Emotions and Plot-Driven Writing

A lot of books can be divided into three characters: Character-Driven, Plot-Driven, and Midway (a balance of both).  Sometimes when I read craft advice, I feel like an alien from outer space because much of it focus on Character-Driven and Midway.  With plot-driven writing, it’s very hard reconciling advice that starts bringing in a romantic fight as an example of emotion that would clearly be inappropriate for a book about terrorists planning an attack.

Yet, as I’m writing a review on a thriller, it’s got me thinking about what should go in thrillers.  Action comes with thrillers, and yet, I find some of them are a little flat.  And I think that’s because they go to the other end — they don’t have any emotion.  Because the characters are reacting to the events in the plot, it’s very easy to leave out the emotions.  When Laurell K. Hamilton came out with her first Anita Blake book, I grabbed that book up and read it over and over again.  It was because she blended the action and the emotions together, so the books were very exciting. More exciting, in fact, than many of the thrillers that had significantly more action.  But having Anita Blake walk into a coroner’s office with the possibility of a dangerous vampire ready to attack, intermingled with fear of what would happen and guilt over what had already happened made for a real roller coaster ride.  Instead of simply showing the reader the action, we became part of the experience, and it was riveting.

In his eBook Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth: Strategies and Techniques for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level, James Scott Bell addresses the basic problem.  If you’re plot-driven, add 10 percent of emotions to your story to make sure they get in there.  At the same time, though it’s not simply a matter of slapping emotions into the story.  I’ve observed some of the romance writers coming into plot-driven stories have a lot of difficulty picking the right kinds of emotions and where to use them most effectively.  One of the worst was a book with a basic thriller plot: Treasure hunt.  It had an emotional subplot where the main character feared that her marriage was failing and spent the book worrying about it.  Bad guys trying to kill her, and all she could worry about was her marriage.  The emotions were in such the wrong place at the wrong time that it derailed the story completely.  It turned from action thriller to sob story.

The challenge is finding the right kind of emotions.  Most thrillers rely heavily on the competence of the characters in being able to solve problems.  For example, with a story written about soldiers in war, you expect the soldiers to be competent.  If artillery starts blasting overhead (an experience I’ve had, but not in war), a civilian will react very differently than a soldier.  But it also doesn’t mean that the soldier instantly turns into Mr. Spock — he may experience fear but it may come across differently.  I remember one time experiencing an earthquake, and one person who had never seen one ran up and down the halls yelling, “Earthquake! Earthquake!”  Since I’d been in several, including the 1972 and 1987, I got in the doorway and was greatly annoyed with her panic, telling her, “Get in the doorway!” (BTW, at the time that was still the recommended advice for taking c0ver, but it has changed).  Two very different reactions, but emotional reaction was present.  Yet, even the basics are often missing when the story starts focusing on the action.

If you’re writing a plot-driven story, how do you deal with the emotions?