Dramatic Infrastructure: Using Everyday Events to Deliver Emotional Impact / By Roger Johns

Dramatic Infrastructure: Using Everyday Events to Deliver Emotional Impact

by Roger Johns 

Success as a storyteller depends on understanding not only the mechanics of the story you’re telling, but also how to properly shape a reader’s responses to the events in the narrative. Readers quickly lose interest in writing that’s emotionally flat, but provoking, sustaining, and directing the reader’s emotional experience can be challenging.

One way to meet this challenge is to keep track of the everyday experiences that produce specific emotions and to examine their dramatic infrastructure to learn why they hold the power they do. Understanding events at such a basic level allows us to manipulate the facts without destroying an event’s capacity to evoke an emotional response.

This makes everyday events adaptable to situations beyond those in which we originally encounter them, greatly enlarging our toolkit. And it’s lets us separate the fiction our characters inhabit from the facts of real life. Putting real people on the page, explicitly or implicitly, can cause legal problems.

As a hedge against useful observations slipping from my memory, I keep a diary of emotion-laden experiences, along with the specific emotions they trigger, and I try to work out why they affect me the way they do, and how I can modify them to produce different emotions. Here are a few examples from my little black book.

A Suitcase Full of Sadness: The Power of Disrupted Expectations

Not long ago, two empty suitcases appeared at the foot of the bed in the guest room––a signal that my wife was gearing up for a business trip. I had been expecting to see a suitcase, but there were two instead of one. And they showed up a day earlier than I expected. These were minor deviations from the norm, yet their effect was palpable. Their power came from the fact that something was out of place (that second suitcase) and something was out of sequence (the packing was happening a day earlier than usual), and this disrupted my expectations.

After I noted that these details had affected me by amplifying my usual reaction to my wife’s imminent departure (sadness), the storyteller in me recognized their greater value and I began tinkering with the scenario. How could I modify the facts to provoke suspicion as well as sadness? The shoulder strap of an evening gown peeking out from under a business suit, maybe.

What about fear? If no suitcases had appeared (again, something out of place), even on the day I would normally expect them (something out of sequence), I might fear my wife had lost her job. Or, if there were three or four suitcases, instead of one, I might fear she was moving out and leaving me?

The key is to recognize that disrupted expectations affect our emotions, and the precise effect depends on the facts that hang on this basic scaffold. The facts could be details that are out of place or out of sequence, as they were here. But they could be anything the author cares to use. If one character uses an expression another character has never heard them use, it disrupts an expectation and raises the question of what that first character has been reading, or who they’ve been talking to, or where they’ve been. If a character who is chronically late, shows up early, an expectation is disrupted and an emotional response is triggered (surprise, happiness). Or, if a character who is chronically early shows up late a different expectation is disrupted, evoking different responses (worry, irritation).

Hey! You! Get Outta My Cab: The Power of the Totally Unexpected

The example above involved disrupted expectations, but what about completely unexpected situations?

Three or four years ago, my wife and I pulled into a parking spot at one of our favorite restaurants. Before we could get out of the car, a taxi pulled into the other end of the lot. This caught our attention because taxis in this area are uncommon. My wife and I watched as a well-dressed couple, a man and woman, exited the taxi from opposite sides.

The trunk popped open and a two pieces of luggage were lifted out and set on the pavement behind the cab. We were too far away to hear what was being said, but the couple’s gestures and facial expressions were enough. They were in the throes of a pitched argument––almost a shouting match. After less than a minute, the man climbed back into the cab and it pulled away, leaving the woman standing there with her bags. She quickly slid the strap of one bag over her shoulder, yanked up the handle of her other bag, and then stalked off, rolling one bag behind her and swaying under the weight of the other.

The overwhelming emotional response to this scenario was curiosity. Several times, over dinner, we speculated about what had happened and why. Even though it’s been years, it left such a strong impression we never fail to mention it when we find ourselves back at that restaurant.

The power of this experience came from three characteristics: its brevity, its unusual facts (a taxi so out of place, two people climbing out of a taxi to argue in the parking lot, one person abandoning the other) and rich vein of questions it exposed: What were they going on about? Why was the woman the one who was left behind? Where had they been going? Did the man continue on to the original destination or did he abandon both the woman and the destination? Were they spouses, lovers, business associates, or strangers who just happened to share a cab? What happened to the woman?

At a book talk I attended a few years ago, I had the privilege of listening to Michael Farris Smith describe the event that inspired him to write Desperation Road. He was driving down some highway in the Deep South, when he saw a woman walking along the road, a garbage bag slung over her shoulder. Due to the state of the economy at the time, this was apparently not an uncommon sight in those parts. What took him by surprise, though––what was completely unexpected––was the young girl walking hand in hand with the woman, along this busy highway. He had never seen anything like this and it haunted him until he wrote a novel in which he imagined some very interesting answers.

