, just the first question or so. After all, Erik knew Josh really needed to kill this exam or he might fail the class. Hope emerges and he flips a page. Then another.
Four pages later, he’s still seeing physics questions. Uncertainty lays heavy in his gut, tangoing ominously with the burrito he ate for lunch. Finally on the last page, a single chemistry question appears. Now what? he thinks, completely overwhelmed.
He glances over at the next row, where Erik is pounding on the keys of his calculator and then scribbling answers on the page. This surprises Josh, because if they both studied the wrong things, shouldn’t Erik be upset too?
His friend looks up and catches Josh’s gaze. Then he smiles and mouths, Payback.
That smile is a punch to the gut. Josh remembers how days earlier, he left the class to go to the washroom, and when he returned, Erik was all too quick to fill him in on what the teacher had said about the exam. The same Erik who caught Josh making out with his ex-girlfriend the week before.
Realization dawns, and Josh’s face heats up in a flash of anger. He’s been duped! Well okay, maybe he had it coming, but still. Now he turns back to his exam and all he can think is, I am so screwed.
A small, simple scene, but look at the range of emotions: Josh is confused by the test, then worried. But then he begins to hope, and the reader thinks it all might turn out. That hope is quickly dashed and soon Josh feels overwhelmed. Then comes surprise at Eric’s lack of worry, then shock of being duped. This escalates to anger. Finally we have resignation over his situation and how his own actions helped cause it.
The reader’s emotions are pulled up, then down, then up. No emotion overstays its welcome, we avoid melodrama and the emotions escalate right through to the end of the scene. A range of emotions allows the reader to experience more, and keep things interesting.
YOUR TURN: Have you ever used this jagged method of escalating emotions? Did it help to keep your reader guessing? Let me know in the comments!
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About the Author: Angela Ackerman is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blog duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with seventy-five different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion.