A recent episode of the Scriptnotes podcast inspired me to write about emotion in screenplays.
Emotion in screenwriting has several aspects:
- What the characters are feeling
- How to show characters’ emotions on the page
- How to evoke emotion in the reader
- How emotion relates to plot
Let’s start with what John August and Craig Mazin had to say on Scriptnotes (which, again, you should be listening to (or reading the transcript of) every week if you’re serious about screenwriting).
What your characters are feeling
Why do character emotions matter?
As John says, “what characters are feeling so often impacts what they can do in a scene, how they would express themselves, literally what actions they would take.”
For example, in the example John gives, a character walking into a party will act very differently based on what they’re feeling:
imagine that you’re at a party and how differently you’d act or speak if for example you were terrified of someone in the room. Or if you were ravenously hungry. If you were ashamed about what you were wearing. If you were proud of the person this party was about. If you were disgusted by the level of filth in the room.
If you don’t know what a character FEELS in a given moment – and don’t convey that to the audience/reader — then a scene can feel inert – like you’re just moving mannequins around on a set.
Emotional truth is an element of plot logic and it makes characters come to life.
As Craig said on the podcast,
How many times in our Three Page Challenges have we said, “Why is this person speaking in a complete sentence when somebody has a knife to their throat?” You can’t. You just can’t. There’s a lack of emotional truth.
If a character acts/reacts in a way that doesn’t feel emotionally truthful – if it’s not the way a real person would act, or it’s not the way that character normally acts in this story – it can feel fake and take the reader (and audience) out of the story.
That’s not to say that characters have to be 100% emotionally consistent from the start to the end of a story. In fact, movies often involve a character’s emotional growth: they may start out fearful and gain confidence, for example. Or they may initially repress their emotions and eventually learn to express them. But a significant change in emotional response shouldn’t just be random – it should be caused by something that a character experiences.
Sometimes realistic emotions don’t seem to really matter. In many action movies, it’s all about the chases, the set pieces, and blowing shit up. Characters react with quips and snarls, but stereotypical action heroes rarely display fear even when circumstances would be terrifying to real mortals.
However, even when you’re dealing with action heroes, showing them experience a range of emotions can make them more engaging.
For example, in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones has just survived an ancient corpse-filled temple equipped with multiple booby traps including a giant rolling boulder. But he only freaks out when he’s confronted with his pilot’s pet snake. We see him experience fear.
Later, Indy again keeps his cool during the battle in the marketplace, where he whips out his pistol to shoot the assassin with the sword. But when he thinks Marion has been killed, he drinks himself into oblivion in a bar. We see him experience sorrow and loss.
How to show emotions on the page
The simplest and most mechanical way to show emotion on the page is with a “wryly” — a parenthetical under a character name that tells an actor how to say a line. For example:
That’s a pretty big gun you’ve got there.
Like most screenwriting devices, wrylies can be used well or badly.
A bad use of a wryly is to restate the obvious:
I hate you!
A better use of a wryly is to indicate that a line should be delivered differently from what a reader might expect:
I hate you.
I once got the very bad advice that all emotional responses MUST be visual. For example, you show that someone is angry by saying that their face is red. You show that someone is sad by saying that tears stream down their face. I.e., “show, don’t tell.”
There’s nothing wrong with red faces and streaming tears – but they’re not all you have to work with. You can do a lot with verbs, for example.
“She walks across the room” tells us nothing emotionally. It’s just moving the mannequin around the set.
“She saunters across the room, checking the mirror to see how she looks in her new dress” tells us this character is confident, happy, maybe a little vain.
You can also use descriptions that some deride as “unfilmable.”
For example, here’s a moment from a scene in the Oscar-winning script for Little Miss Sunshine. Frank has just been released from the hospital after a suicide attempt and is staying with his sister.
Frank sits on the cot in his nephew’s bedroom. On it is a Muppet sleeping bag with the Cookie Monster eating a cookie.
