Emotion + Action Story Formula

This formula combines the Foster-Harris emotional formula with the Lester Dent action formula.  It aims at a story 6,000 words long.  If you’re just tuning in and don’t know about these guys, check out the tags on this blog for the background.

The goal here is to create a story with action and emotional conflict, where the emotional conflict motivates the action, and the action is emotionally significant.


1.) Use the F-H system to design an emotional conflict of interest to you.  We’re using the words “emotion” pretty loosely here; the conflict can be between any two values that get a rise out of people.  For example, the conflict between power and identity.

In general, you want these emotions to be similar to each other, or lay claim to similar domains of activity.  So Love v. Hate is not the way to go.  Love v. Lust is better.  Also popular, according to Foster-Harris, are Pride v. Honor (big with men) and Status v. Love (big with women).

2.) Decide whether you’re writing a happy story or a sad one.  Happy stories leave the reader feeling happy, sad ones leave the reader feeling sad.  In your story, the main character will be confronted with a choice between these two emotions.  In a happy story, he chooses right; in a sad story, wrong.  The right decision is the more difficult one to make; the wrong is the easier sell-out decision.

If at the middle of the story he chooses right, everything will seem to go wrong, and the immediate consequences will be his Darkest Hour.  However, the long-term consequences of his choice, plus his continued heroism, will at the end of the story result in a Twist of Fate that gives it a happy ending.  In this happy ending, he gets both emotional needs satisfied.

If you’re writing one of these, write Emotion1 + Emotion2 = ?  This is the emotional template of your plot.

If you’re writing a sad story, the structure is the same, except that at the Big Choice in the middle of the story, the character picks the wrong, sell-out, option, and as a short-term consequence is on Easy Street.  But as a long-term consequence of his choice, there is a Twist of Fate where both goals are lost to him, and he satisfies neither emotional need.  So, write Emotion1 – Emotion2 = ?

All the best pulp writers urge us to keep to the happy endings, because this is the essence of pulp.  A young attitude is to want to write sad endings because “that kind of thing really happens.”  Your choice.  Sad endings are acceptable to this formula if they are deserved.  If you want to write stories with undeserved sad endings, don’t write pulp fiction; become a reporter.

This write-up will assume you’re writing a happy story.  The structure is the same, with the Easy Street / Darkest Hour reversal noted above.

3.)  Decide who the hero is that embodies the main conflict.  The hero (or heroine) must feel both emotions very strongly; and the more conflicted he is about those emotions, the greater a sense of interiority he’ll have. 

At this stage, you need to know how the emotional conflict manifests to the hero.  What choice will he be confronted with?

4.)  Decide who will be the love interest.  The love interest’s conflict and choice should counterpoint the main characters’.

5.)  Decide who the villian is that gets it preversely wrong.  Note that if you’re writing a sad-ending story, that’s because the hero chooses wrong and loses; which is to say, he is actually not a hero, but a villian.  In which case, your adversary is not a villian, but a hero.

We’re assuming here that you have a hero, a love interest, and a villian.  The love interest is useful because you can reward two of your characters with each other.  The villian is necessary, because it gives a face and body to the forces of ee-vil as they are relevant to the emotional conflict you’re talking about.

You can have other sympathetic characters if you like (usually there’s only room for one villian).  Each character at this point should be understood in terms of their emotional conflict, and how it mirrors and counterpoints the hero’s emotional conflict.

6.)  For each character, work out what decision they’re confronted with, what they decide, and what their reward or punishment is.  This is the emotional logic of your story.

7.)   For each character, work out their trait pairs.  The trait pair is a representation of their emotinal conflict.  If the character is conflicted between pride and honor, that needs to be specified.  How are they proud?  About what?

8.)  For each character, turn their trait pairs into two sets of tag pairs:  a physical tag pair and a behavioral tag pair.

CHECKLIST:  Are all your characters well-described?  Do they have an emotional conflict you’ll be able to sell?  Are those emotional conflicts all relevant to the story’s theme, to the hero’s conflict?  Do they all have tags?  Is the story overall interesting?


1.) Your hero faces a difficult decision.  Now we need to make that a bind.  What are the dreadful consequences if he chooses one way?  What are they if he chooses another?

2.)  Your hero initially tries to cheese out.  How does your hero initially try to evade making this choice?  How does he initially evade responsibility?  How does he initially make the wrong choice?  And, how does that not help him, but get him into deeper trouble and raise the stakes?

3.)  You’ll need some physical conflict.  What’s a physical way of representing the character’s current bind?  If he’s lost emotionally, how can you show him lost physically?  (There’s a TV series in that idea.)  If he’s chasing after something emotionally that he doesn’t understand, how can you turn that into a physical chase scene?

Your story will have four sections, each about 1500 words long.  Each ends in an action scene of some kind.  Each should be a different kind of action.

Every physical conflict except for the last must result in failure for the hero, but here’s the trick — never complete failure.  The villian gets away, but the hero gets a clue; the hero prevents the villian from dynamiting the railroad bridge, but the villian abducts the heroine.  Mix failure and success as suits your dramatic purpose in that moment of story.

4.)  You have the original conflict.  You’ll need to raise the stakes three times.  The first two times make it worse for the hero.  The third time creates a situation in which all is apparently lost.

