Q & A on Foster-Harris

Must emotions be about the future?

On the secret, hidden part of my blog, where I’ve posted my first story written to pulp formula, Wayne commented:

I’ve read Foster-Harris’ books and he’s excellent at explaining subjective POV.

His other notions are intriguing and I wish he had explained them more and gave more examples.

F-H says every fiction sentence should have an emotion looking forward and a fact looking back. Like “Angrily, he swirled.” Anger is an emotion but how is it looking forward? Anger is frustration at being stopped. How is swirling a fact looking back.

Well, there are different kinds of anger.  If the anger were about being stopped, then it would be “about the future” in the sense that the angry person didn’t want to be stuck on whatever had stuck them, but was already mentally trying to put themselves into the future situation, and stupid reality wasn’t keeping pace with them.

But your criticism is a very good one.  Emotions aren’t always about the future.  Foster-Harris is wrong on that point.

Some emotions are always about the future.  Fear, for example, doesn’t make sense if it’s not oriented toward the future.  You could image a situation where someone was fearful of something that technically had already happened — fearful of getting a bad grade on yesterday’s test.  They might know it had already been graded, but until it happens to them, until they get the grade, it’s in their future.

Other emotions are always about the past.  Regret, for example.

So, F-H is no good in understanding human emotionality.  But, his rule works for writing fiction, because building emotions that are oriented toward the future builds reader involvement.  It motivates the reader to keep reading.  It creates suspense.

The contrary point, that factual information is always about the past, is equally flawed in reality, since there are any number of factual things we can say about the future; that in so many days it will be Sunday, that the sun will rise tomorrow, that it will probably rain later on, and so on.

But, in storytelling, the certain facts at any given moment are the ones that came before that moment.  Things that have already happened are available to be understood.  They can be processed by the reader’s intellect.  And that’s important and necessary, but on its own it kills suspense.

So, rather than thinking of it as “emotions – must be about the future,” and “facts – must be about the past,” you can think of it as, “emotions about the future – build suspense and involvement,” and, “facts about the past – build understanding but kill suspense.”

As long as you’re building more suspense than you’re killing, you’re doing good.  But you have to build the suspense first, you have to lead with it, or you deflate the story, and the interesting bit kinda whimpers out at the end.

Emotional Conflict

F-H talks about conflict and plotting as correct emotional equation. The plus vs minus analogy confuses me because uses math symbols in a way that’s not precisely defined.

But Duty vs love. I can see what he’s really talking about is an emotional dilemma about conflicting goals. A character has something he wants and also certain standards he wants to maintain getting the goal. And one of the horns of the dilemma is an emotional attachment like the love interest.

It’s like in High Noon. It’s Gary Cooper’s marshall duties to a town vs a promise to his pacifist bride. If he pursues one, he loses the other.

Okay, that’s true, but the F-H system is not just about conflicting goals.  The goals must be carefully selected to encode the emotional conflict.  A story about any two conflicting goals won’t do.

When F-H says a story is about competing emotions, he means that.  Goals are one way of conveying that, as it relates to plot.  Conflicting character traits are another, as it related to characterization.

There are emotions, and emotional values, that we socially and morally value more highly than others.  Writing a story with the F-H system is your chance to talk about, to make an argument about, which should be placed higher than others.  (Writing a non-F-H story is your chance to reserve judgement on the matter.)

The way you make that kind of argument is to show someone making the wrong decision, and having trouble as a consequence, and then making the right decision, and having everything work out right.  And in general that’s what is understood by “morality” — what you should do in order to profit.

The modern idea, that you can do the right, moral, thing and yet be screwed over as a result is a pretty shocking idea.  In antiquity, the study of history was considered to be the study of morality, and it was therefore the study of great men.  If you want to be a great man, read the biographies of great men, understand how they were virtuous, make yourself virtuous, and become great in proportion to your virtue.  That’s the social context behind Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks.  It’s the same thinking behind the modern self-help-ish fetish for biographies of Bill Gates.

(The idea that the Universe isn’t moral — that you can do the right thing and have the Universe punish you for it — is an outgrowth of the story of Christianity.  There you have a story about a man who was unmistakably good, had no tragic flaw, and yet was brutally and unnecessarily killed.  A great deal of the power of Christianity comes from the moral shock of the crucifixion, and a great deal of the theological work goes into explaining why the Universe is moral even though the crucifixion happened.

(The modern idea that the Universe isn’t actually moral — that victimization is possible — amounts to an acceptance of the fact of the crucifixion and a repudiation of the theology of Christianity.  And historically you really do see a rise in morally ambiguous literature as a result of Christianity’s loss of cultural cache after Christian leaders picked a fight with evolutionary theory, and lost.

(In this, Foster-Harris is right; but he only sees it from inside, and his moral righteousness and outrage blind him to understanding what’s going on.)

Ultimately, moral stories are reassuring to people; they’re comforting; they hold out hope.  People don’t turn to escapist literature to be told about the ugly realities of life.  People turn to escapist literature, to pulp, to be reassured that the ugly realities of life can do their utmost against them, and yet be beaten into submission if they are strong, good-hearted people.

1 + 1 = 2 and 1 – 1 = 0 as emotional logic

The math symbolism isn’t all that important.  F-H himself uses it very loosely.  The idea is that, when a character correctly prioritizes their life, and demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice what is less important for what is more important, they will be rewarded with what is more important PLUS what is less important.