Both the couple from the taxi, and the woman and the girl walking along the highway, were unexpected glimpses of something far outside the ordinary, a turn of events that never fails to provoke a strong reaction. Curiosity and desperation are just two of them.

In his short story, That Bus is Another World, Stephen King leads us down the garden path through what looks like an ordinary day of being stuck in big-city traffic, and just when we’re not expecting anything much to happen, one of the characters does something utterly unexpected, leaving wide-eyed horror in its wake.

It’s brief, it’s bizarre, and it raises a ton of questions. And even though King uses this mechanism to elicit a sense of horror, I can easily envision the story producing feelings of transcendence, tenderness, hatred, or any number of other emotions, simply by changing a few facts, by having the character do something different but equally unexpected.

This three-factor scaffold, it seems, will support fact patterns that elicit just about any response you want, as long as you want the response to be intense.

No Room at the Inn: Passive-Aggression, Emotional Extortion, and Access Control

Passive aggression is an example of another fundamental structure rich in possibilities. Several months ago, I was booking a hotel room and I was doing it the old-fashioned way––by talking to someone on the phone. It should have been straightforward, but it wasn’t. The reservation clerk would ask me for a bit of information and just as the answer was coming out of my mouth, she would cut me off with a different question. If I tried to continue with the answer to the earlier question, she would cut me off again with something like “No, I need to get this first.”

This happened four times and with each interruption her tone became sharper and her sighs of exasperation got progressively louder. After the fourth time, I got fed up, told her I had to take another call, and then I hung up . . . and called a different hotel. I can’t say with absolute certainty that she was jerking my chain, but the timing of each interruption was so precise and her irritation grew so theatrical I was certain enough, and I felt justified bailing out of the call.

This was classic passive-aggressive behavior and, while it’s often just plain irritating (a sometimes useful emotion to evoke), it got me to thinking about how its fundamental structure makes it an incredibly versatile emotional trigger. This is because passive-aggressive behavior is an example of power in its most fundamental form––access control. The victim needs something, the aggressor controls access to what the victim needs, so the victim endures the aggressor’s abuse as the price of access.

Sometimes the aggressor is abusive because they feel generally powerless in life and this is a way to remedy that, albeit on a petty level. In other cases, the aggressor may have a darker motive like revenge or emotional manipulation, or the satisfaction of some sadistic appetite. With each different motive, this fundamental power equation triggers a different emotion.

Another way to use it is to explore the price the victim will be required to pay. In the case of me and the reservation clerk, her irritated tone and her dramatic sighs were her ways of letting me know she was getting what she needed. But it also told me she was charging too much. So, I cancelled the transaction and found accommodations where the price of a room didn’t include a tax on my dignity.

In Silence of the Lambs, FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling needs to stop a serial killer and her antagonist, imprisoned psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, needs to watch people suffer. In order to stop the killer, Clarice needs access to the insights in Lecter’s head, so Lecter proposes a bargain. If Clarice will let him observe her anguish as she recounts painful childhood memories, he will grant her access to his psychiatric expertise so she will have a chance to rescue the killer’s latest victim.

But, how much emotional pain is Clarice willing to endure? Will Lecter raise the price as Clarice’s need grows more urgent? Will Clarice risk losing Lecter’s cooperation by only pretending to pay his price? Will Lecter risk losing access to Clarice’s agony by feeding her bogus information? Does Clarice control access to something Lecter is willing to pay for?

Using these price-to-be-paid elements of the power equation, Thomas Harris, the author, evokes a nearly endless sequence of emotions, keeping the reader on an emotional rollercoaster throughout the book.

Lecter’s behavior goes way past passive aggression. In fact, there’s nothing passive about it, at all. It’s pure emotional extortion. But the difference rests entirely on the facts. The fundamental framework in Silence of the Lambs is the same as it was for me and the reservation clerk: A controls access to something B must have, so B must meet A’s price. One set of facts produces irritation, the others produce shame, revulsion, fear, dread, hope, hatred, and craftiness. The emotional responses that the basic power equation can produce are probably endless.


Disrupted expectations, the completely unexpected, and the power of access-control are just three examples of mechanisms that can be adapted to deliver an emotional punch. They prime the pump, so to speak. Virtually any event or situation that evokes an emotional response can be used. The key is to understand the dramatic infrastructure of the situation or event so you can adapt it to your storytelling goals. After that, it’s simply a matter of dressing up the basic mechanism with the facts that produce the emotional experience you choose.

Roger Johns is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books, and is the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year (Detective ▪ Mystery Category) for his debut novel, Dark River Rising. The second volume in the series, River of Secrets, will be out on August 28, 2018. Roger is a member of the Atlanta Writers Club, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America. Please visit him at www.rogerjohnsbooks.com.