Plotting the emotional map of your book

emotional map

The emotional map of your book is different than the plot, though the two are tightly related. Being aware of this emotional current can bring clarity to your writing, and is a powerful way to progress your story.

Every story has an emotional map. It’s behind the words on the paper, but if designed well, is extremely easy to follow.

The emotional map is a breakdown of how a reader should feel at each point in the book. For example, these types of signposts might be part of your emotional map:

  • Here the reader should be thinking the main character is dead, so when she shows up alive, it’s a huge surprise.
  • Here the reader should believe this couple is deeply in love, so the fact that she is having an affair comes as a huge surprise.
  • Here the reader needs to feel the pain of a long farewell so they understand why the husband goes AWOL from the war’s front line and walks home to his wife.

Shaping your words – and the order of events in your story – to accentuate the emotion underneath is a powerful way to heighten your narrative and make your book come alive for readers. Good books are much more than one emotion, after all. A complex web of shifting, evolving feelings is what makes a story gripping.

A great book is a rollercoaster of deep emotions. You might spend a lot of time slowly climbing a hill, knowing you are going to race to the ground on the other side. Other times, the change in direction is a total surprise.

What is the lay of the land of your plot? What are the peaks and troughs your reader must travel? Is your reader sad, then happy, then heartbroken, then euphoric? Is she scared along the way? Extremely tense? Cold? Hot? Lost?

If you are adept as a writer, you can even get across mixed and conflicted emotions with clarity. If you’ve done your job, your reader will feel what your characters feel, in all their complexities.

Your emotional map and plot go hand in hand

The emotional map of your book is different than the plot, though the two are tightly related. In your plot, a character might be escaping from a monster, but the emotion will be fear or exhilaration. In your plot, your main character might be getting married, but the prevailing emotion could be joy, regret, or a sense of panic. In the case of panic, the next plot point might be your bride escaping out the window.

Just as your plot is driven by your words, so is your emotional map. It lurks beneath your words, invisible – yet has a huge impact on your reader. You can break down and list all of the emotions as they appear in any story. Content, elated, distraught, scared, grieved, panicked, relieved, peaceful, satisfied. An emotion might last a paragraph, or a page, or a few pages. You might have mixed emotions that ebb and flow to create nuanced patterns.

Just being aware of this emotional current can bring clarity to your writing, and actively working on an emotional level to drive your characters and plot can be a powerful way to progress your story. When you start to look at text this way, you can see some interesting patterns.

Kurt Vonnegut went as far as to make graphs of the overall shapes of stories according to the good or ill fortune of the main character. Knowing the overarching emotional tone of each part of your story is key to writing compelling scenes.

How quickly do your emotions change? Are there oscillations? Is there a steady climb towards resolution or sadness over sections of your book? The key goal is to create an emotional tapestry that continually shifts and adopts different hues as your characters move through their experiences, but it’s really a map for you as a writer. It’s something you actively create with your imagination, and it’s something you need to stick to.

If you make a character really sad, you have to give the reader a map to how he transforms into another state. A character can’t suddenly go from disappointed to suicidal without a compelling reason. This is all part of the emotional logic of your story. If done well, it will draw your readers along, pushing their emotional buttons in a satisfying way. If done poorly, they might just put down the book in discomfort.

How well does your emotional map come across to readers? It’s not something you put into words directly. It’s there through what you show your reader, an emergent property of all the words you use.

All writers are told to “show don’t tell.” Much of “tell” is your emotional map, and the skill with which you provide evidence for your “tell” will largely define your success in conveying your story and attracting readers.

It could be that much of your early drafts will be telling, as your emotional map shows through in the background. You need to recognize it and remove it in subsequent drafts. The words on your emotional map will be very different from the ones you put on the page. If, over the next few pages, you know your heroine will be extremely melancholic, you won’t ever say that. You will use your words to explain what is causing her to be sad and how she is reacting and how other characters react. Your emotional map says “sad” and your words explain the details.

You can make good use of your emotional map when working at any stage of your book – it is as useful as an outline. In the first complete draft of your book, even if all the words aren’t perfect yet, the emotional arc of the story should be clear. You should be able to think about, shuffle, tweak, overhaul, and work from your emotional map to make your words and story better. Writing to the emotional point of any part of your work will help you see what to cut as chaff and what to amplify to evoke the desired feelings in the reader. Even a few beautifully selected words can do wonders. Strong word choice is driven by an author’s emotional map.

It’s especially good for when you need to plow through a section you are having trouble with. Can’t get the words right? Make sure the emotional map of the section is in place and sturdy first. It might actually be what’s missing.

Are you ready to plot the emotional map of your book? What does it look like?

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  1. I would like more discussion re the Emotional Map subject. Has someone plotted an emotional map of their book? I would like to see what it looks like. Many thanks.

  2. I tried to print the blog. The weekly newsletter ad printed over the blog on the last two pages even though I clicked “No Thanks.”
    Is there some way to make the blog printable?

  3. The first line of this article reads: “The emotional map of your book is different than the plot, though the two are tightly related.” Correct English and simple logic demand that it should read: “The emotional map of your book is different from the plot, though the two are tightly related.” “Than” implies comparison, but you can’t be more or less different; the correct formulation is “from” because you’re establishing a distinction.

    • Yes, from is more common and sounds correct to Brits (which I am) but than is now also accepted. Several grammar sources could be cited for this.


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