Mood Whiplash

Alex and Chris are running from the monster. Alex is pretty sure there’s a bit of their mutual friend, Pauline, on Chris’s shirt–

possibly part of Pauline’s kidney– left over from their last narrow escape from the beast. Every breath comes in a gasp as they turn yet another corner, and they can hear the monster gaining on them.

Chris pulls Alex into a side corridor and slams the door shut behind them, barricading it with a filing cabinet in a burst of adrenaline.

Suddenly Alex can’t help but feeling aroused– Chris has never looked so sexy before.

Cue heartfelt confessions of attraction, followed by a hot-and-heavy makeout session.

This, my friends, is known as mood whiplash.

It’s what happens when we’re on one emotional track, and suddenly get sideswiped by something else entirely.  This can be incredibly powerful when it’s used wisely, but it can be a deal-breaker when it hits us in the wrong way.

When you start out in a positive emotion and get derailed into a negative one, you get drama. Horror and tragedy arguably work best when they’re blindsiding you– If you pile on failure on top of failure, or fear on top of fear with no hope of respite, then the readers are going to wind up feeling exhaustion rather than that visceral fear or grief (depending on the work, exhaustion might be the point, but it should be deliberate regardless).

Here are two examples of using mood whiplash to create drama:

  • Cindy is about to leave for her dream job with her fiance, and everything is happy and fantastic… until she finds her fiance’s severed head in her office chair.
  • Jackson is out celebrating his retirement with the rest of the precinct, when suddenly a mob boss comes in and guns the place down, killing everyone but Jackson himself.

However, mood whiplash doesn’t always have to be Postive–>Negative. For example:

  • Little Jimmy’s feeling dejected. He was so excited about the playoffs, but then he missed the big catch and his team lost by a landslide. He’s sure he’ll never be happy again… but when he opens his door, he finds a brand new puppy waiting for him!
English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
English: Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That last one works because of the emotional weight or impact of the events. Getting a great new job is a big deal. Stubbing your toe or getting a parking ticket on that day are bummers, but they’re not going to break the emotional high you get from all that hope and excitement. The only thing that will break that high is either a whole dumptruck of disappointments, or else a single major event (finding your lover’s severed head) to make your whole world come crashing down.

In the same way, a bowl of ice cream might not be a big enough emotional buoy to lift Little Jimmy out of his slump, but a puppy sure is.

The big change needs to be of greater emotional weight than the previous trigger. For example, a shopoholic might go splurging to ease the pain of a loved one’s sudden murder. Being totally fine and chipper upon getting a good deal on a pair of stilettos, however, is going to make this shopoholic look shallow and a bit deranged.

Any kind of mood whiplash is going to be jarring, which works very well for horror and tragedy. Most positive emotions, however, rely on some degree of comfort, which puts them at odds with that jarring dissonance. After all, how did you feel about Chris and Alex in the example above, making out while covered in splatters of Pauline?


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