The Heart of the Matter

The Primacy of Emotion in Screenwriting ☛

Emotion is at the heart of every story. This statement won’t sound controversial if you write relationship dramas or rom-coms, but those of you who pen complex political thrillers or action movies will probably disagree. If you do, you’re wrong and I’ll tell you why. In a bit. Then I will show you how to smear emotion all over your screenplays. Like jam.

First I’ll back up my opening statement.  Why does an audience member decide to zone out during a movie or switch off a TV show? Maybe they’re confused by the plot, they don’t like any of the characters, they find the story over-familiar, they don’t believe that people would act that way… At the heart of all these reasons is one reason:

They no longer care what’s going to happen. If they ever did.

Why don’t they care? Because they’re not sufficiently emotionally engaged with the characters. You find the story confusing? You’ve either got bored with the characters and are watching intellectually or the writer was more interested in plot than character, meaning that the characters are like those little figures in an architect’s model – merely present to provide scale. You find the story hackneyed? All stories have been told before: it feels like a potboiler because the characters have no emotional inner life. The characters are acting as people do not? Okay, you had engaged with the characters, but then the writer turned them into robots to make them do something that needed to happen for the plot to work. You can’t emotionally connect with characters that do not feel real.

No emotion: no audience.

As I’ve said, emotion is key no matter what sort of story you’re telling. Let’s imagine a political thriller. At the heart of all the machinations, cover-ups and betrayal – all pretty intellectual stuff – there is a character who wants something. Whether they’re an innocent woman trying to clear her name or a Machiavellian Washington player, hungry for power, they are driven by a strong emotion. Even where the protagonist is a professional hired to do a job – a journalist, a lawyer, a detective – there’s usually someone who comes to them full of emotion and we see that emotion gradually rub off on the professional to the point where they are so passionate that they often break the bounds set by their profession. This is equally true of an action movie. The business of the story may be different – more gun fights than late night briefings in lonely car parks – but the strength of emotion required is just the same. Arguably more so: the protagonist of a political thriller usually faces continued injustice or personal disgrace; the hero/ine of most action movies faces death. Repeatedly. This needs a big emotional push, whether it be Bryan Mills wanting to save his kidnapped daughter in Taken or pretty much anybody wanting to save the Earth from pretty much anything.

Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills. I think he’s upset.

But emotion is not just about engagement. Every story is an emotional journey from one place to another, and the best story will never take a direct route. The obstacles that we must place in the characters’ path put them under pressure and that pressure generates emotion both in them and for the audience. Some screenwriting gurus draw graphs of the emotional journey of a story, plotting the progress of the story on one axis and positive / negative emotion – are things going well for the protagonist or badly – on the other axis. This, in crude terms, is the emotional shape of the story. Of course positive vs. negative emotions is pretty simplistic. You could probably find a way to model all of the emotions of the central characters with multiple lines in different colours and find use for another axis. The result would be the true emotional shape of the story. It would be way too complex to be of any use to anyone, but it would certainly be pretty.

Making the most out of the emotions of your story is not just a macro exercise of shaping your screenplay so that these emotional beats exist, you can also benefit from referencing emotion in the line-by-line writing of the script.

First off, your character introductions should be about the character’s personality, rather than their appearance; these thumbnails are vital for getting the first readers of your script to connect with your story – I’ve written about this at greater length here.

You can also use emotion when describing behaviour in the action of your script. Because of the screenwriting dictum “don’t describe anything you can’t see or hear” many rookie writers opt for describing emotional behaviour literally. Characters scratch their heads, lower their eyes, smile broadly or slam their fist on the table, as required. While this can successfully communicate the emotion to the reader, it can sometimes be ambiguous – is the character lowering their eyes out of shame, embarrassment, sadness? This leads the writer to describe behaviour that is unambiguous in its meaning, and the result often reads as too big or clichéd. We forget that a big part of the job of an actor is to communicate their character’s emotions. In this respect emotion is something you can see – the actor will make it visible through their performance. Besides, the line:

‘On Tariq: his patience wearing thin.’

Makes for a quicker, clearer read than:

‘Tariq paces up and down, then stops and wipes his hand down his face.’

Better to allow the reader to imagine what Tariq is doing to express his loss of patience, than to set them the task of trying to guess his mood from behavioral ticks. The most important thing is that we know what he’s feeling.

Some writers don’t describe emotional responses at all, or do so rarely. This is often because they are too focused on the intricacies of their plot, or the geography of their action sequence; as a result their scripts tend to be incomprehensible or sawdust dry.

Stanley Kubrick said:

A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.

Stanley Kubrick expressing the emotion of happiness.

If the audience’s prime desires were to watch tanks being blown up, landmark buildings being demolished by aliens, or the myriad other set-piece spectacles that movie can provide, they would probably turn to online mash-ups and save themselves hours of watching characters talking to each other. Whether the audience are conscious of it or not, the primary reason they’re watching the movie is for an emotion experience.   And that’s what we’ve got to give them.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2019

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s