Becca and I are welcoming MJ Bush today, who specializes in looking deep into story and character elements at her website, Writing Geekery. If you aren’t yet a subscriber, head on over, because there are many thought-provoking posts that will help you take your writing to the next level!
Not all emotions are easy to deal with and people use different coping mechanisms to handle difficult moments. Please read on for some great thoughts on emotional displacement and how to deploy it to maximize tension and conflict in your novel.
Using Emotional Discharge to Power Up Your Story
How does your character cope? Every character has a preferred method or two of dealing with uncomfortable emotions. How about that one where the character takes something out on another character?
That discharge of emotions is called displacement. The victim is generally less threatening or more available than the source of the emotion, making them a convenient target.
However, it’s not just anger that can be displaced. Desire, fear, self-doubt, guilt, and affection are interesting candidates.
In the Story
Displacement can fuel conflict or misunderstanding. It can cause mistakes that affect the plot. It can reveal a belief or worldview. It can be an incredible source of dramatic irony, with the reader knowing the reasons behind the character’s actions, and the other characters left in the dark.
Imagine misconstrued words, unintended consequences, conflict escalating… all because your character blew up with misdirected anger. Or gave misplaced affection to someone without a meaningful relationship because of loneliness. Or turned the anger and violence on themselves. Or started killing off those that look like the one that hurt him. (It’s a common trope in murder shows.)
No matter what the emotion is, it’s possible for it to have a large impact on the story.
An Effective Use of Displacement
Let’s break a rule. You know the one about scene and sequel? That one.
What happens if we don’t give our characters time to recover after a high-tension scene? They take out the fear or anger on the next person who makes the slightest mistake.
By not giving the character a chance to reset their mindset, you make it believable when they displace those emotions.
The result? A shadow scene.
Now, I’m not sure where I first heard about shadow scenes, as it seems to be a rare phrase. But it means a scene that reflects another scene (the high-tension one in this case). It’s a literary device that includes parallel scenes, and is used to deepen characterization or theme.
Here’s an example:
Your character dodges death unexpectedly on the way home from work. Perhaps it’s only avoiding a big accident by luck. He hasn’t had a chance to cool the adrenaline and fear when he gets home to find something on fire in the oven. Now, this is fairly ordinary at his house, but this time the fear is fueling him. He explodes at his wife, channeling frustration at his earlier helplessness into anger at her.
This particular shadow scene could be used to set up his spiral into becoming an abusive husband, or it could jumpstart his determination to challenge other areas of his life where he feels helpless.
There’s a Reactor Arc Here Somewhere… (Pun!)
Displacement leaves a lot of room for growth. A person or a character can learn to use more mechanisms or deal with the problem directly. The tendency to displace might even be classified as a flaw.
You can create an arc for the reaction:
- They become aware of what they’re doing.
- They fail at avoiding it.
- They practice a more mature way of handling the emotion (with limited success).
- They succeed at the more mature handling.
- They defeat the source of the emotion.
The mature alternative could be sublimation, compensation, or assertiveness. Spread the arc throughout the story, with motivation, and you’ve got a character arc. That’s one possibility. You could also have them devolve.
What Will You Do Now?
In the real world, emotions are unpredictable and bleed over into other areas of life. You have the freedom to use that tendency to its full extent. If I had to leave you with one piece of advice, it would be this:
Know your character. And know how you can use your character. Even down to the smallest details.
MJ Bush is The Analytical Creative. Her writing advice steps back to take in the whole picture, then dives in to grab the pearls of usable detail. She’s the founder of Writingeekery.com and a full time fiction coach, editor, and writer. (There’s even a craft-book in the works!)