In a story, plot is what happens. These moments of external conflict are important to both memoir and fiction. But what makes your plot interesting is not just the bad thing that could happen out in the world, but what your narrator fears will happen to them internally, if the big bad external thing happens.
How do you find and develop your story’s emotional plot? Empathy.
To begin, it’s helpful to understand why people read books, something neuroscientists have been studying for years. While Donald references several theories as to why readers read, the one that stands out is Disposition Theory.
“To entertain a story must present novelty, challenge, and/or aesthetic value. A story causes what psychologists call cognitive evaluation in readers, which in plain English means having to think, guess, question, and compare.” The more we do this, the more the story “churns in working memory, and that in turn keeps the passageway to long-term memory open.”
“Readers retain a story only when they have felt it.” This is why understanding your characters and translating that empathy onto the page is so important.
When it comes to the opening for your story’s emotional plot, establishing an emotional hook is just as important as what happens in your plot. “The best openings create both intrigue and pure emotional involvement.” To do this, you must plop your character in an interesting moment, clearly express their yearning, and give us something to connect to. According to Donald, what we’re looking to connect to is some “aspect of sameness between us and the main character.”
“While there are no universal characters, there are universal human desires. Heart. Care. Hope. Dreams. Yearning.” You want to make your protagonist or narrator’s yearning clear, while also connecting it to the heart values that create universally appealing characters, like compassion, insight, a commitment to justice, family love, steadfastness, sacrifice, and selflessness.”
He uses the opening of the Hunger Games as an example:
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had a bad dream and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”
Item of intrigue: what the hell is the reaping???
Universally appealing character: Katniss’s love for her sister.
Here’s another example from Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro:
“The night before I receive the phone call that divides my life into before and after, my face swells in an allergic reaction to a skin cream, then blisters and chaps. I am at a health spa in Southern California, a place where wealthy older women go to rest and rejuvenate, where young matrons snap their bodies back into shape after pregnancies, where movie stars stretch out on massage tables in private Japanese gardens, offering their smooth backs to the sun.
“I am none of the above, and for the past three days since arriving at the Golden Door, I have often paused amid the cacti and rock gardens to wonder what, exactly, I’m doing here.”
Items of intrigue: the phone call and reason for being at the spa
Universally appealing character: honesty, desire for insight
Questions to Help You Build the Opening for Your Story’s Emotional Plot
Maass takes you through a great exercise to help you understand your protagonist’s yearning, which you can read if you buy his book, I highly recommend you do. But here are a few of his questions to get you started:
- What is something your protagonist has strong feelings about right now?
- About whom does your protagonist care?
- What is something your protagonist feels matters urgently, or that she doesn’t understand?
Note how these questions help you identify your character’s heart values. Once you’ve done this for your narrator, repeat this exercise for all your characters—including your antagonist. This will help you not only develop more compelling characters, but create an interesting plot.
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