Using Emotional Discharge to Power Up Your Story

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!

Power upI’m a sucker for anything that centers on emotion or psychology, and MJ’s post tackles both.

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:

  1. They become aware of what they’re doing.
  2. They fail at avoiding it.
  3. They practice a more mature way of handling the emotion (with limited success).
  4. They succeed at the more mature handling.
  5. 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.

MJWhat other emotions could you displace? What ways can you think of to use displacement? Tell me your thoughts or write a flash story (100 words) in the comments.

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 and a full time fiction coach, editor, and writer. (There’s even a craft-book in the works!)

Image Credits


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Emotion, Guest Post, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Using Emotional Discharge to Power Up Your Story

  1. Wow. I’ve never heard of shadow scenes before!! I will definitely use them in the future as they sound like a good bounce-off to what has gone on previously.

    • MJ Bush says:

      Ever since I heard of them, I’ve seen them in many good books. I’m just stumped trying to figure out where I read about them. 🙂

  2. Michael M Dickson says:

    Whoa! I thought I studied story structure.
    I’m jotting down notes like a wild man!

    • MJ Bush says:

      Hi Michael 🙂
      Story structure is just a way of pacing what happens to a character, so as long as you space things out with believable steps to show the change happening, you should be fine. The example I gave was just an example. 🙂

  3. H Gibson says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I finally understand why readers are so ‘into’ the Chronicles of Han Storm.
    I started to write the stories as a physical and emotional healing tool, just pouring out my heart. My husband read it, referred it to some friends and now I am busy with the fifth book!

  4. thabo mophiring says:

    What sparked in my mind is this technique for therapy.
    Writing a character is the trauma situation and exploring the reaction as a way to sense life, come to terms with trauma and grow.

    • MJ Bush says:

      Always glad to spark something. 🙂
      So the writing itself is the therapy?

      • H gibson says:

        The writing itself can be used as the Therapy. You can explore, within a safe medium, your own trauma (or someone else’s), looking at it from different perspectives or as an independent observer – how you dealt with it, how you could have dealt with it or how you would wanted to have dealt with it (or would deal with other situations in the future – should they come to pass).
        With placing it on paper, when you see it in front of you, you can release the emotional connection to a happening, situation or physical injury. As you re-read, you can come to terms with it, release it, forgive, heal, move on.
        I have found that the mind becomes conditioned and your therapy is not just therapy for yourself but it usually turns out that there are other people that heal through reading the stories you have created.
        This is similar as talking to a therapist or going to support groups where people talk about their experiences, share and heal in the process.
        With writing, you can either concentrate privately on yourself, or publicly create something that benefits other people as well, even if it is only seen as a story at the end of the day.

        • thabo mophiring says:

          I think the distinction of writing for self and writing to bemefit others is false.

          Dealing with personal trauman on an authentic way is alwsys helpful to others who are journeying the same path.

          In 12 Steps programmes, people relate their experience (story) to others.
          In African cultures storytelling serves a similar purpose .

          The narration of the self sealing with trauma helps both self and others .
          Writing ‘fiction’ does much the same not really about focusing privately or on others.

  5. Bill Brogan says:

    Thanks for this post. I found it really useful. For some time now, I’ve been experimenting with the Enneagram to give an in-depth personality profile to my main characters; that includes how they are likely to react when under stress, and how different that is to when they are in a comfort zone.

    I’m in the process of writing a blog post about using the Enneagram for characterisation, and the points about displacement add another useful dimension for me. If you’re not familiar with the Enneagram, you can check it out at (I’m to trying to sell it, by the way – in fact, I just use the free personality profiling tool)

    • MJ Bush says:

      I like the Enneagram. My process changes constantly as I try new things, but it’s definitely a favorite. Thanks for commenting, Bill!

  6. Sara L. says:

    Really enjoyed this article, MJ! (And thanks to Writers Helping Writers for posting it!) I checked out your WritingGeekery website, too. Can’t wait to visit that on a regular basis now and learn more about the craft of writing.

    I was wondering what Angela meant by emotional sensitivity. Could it be one of the character’s weaknesses? What are some examples?

    • Hi Sara,

      I was referring to how each of us, and therefore each character, is more sensitive to certain emotions than others. Often this is a result of negative past experiences and emotional wounds. Things that hurt us stay with us, and so when something happens that reminds us of a past wound or troubling event, specific emotions are triggered much more quickly than normal.

