Avoiding Emotional Redundancy

Every scene in your manuscript should have a purpose, and move the story forward.  So obviously, you don’t want to waste the reader’s attention with scenes that relay the same information.  But what about the same emotions?

Repetition leads to boredom.

If, like me, you tend to write long and have to trim back your stories to a reasonable word count, you may be able to remove entire scenes that take the characters to the same emotional place as a previous scene.  You don’t need more than one moment where two characters realize they love each other. Or more than one moment where they are betrayed.

I wound up cutting two chapters from Pure Chocolate, in the part of the book where Bo and Brill are chasing another character across the galaxy, trying to catch him before the bounty hunters can.  I had imagined it would be fun to have them chase the poor guy across a number of planets, and to have bounty hunter characters who had showed up in the short stories I’d worked out pop back up.  The problem was, it actually got boring.  I covered the same emotional territory with the first bounty hunter encounter as I did with the more important one where they actually capture the character.  So I didn’t get the oomph in the right place.  The reader had felt what they needed to feel, and wanted me to just get on with it.  There’s still a number of scenes in the chase-and-capture sequence – but I needed to make sure each interaction in that sequence said something different emotionally.

In my classes, I always wind up making this point with the Princess Bride.  You have a whole sequence of action scenes, where Westley faces different challenges rescuing Buttercup from her kidnappers.  But each piece of it says something different about Westley – he’s tenacious (climbing the cliff), he’s skilled (sword fighting), he’s clever (besting Fezzik) – and he will offer mercy, except in the face of deceit.  And at the same time, we have the rule of threes at play.  He wins and leaves his opponent alive, he wins again and leaves his opponent alive, he wins, and leaves his opponent dead.  We’ve learned a ton about which lines he is willing to cross and why.  That’s because emotions aren’t repeated, even in action scenes.

Repeating emotions also dilutes them. 

If you give us tons of moments where a character feels confusion or anger, then none of these moments will stand out.  The character then feels like she is constantly over-reacting – or perhaps not that bright.  It’s like the boy who cried wolf.  If you give us too many times where we’re supposed to be outraged on behalf of the character, then in the moment when we should feel the MOST outraged, we will be emotionally worn out.

It also impedes the reader’s experience in remembering key points.  You want to tie revelations in your story to those emotional moments that make the character feel engaged with the plot.  The same goes for information you want readers to remember.  If the character is freaking out over a hidden identity or a spilled secret, we will hold onto it.  Raw narration or lists of facts rarely has the same effect.  If you give us too many focus points, we won’t be able to figure out which one is important.

Consider the Emotional Color Wheel

Psychologists use the emotional color wheel as a way to interact with patients.  According to, “When the question concerns our emotions that we process on a subconscious level, it can be hard to first identify and verbalize our needs . . . It enables the user to visualize their emotions, and understand which combinations of emotions created this outcome.”

The wheel divides emotions into eight broad categories.  These are often grouped together as polar opposites.

joy and sadness
acceptance and disgust
fear and anger
surprise and anticipation

And the wheel breaks down as roughly half positive, half negative.  Which is a handy tool for writers.  If your story spends all its time in the negative half of the board – focusing on sadness, disgust and anger – then it becomes unrelentingly dark, and the reader can be turned off.  If it’s always on the positive – joy, acceptance and surprise – then the reader will feel it has no substance.

But if the character makes progress as a person, and accepts all of his emotions, then the story will feel more real.

Think about what films such as Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias would have been without the moments of lightness, joy and humor that made the overtly grim subject matter palatable.  Steel Magnolias without that armadillo cake and the sensibility that bleeding red velvet brought with it would have been near unwatchable.

And even a spoof like Galaxy Quest loses its weight without actual moments of danger and fear.  The moment that hit home the most for me in the entire film was when Jason overhears a couple of punk kids making fun of him, and how he is still emotionally stuck in the past, since his career stalled out after his early success in the show.  He has to arc past that, and it is his emotional progress that carries the film.

If you want to learn more about how to use a specific type of scene to keep your story moving forward, and you are in the DFW area, join us for Saturday Night Write’s March 2020 discussion Effective Action Scenes.  March 21 at the Flying Fish in Arlington, TX, free and open to all.

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