The Art Of Manipulating Emotions In Storytelling

The storyteller is the puppet master of emotions.

By Daniel Dercksen

As a writer you have the power to make your audience laugh whenever it pleases you, cause grown men to cry shamelessly, keep millions on the edge of reason, prevent couch junkies to switch channels, and grip people with fear.

The storyteller is the puppet master of emotions, the dictator of reason, and can make anything happen in a fictional reality where everything is possible and extreme gratification is your only goal, and the audience’s ultimate payoff and reward.

In storytelling, especially screenwriting, it is vital for the narrative to progress relentlessly and rapidly, and for what happens to flow fluidly and form a cohesive whole, so that the parts (scenes, sequences and acts) and the whole (story) are united as one.

The story must be well-paced and flow rhythmically, seducing the senses and evoking emotions, ranging from total delight to absolute fear.

The storyteller uses two tools to be the ultimate puppet master, setting Turning Points and Transitional Links into action, cleverly manipulating emotions and drawing an unsuspecting audience into a web of mystery and wonder.

The story becomes a tapestry of mixed emotions, and a melting pot of symbolism and subtext, allowing us to feel what’s happening, and experience the heartbeat of each moment, taking a meaningful journey on the roller coaster of dramatic or comedic action without interruptions or getting lost in translation.

This is the storyteller using ultimate power to manipulate emotions and have full control over both the characters and their captive audience.

The Art Of Composition forms an integral part of our The Write Journey course.

Composition – the ordering and linking of scenes

Unity and variety

A story, even when expressing chaos, must be unified. Unity is critical. Within this unity we must induce as much variety as possible. You don’t want to hit the same note over and over again, so that every scene sounds like every other.

  • Seek the tragic in the comic
  • Seek the political in the personal
  • Seek the personal driving in the political
  • Seek the extraordinary behind the usual
  • Seek the trivial in the exalted

The key to varying repetitious scenes is research. Superficial knowledge leads to a bland, monotonous telling.


The audience has two desires:

  • Serenity, harmony, peace and relaxation
  • Challenge, tension, danger, thrills

The writer must alternate between tension and relaxation. Once you have written a scenes filled with suspense, you have to reduce the tension, and switch to comedy or romance, a counter pointing mood that lowers the intensity so that the audience can catch its breath and reach for more energy. After retarding the pace, you build the progression in intensity and meaning.

Rhythm and tempo

In a well told story the progression of scenes and sequences accelerates pace. The writer takes advantage of rhythm and tempo to progressively shorten scenes while the activity in them becomes more and more brisk. You have to control rhythm and tempo. If you don’t, the film editor will.

  • Rhythm is set by the length of the scenes. How long are we in the same time and the same place? A typical two-hour feature will have forty to sixty scenes; on an average a scene lasts two and a half minutes.
  • Tempo is the level of activity within the scene via dialogue, action or a combination. Lovers talking from pillow to pillow may have a slow tempo; a heated argument in a courtroom will have high tempo.


How will the audience sense when a story genuinely progresses?

  • Social progression: Widen the impact of character actions into society; let the story begin intimately, involving only a few principal characters; as the story progresses the actions of the characters will spiral outwards into the world around them, touching and changing the lives of more and more people. In Men In Black the chance encounter between a farmer and a fugitive alien searching for a rare gem slowly ramifies outward to jeopardise all of creation.
  • Personal progression: The action is found in intimate relationships and lives of the characters; the story will begin with a personal or inner conflict that seems relatively solvable; as the story progresses we delve deeper, working the story downward – emotionally, psychologically, mentally – to the dark secrets, the unspoken truths. In Ordinary People the story is confined to the family, a friend and a doctor; from the tension between mother and son that seems solvable with communication and love, the story descends to grievous pain. As the father realises that he must choose between the sanity of his son and the unity of his family, the story drives the son to the brink of suicide, the mother to reveal her hatred of her own child, and the husband to lose the wife he loves.
  • Symbolic progression: Symbolism is very compelling and invades the unconscious mind, touching us deeply; the story will begin with actions, locations and roles that are familiar; as the story progresses, images gather greater meaning, until at the end of the story the characters, events and settings stand for universal ideas. In The Deer Hunter we meet steel workers who like to hunt, drink beer, and have a good time. They are as ordinary as the town they live in. As events progress, everything becomes more and more symbolically charged. The protagonist progresses from a factory worker  to a warrior to ‘The Hunter’.
  • Ironic progression: It sees life in duality and plays with paradoxical existence; verbal irony is found in the discrepancy between words and their meaning; in the screenplay irony plays between actions and results; it is the primary source of story energy, between appearance and reality, the primary source of truth and emotion.

There are six Ironic story patterns:

  • He gets at last what he’s always wanted, but it’s too late to have it
  • He is pushed further and further from his goal, only to discover that he’s been led right into it
  • He throws away what he later finds is indispensable to his happiness
  • To reach his goal he unwittingly takes the precise steps necessary to lead him away
  • The action he takes to destroy something becomes exactly what are needed to be destroyed by it
  • He comes into possession of something he’s certain will make him miserable, does everything possible to get rid of it, only to discover it’s the gift of happiness

Take a look at The Impact Of Turning Points.

For more information on The Write Journey, contact us