      Everyone has different emotional sensitivities. The character who was cheated on might become jealous quite easily, or be prone to suspicion. They may read into the behavior of others, question motives and find it difficult to trust. If they catch someone in a lie, they could become disproportionately angry or upset. Whereas someone who has never experienced that level of betrayal might be more open, trust more easily and if they caught someone in a lie, be more willing to look at the reasons behind the action and forgive.

      It isn’t always negative emotions that a person is sensitive to, but we tend to show a heightened response to any emotions that put one’s self worth into question.

      Does this help?

    • MJ Bush says:

      Thanks, Sara. I’m looking forward to seeing you there in the future. 🙂

  7. Rosi says:

    Terrific post. Thanks for these good ideas. I really think I can use this. Very helpful.

  8. Great post, MJ. There are some things that are predictable, and others which are not, and emotions definitely fits into the latter category, meaning that knowing a character’s emotional range and sensitivities are so important. Thanks for taking a look at coping mechanisms so we can apply this to add another layer of realism to our characters!

    • MJ Bush says:

      “Emotional range and sensitivities” is SO spot on. This might be weird, but I like to think of a character’s emotional personality as a solid but bendy-all-over doll. Some characters will be more flexible than others, and each have limitations to how they can react. Mental imagery for you there. 🙂

  9. Richard says:

    Early on in my current WIP, my main protagonist’s professional (junior) partner tells him he’s displacing, dumping work on him. But the main character rarely displaces in reality. 60K in and he’s undergoing a bout of PTSD that’s compounded by constant action. (It’s sci-fi. He’s a cop in late 21st century Dublin.) But you’ve inspired an idea which I might follow up with this post, MJ. Terrific work, as ever!

    • MJ Bush says:

      Gotta love inspiration! Thank you, Richard.
      And your WIP sounds intriguing!

      • Richard says:

        And actually, MJ, he does displace in an awful way, early on. Racism has been subverted somewhat. I totally forgot about it. He takes out the withholding of his uncle’s medical treatment on an American.

        “Hey,” Keir said.
        She turned to look at him before committing herself to the swinging door, going through it and emerging back out again.
        “Hi,” she beamed. “You work here?”
        Keir nodded.
        “You?” he asked.
        Her nameplate read Jaimee in mock Sanskrit lettering.
        “Here…and the Wong Mart. What’s wrong?”
        “Nothing,” he said, realising whom she was.
        “I appreciate that you tried to comfort me back at the supermarket, when you were in line,” she beamed.
        “We call it a queue here,” he replied curtly.
        “Right. I just wanted to say thanks. You took a risk. You didn’t have to do that.”
        “Jaimee, is it? American?”
        She nodded and her smile started to melt as he continued.
        “Where’d you lose the finger, Jaimee?” he asked. “You one of the One Hundred Thousand?”
        She nodded, her mouth agape.
        “One of the ones who got out alive with their trigger finger removed?”
        “I was a…”
        He put a hand up to stop her talking. Her eyes began to soften under the streetlight.
        “The only reason you’re here is because of your mighty nation’s reputation for good customer service, Jay-meeee.”
        “I was a…”
        “That, the Yellowstone Caldera and the San Andreas coastline. You’re here out of pity.”
        “I was a n—”
        “I lost my uncle today, because they don’t have the resources, Jay-Meeee. Well, not for us whiteys.”
        He listened to her stutter.
        “You’re the worst kind of scum. Do you know that? At least you knew where you stood with the Nazis. You were a bunch of Nazis masquerading as nobleminded…”
        “Nurse,” she finished then. She was sobbing now, silently so that he wouldn’t hear, trying to catch her breath. In attempting to stay quiet, the tears started to stream down her face uncontrollably. “I l-l-l-lost my family in the quake. I was still in Kabul with…”
        “With your Panzer divisions?”
        “D-D-Doctors…Without Borders. Then they put us in the camp. I couldn’t get home. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
        “You’re sorry now? You’re only sorry for getting captured a few years back. You’re only sorry because California fell into the sea. All that silicone and silicon. You’re not really sorry.”
        “I’m sorry for your uncle. If I had known, I could have helped, maybe. I have…h-h-h-
        “Ha ha ha? You laughing now, is that it?”
        “H-h-h-half a degree…in medicine.”
        “You deserve everything you get,” he hissed. “But me? What the hell did I do?”
        She inhaled slowly, the mucus sniffling up her nasal passages. Keir didn’t hide his disgust. She wiped the mascara on her right cheek with the stump of her index finger. She shook her head for a long moment.
        “Nothing,” she replied finally. “You’ve done nothing.”
        “Bitch,” he muttered under his breath, making sure she heard.
        Tremayne left her standing in the cold, stepping into the bumper to bumper traffic towards the metro station across the road. When he glanced back as he went down the steps, she still stood outside the building door, her hands cupping her face as she shook in the darkness.

