Columns > Published on February 21st, 2020

Storyville: The Duality of Strong Emotions

So, I’ve talked about this before, but I want to dig deeper. What we’re talking about today is the duality of strong emotions. How can we use them to create conflict, atmosphere, and a powerful resolution? Let’s talk about that.

It starts with love and hate.

So I want you to think about something or someone that you love. There are many kinds of love, in case you didn’t know that. The Greeks mention several:

1. Eros: Love of the body—this is your sexual desire and longing.
2. Philia: Love of the mind—also known as brotherly love, or platonic love.
3. Ludus: Playful love—having fun together, such as dancing, laughing, etc.
4. Pragma: Longstanding love—such as in a marriage, or relationship.
5. Agape: Love of the soul—unconditional love, or the love of humanity.
6. Philautia: Love of the self—as in we must love ourselves first, in order to love others.
7. Storge: Love of the child—how we as parents love our children.

So what do these kinds of love have in common? They have a depth, a commitment—patterns, time, and intensity. These are some of the many different ways we can love.

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy. In order to hate, you first have to have some sort of love driving your emotions. Otherwise, you just won’t care. In order to truly HATE, you must care first, must love first, must have given your trust, your time, your support, in order to feel betrayed. Let me give you some examples.

Have you ever had your heart broken? I sure have. How did that happen? I remember women that I spent time with, women I shared my hopes and fears with, women that I shared my life with—money, adventure, possessions, apartments, trips. All of that was me investing myself in them, in us. We loved, we were intimate, we laughed, we saw the world together. So when they no longer loved me, when they cheated on me, when they abandoned me for greener pastures, or jobs, or the world—it hurt. It hurt a lot. If it had been one date, that would have been a minor scratch. But years? That goes deep.

The opposite of loving, of caring, or feeling strongly in a positive way, is not caring at all. No love, no emotion—nothing.

But I didn’t hate all of them.

In my worst relationships, that hatred came from being taken advantage of, lied to, cheated on, stolen from. That ate me up from the inside out. But in all of my time on this earth, I’ve had very little hate.

How do we get to hate?

It’s seeing something we love, we stand for, we care about destroyed. You can look around this world right now, at the United States, and see horrible things happening. I definitely have some hatred—something I tried not to let fester in the past. But it has taken root. When I see people who are bigots, homophobes, racists, misogynists—it causes this emotion to simmer, boil, and overflow. Why? Because it is destroying what I see are the basic rights that all human beings deserve. The right to exists in peace. The right to be who you want to be. The right to love who you want to love. The right to worship however you see fit. When I see people lie, cheat, steal, and destroy? It upsets me. As it should.

So, let’s back up a bit here. I mentioned apathy before, how does that fit in here? If love and hate have a relationship, a connection, the OPPOSITE of loving, of caring, or feeling strongly in a positive way, is not caring at all. No love, no emotion—nothing.

Your pizza shows up 20 minutes late, and it’s wrong. That’s an inconvenience, but I doubt you hate the pizza, the delivery guy, or the company. Annoyed? Yes. But really, how invested were you in that pizza?

You go to see a movie and it’s not what you thought it would be, and you didn’t enjoy it. Do you hate the film, the director, the studio? No. Probably not. Now, if you have a lifelong relationship with a director, if you’ve supported their projects, met them, and then they betray that trust, turn into a monster? Maybe you can see how that might build into something darker, more powerful.

That boy or girl who is making fun of you? If they aren’t in your life, if they aren’t a friend, if it’s in passing, how angry can you really get? It’s annoying, but it’s not hatred yet. NOW, if they do this every day for a year, if they come to your job, if they physically assault you—yes, now we're heading toward hatred. But that has to BUILD.

I hate mushrooms. But do I really? I mean, they don’t taste good to me, I avoid them, I don’t like the smell, the musty taste, the rubbery texture. But do I really HATE THEM? No. I don’t. Mushrooms gotta mush, right? I don’t like them. But HATE is a strong word.

What I’m trying to get to here, when it comes to your fiction, is how you can create a strong emotion—positive or negative—and then flip it, change it, to create a strong response from your reader.

In order for you to have a story, your protagonist must change. Early on we will establish the exterior conflict (the big event in the world—an asteroid headed towards our planet; a virus spreading across the continent; aliens landing) and work to solve that problem, but we will also need to deal with the internal conflict (the emotions and motivations—the hero who feels alone and misunderstood; the twin sister that just wants to be loved by her father, the king; the possessed woman who doesn’t want to be alone).

So we take that negative situation and emotion, and change it. We show that villain in a way that helps us to understand how they became so horrible, and then have them show mercy, maybe saving the day, as they perish. We show the reluctant hero, a wallflower, finally becomes their true self, risking it all, and winning. We show the detached mother, protecting her children, doing whatever she has to do in order to survive, finally relax and let down her guard, knowing they are safe. Of course, sometimes the endings are not happy, the evil wins, and if we’re emotionally invested it HURTS, we cry, we suffer. That’s horror.

Wherever you start with your emotion—light or dark, utopia or dystopia, horror story or literary tale—be aware of that relationship. We must care about the family before the cabin is overrun with zombies, killing most of them. We must love your lone hero, before he goes through hell, us rooting for him, cheering him on, crying if he (or his crew) dies. We must fight for what we believe in, as we face the monster or event, the world we love, the freedoms we love, so much at stake. There is a strong relationship there, so make sure you set it up early, go deep, and then look for ways to flip it, change it, as you solve your conflicts (with a happy OR sad ending), getting us to feel what you want us to feel. You are manipulating us here, and that takes time—one moment, one scene, after another.

Good luck!

About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit

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