Writers in the Storm

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April 22, 2019

The 3-Act Emotional Arc For Showing Shame In Fiction

Lisa Hall-Wilson

by Lisa Hall-Wilson

Shame is one of the most powerful and underused emotions in a fiction-writer’s toolbox. Shame is pervasive and common, it’s ugly and hard to capture well. Readers cheer for characters who are relate-able. They cheer for characters who stand up to bullies, who stay and fight when they don’t have to. They relate to characters who have flaws! 

And shame is one emotion everyone studiously avoids, denies, and conceals. It’s isolating, defining, and has some awful negative consequences like rage, anxiety, depression, emptiness, isolation, etc. 

Guilt says you did a bad thing. Shame says you’re a bad person.

Shame insists we hide, conceal, and disguise what we perceive to be our greatest inadequacies. We refuse to acknowledge shame. Shame is that dark shadow that haunts your every step whether you admit it’s there or not. Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man character struggles with shame (cue memory of father’s murder). He can’t ever be good enough, and everything bad that happens is deserved because he’s a terrible person.

Shame is a hard emotion to capture authentically, but the key is to drill down into the primary emotions causing the shame and showing those emotions through internal dialogue and showing the consequences of shame that are observable. So a character fails at something and is reminded of his Dad yelling at him that he’ll never amount to anything (internal dialogue, backstory, etc.). 

He doesn’t know how to handle the shame, so he off-loads the uncomfortable feelings and explodes in anger at his colleague or spouse over something trivial. The anger is what’s observable, but the character won’t label the shame in his internal dialogue. It’s clear the anger isn’t really about what the other person has done or not done, and the anger is an over-reaction. 

Maybe the colleague stands up to him and calls him out on his anger. Maybe he gets written up for his anger at work. Maybe his wife breaks down in tears. The consequences of shame should be tangible for the character. This is how you SHOW shame.

What Kind Of Characters Could You Use Shame With?

Any characters who have endured a traumatic childhood will wrestle with shame (self-blame). Anyone who’s failed at anything important will struggle with shame. Anyone who doesn’t meet (or feels they don’t meet) society’s standard in any variety of ways will likely have to face shame (a man who lets others see weakness, being overweight, getting fired, chooses to be alone, etc). Those who are overly concerned about how they’re perceived or what others think of them are often shame-prone. Perfectionists often struggle with shame.

So basically, ANY character you write could deal with shame and the only way readers will be able to know they’re struggling with shame is through internal dialogue and observable off-loading/numbing/consequences of shame because in real life we’re all experts at hiding our shame from everyone—especially ourselves.

Brene Brown’s Guide To Creating An Emotional Arc Using Shame

Brene Brown in her book Rising Strongdescribed shame as living with a rock on your chest. Shame feels like a crushing, inescapable weight on our chests, cutting off our air, knotting our guts, stealing our words, making us flushed. (Read The Emotion Thesaurus entry on Shame here.)

Whether your character starts off feeling shameful about something (past or present) and works to shake that off, or shame is something that they take on in the course of the story, the key to a shame emotion arc is what Brene Brown calls The Reckoning, The Rumble, and the Revolution. It looks a lot like the 3-act structure *smile*

In Rising Strong, Brown gives this example: “…Your face turns red and heat radiates from your chest when you learn that your boss gave the lead for a new project to your colleague.”

Here are two scenarios Brene poses to this emotional problem:

“My boss is an a—hole. Todd’s such a brownnoser. Who cares? This job sucks and this company is a joke.” This is the shame-train reaction—the knee-jerk, off-loading, emotional avoidance caused by shame. As long as your character stays here and never questions WHY they feel this angry, then your character is letting emotions they refuse to admit they feel to drive the shame-train.

 “I’m so pissed about her giving the lead to Todd. I need to figure this out before I lose it with everyone on our team…” This curiosity begins the process below. There’s an inciting incident that causes the character to take a proactive step to get off the shame-train.

The Reckoning: At some point in the story, your character decides to jump off the shame-train and gets curious. Why do I feel like this? Why am I reacting like this? Why do I think of x or y when this happens? Hopefully your character has a friend or ally with them. The Reckoning is about identifying and/or labelling the emotion or thinking that’s got them convinced they’re a bad person (put them on the floor of the arena). 

The Reckoning is heart-breaking work because it’s one step forward and two steps back over and over. Their best thinking is what put that boulder on their chest (either as a reaction to something they did or is a survival mechanism to something done to them) to begin with and they’ve managed the rock by ignoring it was there altogether. Now that they acknowledge it’s there, life is going to get harder as they reckon with hard emotions they’ve trained themselves to numb or off-load onto others. 