  10. Shawn Jones says:

    This in not flash, but it fits the bill here. It’s a scene from Warrior’s Scar, my first novel.

    “Dar’s flight tripped the sensors. Right after it landed, another flight appeared. It will land in about four minutes.”

    “F**k. Suit Sköll up. I’m getting into the CONDOR. Lock yourself and Sköll down. I don’t want him getting in the way.” Cort stopped and looked at the archaeologist. “They do NOT get Sköll. Do you understand?”


    “Good. Batten down the hatches, Doctor.”

    Three minutes later, the CONDOR suit stepped into the new world for the first time. Cort had its assault rifle at the ready. The second flight was just touching down as Cort kneeled into a combat stance between it and the first flight. The control hatch opened and Clare stepped out.

    “What the f**k, Clare? God dammit!” Cort stood up. His voice sounded like a deity as it boomed out from the powered armor. “I considered shooting you down before you touched the ground! What the hell is wrong with you? You’ve got a f**king death wish, you know that? Do you have any f**king idea how stupid that was?” He turned to Dar who had exited his flight. “Did you know she was coming? Why didn’t you tell me? Wasn’t me almost killing you the first time enough to give you pause about springing more surprises on me? What the hell, people?” Inside the suit, Cort shifted his eyes across the HUD. The Head-Up Display opened a comm line to the transport chamber. Only Wills heard him say, “All clear, Doctor. It’s just my f**king family again. Son of a bitch.”

    Behind Dar, an older and slightly shorter version of Clare stared at the giant warrior. Her eyes filled with tears. It was the first emotion she had shown in over ten years. Kay Gaines walked forward to the armored man and reached up to place the palm of her hand on the left side of chestplate. “Is there a scar under here?”

    In a much softer tone, the warrior said, “Yes there is, Miss Gaines. Welcome home.” He caught the woman as she fainted. To Wills he said, “Doctor, please prepare some tea. We’re coming in.” He didn’t say a word to either Clare or Dar. And they knew not to try and speak to him as they followed him into the tunnel.

    To Dar, Clare whispered, “That could have gone better.”

    Cort said, “Shut up, Clare.”

    • Shawn Jones says:

      And coincidentally, I just found an omitted word in the scene. Woohoo for this post!

    • MJ Bush says:

      So is he mad because of an outside circumstance? Or is it just fear of what he could have done because of their actions? If the first, yes it’s displacement. If not, it’s a straightforward reaction, channeling fear into anger. Displacement means the anger is displaced onto someone who had no responsibility in the situation.

      Either way, it gives a good glimpse into the mind and heart of the character.

      And YAY for finding omitted words! 🙂

      • Shawn Jones says:

        It’s a combination of both. He has a ‘combat high’, he’s worried about his wolf, and he’s about to meet one of his distant descendants. I couldn’t include all of the back story without making it too long. Mainly he is stressed because he is about to meet his 9th great granddaughter.(The MC has traveled three centuries forward in time)
        Clare just showed up at the wrong time.

  11. MJ Bush says:

    Thank you for having me, Angela! I’m looking forward to answering some questions and reading some flash stories using this. =)

  12. Awesome blog! Will have to chew on all of this to see how I can use it in my WIP. Thanks.

  13. Cindy Huff says:

    I found this post very valuable. I have never heard the term displacement before. It makes total sense. It is a challenge to create life-like characters. Thanks for giving me another great tool to add to my creation kit.

    • MJ Bush says:

      You’re welcome! I love figuring out how real-life psychology can be harnessed (but not tamed!) to help push a story. Have fun with it! =)

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