5.)  You’ll need a Twist of Fate, which brings about the happy ending. 

WRITE THE FIRST SECTION (1500 words) – The Situation

1.)  Introduce the hero and the (external) trouble he must deal with.  Set up the hero’s (emotional) conflict, the choice he must make, and do it from inside his emotional self.  As you get into this, you want to make the reader feel the conflict in sympathy, not to analyze it.

In order to establish the trouble, you also need to set the stage, establishing the time, place, and circumstances of the story.

2.)  The hero pitches in to solve the trouble.  Meanwhile, his own conflict develops, and he responds to it by making the wrong choice.

3.)  You must have the action in full swing before any flashback or explanation of the background circumstances.

4.)  ALL characters must be introduced during this section.

5.)  This section should build up to a physical conflict.

6.)  This section should end with a curiosity-inducing twist.

Checklist:  Is there suspense?  Is there a sense of menace for the hero?  Do events follow logically?  Does the twist make us surprised and curious?  Is the hero in a bind?  Is the heroine?  Is the villian?

WRITE THE SECOND SECTION (1500 words) – The Complication

1.)  The hero has more trouble to contend with.  His earlier attempts to simplify matters by making the wrong choice have made things more intolerable.

2.)  Hero struggles against his troubles, but still makes the wrong choice in respect to his own conflict.

3.)  Another physical conflict.

4.)  Another surprising plot twist toward the end.

WRITE THE THIRD SECTION (1500 words) – Crisis

1.)  The hero has yet more troubles, and his conflict has become more serious, as a result of not making the right decision previously.

This results in a situation which is completely intolerable, and without thinking, the hero in this section will react by making the right decision.

In the third section, the hero and the reader should come to understand the situation pretty well.  You still have one more twist to go, at the end of this section, and you need a final zinger at the end of the story.  But up until now the hero has been responding to the villian; now he needs to become pro-active, and that means he understands in outline what’s going on.

2.)  The hero makes some headway.  He corners the villian or the henchman, which are the external circumstances that lead to the physical conflict.

3.)  Equally important, the hero makes the right decision, which are the internal circumstances that lead to the physical conflict.

4.)  A physical conflict.

5.)  A surprising plot twist, which results in a calamity for the hero, and leads to his Darkest Hour.

CHECKLIST:  Does it still have suspense?  Is the menace getting blacker?  Is the hero’s Darkest Hour the clear consequences of his having made the right decision?  Does the hero find himself in a hell of a bind?  Is it all happening logically?

WRITE THE FOURTH SECTION (1500 words) – Just Deserts

1.) The hero’s Darkest Hour continues.  He continues struggling against them.

2.) All seems lost.

3.) The hero overcomes the situation using his own skills and abilities; and with help from friends he has won by virtue of his virtue; and as a consequence of having made the right choice in section 3.  Mix these ingredients as you like.

(Notice that you can have your hero make the right choice in section 2, but this plays down his internal conflict.  The longer it takes for him to get his act together, the more you play up his internal conflict, which makes for a richer character.)

4.)  The remaining mystery is cleared up in the final physical conflict as the hero takes control of the situaiton.

5.)  Reward the hero with Emotion1 + Emotion2. 

6.)  The final twist, a big surprise — the villian turns out to be the hero’s aunt; the treasure was really a forgery, so you have a nice little moral that crime never pays, or so on; in any case, this is where you put the schadenfreude.

In Johnny Quest, this is where you get the line, “It’s a fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone — but he deserved it.”  In Scooby Doo, you get “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!” 

7.)  Wrap up with a snapper, a punch line; find the right note to end on.

CHECKLIST:  Has suspense been held to the very last?  Has menace been held to the last?  Has everything been explained?  Has it all happened logically?  Have the hero and the sympathetic characters been rewarded with Emotion1 + Emotion2?  Has the villian been punished with Emotion1 – Emotion2?  (Or indeed, death?)  Did God or the hero kill the villian?  Is the punch line enough to leave the reader with that warm feeling? 

–Well, that’s it:  the Foster-Harris formula for emotional conflict in storytelling interwoven with Dent’s formula for writing action-adventure stories. 

I’m still refining this formula.  I just finished my first pulp story, and I wrote it with a mashed-together version of the F-H and Dent formulas.  This is a rewrite of that formula based on that experience.

Another technique, that I don’t talk about here, is to have each section mirror and repeat the previous one in various subtle ways.  So if in one section, the villian captures and interrogates the hero, in another you can have the hero capture and interrogate the villian.  You can also repeat snatches of words from earlier sections to show up that kind of symmetry.

Published in: on June 26, 2009 at 1:49 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent summary.

    I did some thinking about the way Foster-Harris notates conflict. Instead of Emotion1 + Emotion2, I prefer Emotion1 v. Emotion2.

    V. is a logical symbol for an OR disjunction, which is what a choice is.

    It looks like characters have an exclusive choice A or B. They can’t have both. But if character makes the right choice, by twist of fate, they get both. And the wrong choice denies both.

    Thus what seemed like an exclusive OR choice was really inclusive. This ambiguity as to whether OR is exclusive or inclusive is built into the language.

  2. I think you mean 6000 words, or I hope you do.

  3. Wayne-

    Glad you found a notation that works for you.



    Thanks – good catch.

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