Emotions Should Lead to Decisions

Here’s a tidbit from the Bookshelf Muse, which I came across this week: Emotions should lead to decisions. Angela Ackerman writes, “Always keep the story moving forward. A character agonizing over a choice will crank up the tension and heighten stakes, but too much will slow the pace. Remember too, often when emotion is involved, we make mistakes. Mistakes = great conflict!”

I think this is excellent advice. I can think of many stories I love where some emotion has caused a character to make a decision, and then that decision has lead to another kind of action, where another decision has to be made. Let’s look at one of my favorite short stories, “Cavemen in the Hedges,” by Stacey Richter. (Please don’t let the title scare you off. This is a wonderful, magical realism piece that originally appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story and went on to appear in the Best American Short Stories.)

At the center of the story is a young, unmarried couple who own a house and have been together for 10 years. The woman, Kim, wants to get married. The narrator does not. He sees his single status as the last vestige of his youth. Complicating their life and everyone around them are a bunch of Neandrathals that have suddenly appeared from out of nowhere. It’s rumored that they came through a time portal. Most people are afraid of the Neandrathals and avoid them. Here are some emotions and the decisions or actions that the characters take (warning: spolier alert).

  • Kim is disappointed that her boyfriend doesn’t want to get married >> invites married neighbors to dinner
  • Talk of marriage frustrates Kim >> she decides to leave the “party” to check on the basement, which may be flooding in a rainstorm going on. There, she meets a caveman.
  • Suddenly the frustrated, angry Kim is happy >> she buys cheap trinkets from Toys R Us and disappears again and again into the basement to “bail it out.”
  • The narrator, finally realizing that she’s having an affair, feels hurt, angry and confused >> he decides to try to win her back by being evolutionarily superior. He begins to cook and clean to impress Kim.
  • It doesn’t work and eventually Kim follows the caveman through the time portal, leaving the modern world behind.

There’s a lot more to this story and the tone is wry and funny. But I just wanted to get across the idea of how emotions can lead to decisions that lead to other emotions that lead to decisions, etc., etc. Consider the emotions at the heart of each scene and use those to drive the character to act.

Photo: alexbrn / Flickr Creative Commons

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