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Diminishing Returns

Banes at 12:00AM, Dec. 15, 2016

Emotional Charges and Diminishing Returns

Many writing methodologies suggest mapping out the emotional change of each scene. The scene either starts positive, and goes to either negative or “extra positive”, or starts negative and goes to positive or “extra negative” by the end of the scene.

So if a lovelorn hero is being shunned by his intended and is hurt (negative), and bursts into her office to declare his love…

- he might find her in the arms of another suitor (sending the hero to “negative negative” trauma),
- or he might find her chatting with her co-workers and, if he can handle it right with everyone watching, can win her favor (and end the scene with a positive emotional state).

Or if a detective has found an informant who knows something about the mystery (a hopeful positive charge), she might find the informant reluctant to talk, and…

- manage to convince him to share (positive positive)
- or get the door slammed in her face (negative).

This somewhat analytical way to look at a story requires mapping the whole thing out, scene by scene, and figuring out what the emotional charge is for the entire thing, so each scene would go from (+ to -), (+ to ++), (- to +) or (- to –). The entire story will then go from positive (getting closer to the goal) to negative (further from the goal).

I guess mapping it out this way helps make sure the story is CHALLENGING enough to the protagonist, and also that you don't run into repetition in the emotions, which would lead to boredom, or to diminishing returns and unintentional emotions from the readers. Going too far into the “plusses” or “minuses” puts your story at risk!

I was in a writing class/writing group a few years back and one of the students read the beginning of her short story.

It was about a woman who lost her job, and then got a call that told her that her husband was leaving her. For a woman, she wondered? No. For a man.

She then walked outside in a daze, and was hit by bus.

I had to hold back my laughter, it struck me as so funny. I didn't want her feelings to be hurt, so I didn't make a sound.

As it turned out, she intended it to be darkly humorous, but her reading voice quivered so much we'd all assumed she was upset and telling a true story about her own life. Actually, she was just nervous to be reading aloud…or that's just what her voice sounded like.

Anyway, it turned out she hadn't been screwing things up, but using the principle of diminishing returns perfectly to create comedy. Tragedy plus tragedy plus tragedy can create comedy. But if it's unintentional comedy or not set up right, it will cause an audience/readership to just go numb, or tune out, and possibly stop reading altogether!

What do you think? Does mapping out a story in positive/negative charges make sense? Have you tried it? Does it seem too analytical? Do emotional “diminishing returns” apply to web comics, where we often read only one page at a time?

Have a fine Thursday!




Banes at 9:29AM, Dec. 16, 2016

@EssayBee - HAHA! Awesome video. Damn, Vonnegut expressed every writing newspost I've written or will write in just a couple minutes!

Banes at 9:28AM, Dec. 16, 2016

@bravo - It may not be a full definition of dark comedy, but yeah! I'd like to do more articles about comedy...haven't thought it through coherently, though. And it's the sort of thing I think might be damaging to think about too much...

Banes at 9:26AM, Dec. 16, 2016

@Bruno Harm - Ha!

EssayBee at 8:23AM, Dec. 16, 2016

This immediately made me thing of Kurt Vonnegut's talk on story diagrams ( ).

bravo1102 at 11:35PM, Dec. 15, 2016

Dark Comedy. There was a series of film shorts starring the actor who would later be the voice of George Jetson. It was called "Behind the Eight Ball" and was about an extremely hard luck character that nothing good ever rarely happened. Much like George Jetson. And it was played for comedy. Several of the greatest comedic turns in the Twilight Zone series were episodes about hard luck characters who finally make good ... but with a twist. Another great gag that should be in every writer's toolbox. Always negative and the positive only comes at a high price. Just imagine poor Mr. Valentine finally getting everything he always wanted, but way too easily and finding out he IS in the other place and Pip laughing...

Bruno Harm at 7:39PM, Dec. 15, 2016

so.. No country for old men is a comedy.. That makes more sense now.

Banes at 3:13PM, Dec. 15, 2016

That's good to hear! I've been studiously avoiding spoilers!

KimLuster at 9:35AM, Dec. 15, 2016

Walking Dead is worth sticking with... so far :)

Banes at 9:20AM, Dec. 15, 2016

@used books - yeah, different mediums will be different. I was particularly thinking of webcomics, where a lot of time can pass between reading each page. One scene can span several pages, though - one page could end with the conflict introduced, with the result (and the revelation of success or failure and the new emotional state) revealed a page or two later.

Banes at 9:18AM, Dec. 15, 2016

@KimLuster - thanks! Yeah, I've finally just started the Walking Dead. Liking it so far (I'm on season 2), but I've heard it goes off course later...

Banes at 9:17AM, Dec. 15, 2016

@Udyr - thanks! Yeah, it would be interesting to try out a "positives only" story. I had an idea for a series where the characters won the lottery at the end of every episode XD

Banes at 9:15AM, Dec. 15, 2016

@MOrgan - good point! I agree; I've only tried to map out the emotions once (and i didn't finish that story). I go by instinct, too. Charting out the emotions are a nifty tool in the toolbox if needed!

Banes at 9:13AM, Dec. 15, 2016

@ozone - thanks man! @bravo - yes, the good old "hit by a bus" gag! Reliable as anything! XD

usedbooks at 6:43AM, Dec. 15, 2016

Because we read one page at a time, graphic novels are a bit different from other media. Each page has to be satisfying so some development is necessary to be successful. Little mini creacendos on each page and a larger one for the scene and yet a larger one for the chapter/arc. In addition, anymood going on too long created boredom and numbness whether in drama or comedy. For example, the layered misfortunes in a series like Frasier eventually hit the point where you get weary of it. It's funny enough, but every now and then, you's like it to end on an upper hand.

KimLuster at 4:51AM, Dec. 15, 2016

Great stuff! The current season of The Walking Dead has seen diminished viewership, and some think it's because the already dark show had plunged into such bleakness that it's causing viewers to tune out... Even though I haven't yet, I can certainly feel it, and there better be some kind of upturn soon, even if just a small one. I've sometimes felt my current story veered too far into the negative as well and it took to long for a positive to happen...

Udyr at 4:46AM, Dec. 15, 2016

I think at some points you need the switches to make a good comic though it would be interesting to read a comic where there's only positive things that happens (As in fortune and luckwise).... Would people even read it??? Or just hate the person in the story too much for everything going the right way! :p Usually people wait out a tragedy when things are overly optimistic and that with a reason.... If only negative things happens and ANOTHER optimistic thing happen its humourus, its sort of interesting come to think of it.

MOrgan at 2:48AM, Dec. 15, 2016

I think most writers tend to do it instinctively, although it might be a good analysis technique to use if something about your story feels off or if your beta readers aren't reacting to it the way you think they should.

bravo1102 at 1:48AM, Dec. 15, 2016

Getting hit by the bus is a classic gag. The Scary Movie franchise has used it as well Zombeavers. For them the protagonist survives the ordeal only to get hit by a bus. So it's a pile of negative and finally a positive only to get the bus. Tex Avery would also have a character start a bad day, say nothing else could go wrong and step out the front door into the path of an oncoming express train...

Ozoneocean at 12:34AM, Dec. 15, 2016

That's really really clever! I sort of knew about that but not in such a formalised way. I literally burst out laughing at the getting hit by a bus story before I read that it was supposed to be funny :D

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