It doesn’t work that way in real life, so far as I know, but this isn’t real life.

On the other hand, when a character incorrectly prioritized their life, and demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice what should be more important to gain what should be less important, they will be punished by losing BOTH; they will get ZERO, nothing.

From the way he writes, Foster-Harris seems to really believe the world works this way.  He was apparently a deeply religious and unskeptical man.  Also kind of a nut, in my opinion, but good at what he did:  the power and the weakness to his way of thinking is that he used analogy very well, but he didn’t step outside the analogy and see where it fell apart.

There is no actual addition and subtraction going on — the analogy falls apart at that level.  In Love – Duty, you’re not actually removing duty from love to see what happens; you’re not actually talking about dutyless love, or (with Duty – Love), loveless duty.  In Love + Duty you’re not piling the two emotions, or virtues, on top of each other and mixing them together to see what they turn into.

The plus and the minus signs just mean that the person has made the correct, “positive,” decision, or the incorrect, “negative,” decision.  If the math-like notation bothers you, just come up with something else:

Love v. Duty (with a GOOD DECISION)
Love v. Duty (with a BAD DECISION)

–it doesn’t look as cool, but it’s clearer.

The Darkest Hour and the Twist of Fate

For me, the key Foster-Harris concept in plotting is the reversal. At the key moment, the character does the right thing and looks doomed. But by grace, he’s saved.

I wish F-H and you would explain that more.

Well, that’s the storytelling part.  You can make anything happen in the story you want to.  You start out with a blank page (or screen).  The facts of the story are completely made up.  When you decide you need more action, you have two men with guns rush into the room.  When you decide you need some romance, you create a situation where the hero and his girl are trapped in a cave-in together, and there’s Absolutely No Hope of Rescue, so they tell each other their hearts’ desires.  Then, when they’ve done this — wait, what’s this, Sally?  The candle’s flickering — there’s a draft!  There must be a way out!

It’s bogus, in the sense that if Hero and Girl were actually real people who were actually trapped by a cave-in, they’d be clawing in a panic at the rubble and screaming for help.  Or weeping disconsolately.  Or saving their energy.  But almost certainly they wouldn’t be having a romantic moment.

But it’s not bogus, in the sense that what you’re talking about are not real people.  You’re creating an emotional experience for the reader and inviting him to enjoy the ride.  The facts are all made up for the emotions they’ll elicit, and when you’re done with those emotions you make up new facts.  Maybe you even take back old facts if they get in the way.

So, you have the Darkest Hour followed by the Twist of Fate in part because that’s good storytelling, in the sense that it builds interest and suspense and ends the story by assuring the reader that the world is more-or-less fair and that everything will be okay (or that crime never pays).  In other words, those are the demands placed on you as a writer by the F-H formula and by reader expectations, and you are expected to come up with a bunch of stuff that happens that fulfills those demands.

Now the trick to storytelling is to make it seem like you’re not making stuff up.  Your job is to con the reader into thinking that you’re not following a formula at all, and that everything is progressing logically from the details of story, as if there’s real cause and effect that is turning the earlier imaginary facts of the story into the later imaginary facts of the story.

So the real story logic is the emotional logic.  And this must be compelling and strongly felt.  But it can’t be seen.  If the reader says, “Ah, he just pulled that out of his nose because he needed a happy ending,” then you haven’t done your job.  The apparent logic has to be everyday cause-and-effect.  But the everyday cause-and-effect is just to keep the reader’s natural skepticism asleep.

Now, why do Darkest Hour and Twist of Fate make for good storytelling?  Because they make the reader think the hero will be punished for doing the right thing.  It’s like that thing you do with small children, where you throw them in the air and catch them.  You’re doing that with the reader’s emotions.  You’re eliciting the strong, instinctual sense that calamity is about to happen, but you’re doing it in a safe context where they understand and trust that no harm will come.

Within the story, why does the Right Decision bring on the Darkest Hour?  Well, it needs to.  The hero has been stuck in this bind where he can make the Wrong Decision, in which case there are Bad Consequences, or he can make the Right Decision, in which case there are Even Worse Consequences.  And he starts off making the wrong decision, and keeps on making it until things get completely intolerable and he “snaps.”  And, without thinking about it, does the right thing.

Now, everything in your story has been telling the reader that there would be Even Worse Consequences to doing the Right Thing.  So now you need to put your money where your mouth is.  You have to show those Worse Consequences and show the hero dealing with them.  (Important point:  the hero can deal with the undesirable consequences of doing the right thing.)

So you let that play for a while, and you show the hero dealing with the consequences, and finally the situation comes around.  When the situation comes around, it can’t be through blind luck, because then you get an, “Oh, come on!” from your reader.  And it can’t be because someone else swoops in to save the day, because then the hero didn’t take care of it himself.

Therefore, it has to be that the hero’s Right Decision, although it had some immediate undesireable consequences, plays out as having long-term benefitial consequences, which ensure that the hero gains both the higher-priority emotional benefit, and the lower-priority emotional benefit.

Similarly, the villian should loose everything as a consequence of his evil decisions, and so on for the other characters.

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Published in: on June 25, 2009 at 6:51 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Foster-Harris was my advisor at OU back about 1962 and 63. Very interesting, soft-spoken character. Had a beard and smoked a pipe the whole time he taught. That really upset some of the old ladies from Oklahoma City who would sit in on his lectures occasionally. I believe at that time television was putting a squeeze on pulp writing, and markets were changing rapidly.


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