Anger in Plot Development: Part 1, Unexpressed Anger

See Study: Compassion, not sanctions, is best response to workplace anger at AAAS for an article from Temple University Fox School of Business.

Developing Plot 101: Ratchet up the drama by letting a character name the current “problem” in a fit of anger and then be punished for the outburst.

My understanding of plot is that the “problem” grows increasingly worse for the main character until the climax. One way to kill a “problem” in a story is by letting a character in a position of power take compassion on the angry outburst.

On the other hand, if your main character is in a position of authority, perhaps the final push in an arc of character development should be learning to have compassion toward a co-worker who has reached a such a degree of anger that the outburst becomes deviant.

I looked up the Deanna Geddes and Ronda Roberts Callister article “Crossing the Line(s): A Dual Threshold Model of Anger in Organizations” in Academy of Management Review: 2007, Vol. 32, No. 3, 721-746.

The authors postulate two thresholds of anger:

The first, “expression threshold,” is crossed when an organizational member conveys felt anger to individuals at work who are associated with or able to address the anger provoking situation. The second, “impropriety threshold,” is crossed if or when organizational members go too far while expressing anger such that observers and other company personnel find their actions socially and/or culturally inappropriate. (p. 272, emphasis mine)

Geddes & Callister say there are three types of workplace anger:

  • suppressed
  • expressed
  • deviant

Let’s apply their model to plot development and characters.

Character Suppresses Anger

Ronnie writes reports for John. Ronnie has noticed that John consistently removes the top two paragraphs of her reports before submission.

She doesn’t express her anger about it. She does not ever gain the ability to influence him to leave her carefully worded introductions in the report.

Ronnie’s anger increases over time. Ronnie may complain to people who are not involved in her workplace. None of them can help her resolve the problem.

Ronnie may have Silent Anger and constantly think about how John behaves:

  • Ronnie might try to convince herself that there is no need to be angry over such a trifle
  • Ronnie might tell herself that being angry with John is unbecoming
  • If Ronnie just does her job, things may go well in her department for the rest of the employees
  • If Ronnie steps back and views John as just doing his job, she may feel better
  • A result of Ronnie’s silence may reveal itself as her trouble remembering to do simple job tasks
  • Another result might be heart disease problems
  • Her negative side effects of being silent would worsen if John has told his subordinates to never complain about working for him
  • Ronnie may leave the workplace, and that company may lose their best report-writer
  • Ronnie might have repeated absenteeism

The organization might promote Muted Anger:

  • Ronnie’s co-workers might tell her not to bother discussing the problem with John
  • Ronnie complains about John to her trusted network of friends and they are generally sympathetic with her
  • Ronnie harbors more resentment toward John after complaining to sympathizers
  • Co-workers who don’t work with John may develop negative attitudes toward him
  • Gossip, like the old telephone game, may turn John’s offense of lopping off two paragraphs into taking undo credit for Ronnie’s work

A wise or empathetic co-worker may help Ronnie understand John’s actions or may coach Ronnie in how to discuss her problem with John directly. An employee familiar with John’s work style may intercede for Ronnie by telling John that his subordinate is having trouble with his actions

Side-effects of silent anger in the individual: humiliation, resentment, demoralization, frustration, tension, and emotional pain.
Side-effects of silent anger in the company: decreased citizenship behaviors, lack of commitment to company policies, low morale, reduced productivity
Reasons people stay silent

  • psychological problems
  • preference for keeping emotions private
  • fear of payback: losing job, worsened bullying, ruining the relationship
  • power inequality

Range of anger (see bullets for factors that influence the degree of anger): minor irritation to intense rage

  • Concern over the individual’s goals, desires, motives
  • Appraisal of how important it is to self
  • Regulation of anger responses based on individual abilities
  • Propensity toward emotional expression of anger

I will continue this post on another date using the next two scenarios, based on the Dual Threshold Model.

Character Expresses Deviant Anger

Josh has a job at a company that tries new ways to cut costs every week. At Monday morning’s meeting, the Ferson announces the latest change: employees will only be allowed half an hour for lunch because the company has just installed food vending machines in the breakroom.

Josh interrupts Ferson and throws his own paper cup of vending machine coffee. He goes on a rant about the company and begins kicking his table, throws his chair and concludes before walking out, “You lot of gits ain’t worth me.”

Ferson tells the employees that the meeting is over. Then she goes to Josh’s work area and enforces an immediate two-day suspension. Ferson never addresses the management issue that triggered his outburst.

Character Expresses Anger Viewed as Acceptable

Owen is a high school student. He goes to his locker between classes and discovers that the lock has been cut with wire clippers. When he reports the vandalism to the school office, Principal Garth calls him into the office. Garth tells Owen that his locker was searched for drugs.

Owen asks what rights the school has to search his locker. He listens to the explanation that the locker is school property. Owen asks if any drugs or paraphernalia were found. The Principal says none were found but explains that all the written materials including private journals found in Owen’s locker have been confiscated.

Owen becomes angry and threatens, “You have no right to do that. ” Principal Garth dismisses him. Owen calls his parents and shares his anger with them. Owen tells his friends at lunch about his anger. The parents arrange a meeting with the Principal and Owen. Again, Owen expresses his anger, interrupting the Principal’s explanation.

The parents and the friends support Owen. They are willing to support Owen and also seek to involve the object of Owen’s anger, Principal  Garth, in mediation.

Zones of Expressive Tolerance

Writers have to figure out what is acceptable expression of anger in their characters’ universe. Even within one universe, some displays of anger may be acceptable in only some circumstances or situations.

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