Frank glances at the sleeping bag, then averts his eyes.
This is pretty much the worst moment of his life.
The “action” here is very simple. A character sits. He looks. He looks away.
You can’t “see” the worst moment of his life in the same way you can see a red face or tears or a sauntering woman checking herself out in the mirror. But that last line describes (“tells”) what the character is feeling in a way that the actor can act.
An even more sophisticated way to convey emotion is through everything that’s happening in a scene.
Take a look at the opening pages of The Queen’s Gambit. It’s a three-page emotional journey about a woman who awakes fully dressed and soaking wet in a bathtub to find an unknown person in her bed and a hotel clerk knocking on her door. Somehow she has to pull herself together to face TV cameras and a formidable chess opponent.
There’s not a single wryly in those three pages, and little dialogue. Yet we have a very clear sense of how Beth is feeling from moment to moment.
Read scripts (you can find them via the links here) for emotional scenes in movies and series and see how the writers handled it. You’ll see a wide variety of styles and techniques.
How to evoke emotion in the reader
My favorite book about emotion in screenwriting is Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias.
As Iglesias says,
Good writing is good writing because you feel something when you read it. It’s why a great movie can be three hours long and you don’t even notice, while an awful ninety-minute one can feel like 90 hours.
That’s an important point: stories without real emotions are often boring, no matter how much shit is blowing up on screen. That’s because we don’t care about the people the shit is blowing up around – we haven’t invested in them emotionally.
One very basic way to get an audience (or reader) emotionally invested in a character is via empathy. For example, readers feel sorry for Harry Potter because he’s an orphan and his aunt and her nasty family make him live in a closet under the stairs.
Another classic/trope is the “pat the dog” scene. You show a character being gratuitously nice to someone (or something) in order to convey that they’re a good person the audience/reader should emphasize with. (Conversely, villains will often have a “kick the dog” scene.)
Iglesias offers dozens of other examples of how emotion can be evoked using character description, scene structure, dialogue, etc. I’m not going to summarize the whole book. Just read it. And take notes.
How emotion relates to plot
In traditional Hollywood storytelling, the characters are in pursuit of some goal, and the pursuit of the goal forms the plot of the movie. The characters want to win the game, get the girl/boy, escape/defeat the villain, save the world, get rich, foil/solve the crime, get home, find the missing child, etc. The movie is over when they either succeed or fail in the original goal, or achieve some other goal, or realize that what they thought they wanted isn’t really that important (and something else is).
But producer Lindsay Doran, in her legendary talk on “The Psychology of Storytelling,” points out:
Audiences don’t care about accomplishments. They care about the moment when a character shares the accomplishment with the person they love.
(There’s an abbreviated TedTalk version of her lecture here.)
Her point is that movies often pay off emotionally AFTER the physical “thing” is accomplished.
Here’s one obvious example: Luke and the gang grin at each other during the medal ceremony AFTER they accomplish the goal of blowing up the Death Star.
But the examples can be more subtle. At the end of Gladiator, Maximus has accomplished his goal of defeating the evil emperor – but he’s dead. We’re led to believe that he’ll be reunited with his murdered wife and son and be able to share his accomplishment with them (that he avenged their deaths), in the afterlife.
At the end of Parasite, several characters are dead and it seems like all is lost. But the son in the poor family fantasizes about how he’ll rise in the world and save his father, reuniting what’s left of the family as he shows his father what a success he’s become.
(In a tragedy, on the other hand, the main character often ends up alone, without anyone to share emotionally with – as in The Irishman and The Godfather and many other mob/crime movies.)
If you’re telling a goal-oriented happy-ending story, think carefully about that “share the accomplishment” moment at the end. Obviously, for the “share the accomplishment” moment to have an emotional impact, the relationships of the people sharing that moment have to be developed throughout the story – not just tacked on at the end.
Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) also has a great long video on story endings here. He ties together the external climax (physical goal) with the internal climax (emotional need) and the philosophical climax (relating to theme).