I know this wheel has made its rounds in various writing communities, and for it’s face value it’s been quite popular.
When I first saw it I thought it was an interesting representation of how I could better describe certain emotions. In essence it was about expanding my vocabulary. While I think this is valuable it actually misses something really powerful in its application.
As I sat longer with this wheel and wrote some, I began to discover how it could be used for validations for the character growth sequences I was writing.
Being a process and practicality oriented person, I began testing a new use of the wheel with my writing groups. The result was an incredible improvement of my reader’s ability to take the same emotional journey as the character with little prompting and an almost complete removal of questions about character motivations.
How to Use the Wheel of Emotions
First, when you review the wheel consider that each circled area represents a level of emotion. The innermost circle of emotions are very basic and the very first levels your character is likely to experience. Each outer circle is another level and heightened emotion.
Consider the story starts and nothing has really happened to your character, for all intents and purposes they are happy. However, they quickly drop their phone and crack the screen.
That’s crappy but it’s not the worst thing in the world, meaning its not likely to move them out of level 1 of the wheel. They go from being happy to being sad.
Let’s amplify this event now to level 2
Say we want the character to feel guilty.
Keeping it simple for this example let’s say that this phone that they dropped and cracked the screen isn’t theirs, but is in fact their best friend’s! Oops!
The same event is occurring but now with this added detail we’ve taken the character from happy at level 1 of the wheel, past sad, and onto level 2 of feeling guilty.
Now on to Level 3
Moving the character onto embarrassed.
The character just borrowed the phone from the friend because theirs was just accidentally yeeted into the toilet that same morning.
By bringing in this further detail we’ve established a pattern, even though we’ve really had to say very little. We’ve seen a progression of 3 factors that make the characters emotional state clearly and understandably in a level 3 emotion.
The 3 factors are:
- Broke a phone. (sad)
- It was their friend’s phone (guilty)
- Already busted one phone today. (embarrassed)
Connecting to Character Motivation
For this example’s sake, say that our character has the personality quirk of doing anything they can to avoid embarrassment. With a sufficiently large characteristic moment presented that establishes this personality quirk, your character can now react in almost any zany way and the reader will be right there with them!
I would offer a friendly challenge if you have a sequence where your character’s motivation has been questioned, to consider what emotional state your character needs to be in before taking whatever action they are, and ask yourself if they’ve transitioned through the levels of the wheel to reach that moment of action.
If they haven’t, add in more factors to build up to the appropriate emotion, using the wheel as a guide.
Understanding Factors for the Wheel
In the example above I utilized a tactic I refer to as “escalating the tension” to add factors. Even though the event is singular, there are a relative number of factors that the emotional journey makes sense.
In the same way you can escalate the emotional journey with multiple events that only have one factor (rather than multiple factors in one event).
Events with only one factor are small events, these often are transitional or setup events, because you really want the reader to be able to focus on that factor you’re establishing.
Events with many factors are large events, they are often our climactic moments when major plot shifts are occurring. The more factors you can include the more intense the reader will feel about the event.
One Final Example
Say your character is in an emotional state of embarrassed, but for the next major plot point you need them to be overwhelmed. Depending on how many words you have to play with you could do:
- 5 Events with one factor each that transitions their emotion.
- 1 Event with 5 factors included that jumps their emotion.
Or any variation therein of events and factors.
If you try out this Wheel of Emotion approach, please let me know how it goes with a response! Make sure to follow me for more uncommon tools that will help you solve story problems.