Emotional Beats in Storytelling: Poignancy

I recently purchased an ebook a copy of David Farland’s Million Dollar Outlines. In it there is a section that describes how stories are designed to provide consumers with an emotional experience. Various stories in Hollywood in particular are pitched to the public in trailers that give certain emotional “beats” such as horror, adventure, wonder, romance, lust, drama, etc. (They have a few basic categories).

I’ve been trying to figure out my own interests both in writing and in the movies and literature I consume (it’s an ongoing process). I thought for a while that my primary emotional draws for stories might be thriller or adventure, or perhaps even horror. But there are a lot of thrillers, adventures, and especially horror stories that don’t appeal to me very much at all. I like the action in Indiana Jones, but at the end of the day it’s nowhere near as satisfying for me as The Mummy (1999 version) or Spider Man, or Star Wars, or Nicholas Nickleby (all of which are among my favorite movies). I like humor, but I’m picky about that too. I’m not a big chick-flick consumer, but sometimes I do find romance elements that appeal to me quite strongly. In particular I like to create stories that involve testing the love, friendship, and commitment of married couples rather than creating stories where characters have to fall in love (I feel like it’s easier to make things hurt if the relationship is already there and already awesome).

Yesterday I watched the Ender’s Game movie trailer for the first time (I watched it several times) and realized that what drew me in (besides knowing it was Orson Scott Card’s classic sci-fi) was the point when Viola Davis says to Harrison Ford “You really don’t see them as children, do you?” And then we see a scene of Ender embracing his sister and a promise that Ender would be remembered as a hero–not for the glory of winning the war but for everything about normal childhood he’s sacrificing to save humanity. The music and acting leading up to the climax were excellent too, and the clip made my skin tingle. I realized that emotional beat I was so drawn to in this particular story was that of poignancy. I don’t particularly care if I’m watching a fantasy, a History Channel rendition of a figure from ancient Egypt, a show about dystopian society that makes kids fight each other to the death, a thriller, a chick flick, a comedy, if the story has some kind of practical poignant hook I’ll probably enjoy it.

Realizing this has helped me pin down what kind of stories I really like to tell, too. I never really thought I was a thriller or horror genre lover, but I love creepiness. I realize now that what I love about creepiness when used in certain ways is it’s ability to evoke that deep sense of poignancy that I love. What if someone goes through a painful transformation process and gets stuck in a monstrous form forever? Will the people closest to them strive to find a way to still love them like they did before even though things will never be quite the same? Would someone sacrifice their humanity–their relationships, their childhood, their lives–to save the world or the people they love? When characters go through this kind of pain and sacrifice with a noble effort, it makes me melt, and that’s the kind of emotional beat I want to be known for in my stories. Poignancy.

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Sarah E. Seeley is a fantasy and horror author, and an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association. She has a bachelor’s degree in geology and loves exploring the science of human origins.

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