Writing a scene spine for an emotional journey using cognitive behavior therapy principles

Readers look for patterns – writers have to provide them. If I give you a list of action, dialogue, thoughts of the pov character, and emotions, my job isn’t half-way done: and you will understandably say it makes no sense.

Somewhere in the course of polishing each scene, I come to the place where the spine for THIS scene, the framework or structure that will create/add/strengthen the pattern for the reader, needs to go from implicit to explicit FOR THE WRITER. For ME.

I’ve talked about such spines: dialogue, chronology, and action all serve as anchors for the writing, a way to provide unity for the mass of contents of all kind that I have decided needs to go in there somewhere. An emotional journey is the spine I need for the scene I’m writing (12.2 – for anyone following along, though it won’t be posted for a while): a pov character starts in one emotional place at the beginning of the scene, and ends in a very different place by the end.

Choreographing emotions through a scene is no different in principle to using a clock: emotions don’t go from hot to cold instantaneously. There is a process, an order, a journey. There are reversals and increases and decreases in intensity. There is a logic to it, a starting place and a destination.

There will be reasons for the steps on the journey – unmotivated emotions make no sense. I need to do these things deliberately – translating the knowledge of what happens in a scene to words that best describe that scene so readers can construct it in their brain is not something I can do intuitively: brain fog makes it hard to hold the whole thing in mind as a unit. But I can do it in steps.

According to Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy’s author, Dr. David Burns, who deals with depression and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, “Every bad feeling you have is the result of your distorted negative thinking.”

He advocates handling the bad feelings by learning to catch and identify the distorted negative thoughts – and I can testify that it works.

But for a writer trying to put a character through a necessary negative emotional arc in a scene, the advice is gold: make a list of the steps in the negative progress of the emotions, and find a distortion of the ‘truth’ that can serve to motivate each negative emotion in the chain from bad to worse.

Truth is subjective – each of us has our own. The process will make sense – most people have had a similar chain fell them in real life. The pattern will be familiar.

The steps can be small – it is the accumulation of plausible, continuous, tiny emotional changes – with every single one kicked in the wrong direction by a properly designed and logical negative thought – that gives us the total journey. The reader is dragged forward going, “Yes, but…,” while the character goes on a perfectly logical downward spiral – to the necessary conclusion of the scene.

The concept thus provides another kind of spine, this one appropriate for a scenes where the most important part, the heart of the scene, is an emotional descent into whatever hell the writer needs for the character. Done right, the reader won’t be able to stop taking each downward step to follow.

How do you plot your way through an emotional journey?


2 thoughts on “Writing a scene spine for an emotional journey using cognitive behavior therapy principles

    1. ABE Post author

      I’m curious: do you plot them ahead of time, or work them out as you write a scene? And if you have an emotional arc, does it encompass a scene, a chapter, or a bigger piece of your book?

      I’m always interested in HOW.



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