This kicks off The Rumble.

The Rumble:The Rumble is the shame-showdown. Now that your character acknowledges the thinking and emotions that have put them on the floor of the arena, now they’re going to THINK their way out from under the shame-boulder. But they’re acutely aware of those in the stands staring at them, at their repeated failure, their unworthiness. 

The Rumble is about living with, allowing to well up, wrestling with the emotions they’ve avoided all this time. It means admitting they over-reacted. It’s about acknowledging emotions they might not understand or memories that seem unrelated that keep popping up. It’s doing the hard work of figuring out how they feel and WHY!

Now the character moves on to The Revolution.

The Revolution:Once the character has gotten the rock of shame off their chest, once they’ve rumbled with the emotions that put it there, now comes the revolution. They now must rebuild their self-esteem. This provides incredible character arc if you look for it. How does one let go of perfectionism? How does one learn to forgive themselves? What do they ask themselves as they stumble in The Rumble? That’s narrative gold, right there.

Questions To Ask Your Characters About Shame

What emotions does your character refuse to acknowledge they’re struggling with? Does the tomboy refuse to acknowledge the girly side that’s vulnerable? Does the warrior refuse to cry? WHY?  

When something negative happens, we create the stories in our heads we expect to hear. We filter everything that’s said and done through how we believe we’re perceived even if there’s no evidence for that conclusion. How can a self-fulfilling prophecy of shame play into your story? 

What thought does your character avoid having confirmed in any conflict or hurtful event? 

What is your character’s go-to emotional substitution? Do they lash out in anger? Do they self-flagellate with destructive internal messages? 

Can you think of a character from TV, movies, or fiction who struggles with shame? What are the consequences of their shame?

About Lisa:

Lisa Hall-Wilson was a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels.

Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers,  at www.lisahallwilson.com.

Last week , Sharla Rae lost her final battle with cancer. Sharla was a founding member of Writers in the Storm. On Wednesday, May 1, we'll remember Sharla with pictures and words.

26 comments on “The 3-Act Emotional Arc For Showing Shame In Fiction”

  1. I'm thinking of one of my favorite lines from Jane Austen when Knightley chastises Emma for her treatment of Miss Bates. "Badly done, Emma!" Emma's shame leads to her transformation as she tries to be a better person.

      1. Im thinking about my character having more than survivor guilt. An alien invasion transpired. Because he was estranged from family he got out in time by not looking back. I want the victory to turn to shame.

  2. This great, Lisa. The next book in my sweet romance series will be somewhat of a redemption story and this is helping me sort it out. Thanks!

    1. Lots of room for redemption with shame, right! Awesome. What I love about including shame in fiction is in perhaps helping readers see it in themselves and learning to overcome it in their own lives!

  3. I think shame is a hard topic to write about. You've done an excellent job making this seem like something I can do, Lisa. Like Jen, my next series opens with a book about someone who carries shame at the root of his existence. This is really going to help with his arc. Thanks!

    1. Awesome!! Shame is something we've all experienced, but (in my experience) it's hard to write about because so few of us want to explore it enough to write it authentically. What's that saying - no tears in the writer no tears in the reader 😀

  4. Would you mind explaining the difference between guilt and shame a little? My protag. feels guilty because she snuck out of home and while she was away her little sister harmed herself and her mum was calling to her for help, but of course she wasn't there. She becomes withdrawn and depressed because she's failed the people she loves. But, maybe this is shame, rather than guilt? I think I've always thought of these as interchangeable.

    1. Sure! Guilt tells us we’ve done something bad. We can ask forgiveness which serves as a cure, of sorts. When a dislike of guilt overtakes us, or we turn our guilt into remorse, positive change can come out of that. But shame keeps us down, forces us to keep it a secret, convinces us we'll never escape our failure or shortcoming.

      So, your character could struggle with survivor's guilt - "why didn't I do more to help" "why wasn't I there" or it could shift inward and become shame "I'm a failure because I couldn't protect the people I loved the most" -> depends on how you want to write it.

      Hope that's helpful!

    2. Here's a quote from Brene Brown that really captures the difference well (because Shame and Guilt are kissing cousins): "Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

      "I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous."

  5. "Guilt says you did a bad thing. Shame says you’re a bad person." These lines clearly differentiate the two emotions. Thank you for this great post!

  6. This is great, Lisa! I never thought of using shame as an internal conflict with characters. Thank you for such a clear explanation of this. I've shared it online. All best to you!

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