Storytellers, today I want to talk about EMOTIONAL CONSISTENCY and why it’s so important to good storytelling.
This is a tricky one. So what sometimes happens is wow, you get so deep into your character’s head that you know exactly how they’d react in any given situation. It’s authentic. It’s real. It’s visceral. As they say, it rings true. And yet it feels SO WRONG.
You might be missing emotional consistency. Let’s look at a small-scale example first. I’d say spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, but since Tom Holland already brought everyone up to speed…
Early in Endgame, Captain Marvel saves Tony from certain death on the far side of space. One person who couldn’t be happier to see Tony alive is Pepper Potts.
Look at the emotion in this scene. Relief, gratitude, love. There’s a lot else going on in this scene, but the emotional core remains consistent. Let’s look at how this could have gone wrong.
There are lots of different reactions Tony could have had that would make sense. The first person to run to Tony is actually Steve Rogers. What if Tony got irritated at the interruption? What if he was angry no one had a hamburger waiting for him?
In a different scene, those reactions would make sense for Tony (and could even be funny!). But those reactions would feel inconsistent and disruptive. See, scenes need to have an emotional point the same way you have a plot point.
It might make perfect sense for a character to react all sorts of ways in a scene, but if the character jumps from happy to sad to angry to impatient to terrified to happy all within a single scene, the reader feels torn in eight million directions. What’s the point of this scene? Where’s it going?
Let’s expand this example, take a bit of a wider view of the story.
In the opening scene, Tony believes he’s certain to die and is recording his final message to Pepper. He tells her, “It’s you. It’s always been you.”
That scene establishes not just the emotional core for the next scene but the emotional palette the entire story will use. Injecting Tony’s signature snark—the kind that gets the audience roaring with laughter—would disrupt any sense of a coherent emotional arc.
This is what people mean when they say you have to figure out what genre you’re writing in. There are lines you have to be careful not to cross one way or the other.
Not because there’s anything wrong with any of those lines, but because if you want to offer your reader a coherent emotional experience, going too far in one direction means you’ll now make certain kinds of decision that don’t fit.
Imagine if in the middle of Halloween, Mike Meyers broke out into dance and sang I Want it That Way. Some humor in the new Halloween is fantastic, but if it suddenly turned into a musical, it just doesn’t fit.
And I say that as someone who’d love if someone made a horror musical version of Halloween! It’s not that it couldn’t be a musical, it’s that none of the rest of the movie fits a musical. I’m begging someone to make this version, though.
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