Emotions are critical to the human experience, and they wield an extraordinarily influential control over human behaviour. Emotions can cause a character to avoid situations or to take action, and the manner in which individual characters handle both their own emotions and those of others, tells us more about them than anything other single thing.
For a screenwriter it’s like striking gold.
Every screenplay should be a mine filled with golden moments of emotion, and it’s the writers job to mine for, and expose those emotions. When writing we often tend to disregard emotions, giving more attention to action, structure, dialogue, etc. We know emotions are important, but we don’t really know enough about them, or how they work, and so we often skirt the “feelings” issue, deal in generalities and “milk the majors”. This is an error we should all strive to avoid.
You are not alone if you are struggling to come to terms with emotions, scientists are just as confused and all that mankind has managed to prove so far is that they have no idea how emotions work, or even what they are. This attempt at understanding exactly what emotions are and how they work has birthed a barrage of researchers and theorists, none of whom can agree on anything substantial, and so after decades of investigation at various levels, we still do not even have a suitable scientific definition of what we mean by “emotions”. Of course we do have a long list of words that describe emotions, and it’s well worth your while to take a look at those.
All the major theories developed by psychologists, researchers and philosophers over the years can be grouped into three main categories: physiological, neurological, and cognitive. The first proposes that emotion results from responses within the body, the second suggests that activity within the brain leads to emotional responses, and the last argues that thoughts and mental activity play a vital role in developing an emotional response. As a screenwriter I like to think that it’s a combination of all three.
One thing that is certain however is that emotions don’t exist in a vacuum; context is everything. Evidence seems to indicate that individuals experience emotions based on prior experiences, and this is where we as screenwriters can take advantage of a landscape that we know and cash in.
Much of the research that has taken place, has concentrated on the “majors”, or what phycologists sometimes call the “basic emotions” – joy, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust – maybe because it is generally accepted that these are universal to all cultures and displayed in a comparable fashion through similar facial expressions everywhere.
Pixar cashed in on this when they made the film Inside Out featuring five of these six emotions (all except surprise) as characters residing in the head of a young girl called Riley. In the movie the five personified emotions have to learn to work together to shield and guide her. Pixar couldn’t have said it louder or prouder. They are in the emotion picture business. In fact every screenwriter is, and the sooner you realise it and master the skills involved the better.
So what’s the first step?
The answer is simple really; decide which emotion you want the audience to feel when watching the film. Do you want them to laugh or cry or cower in their cinema seats looking at the screen between their fingers? Your answer will be entangled in the other major decisions that you need to make before you start writing, (“What’s the genre?” and “What’s the premise?”) and they all need to line up neatly in a row striving for the same things.
The second step is more complicated.
You must examine each beat and ensure that there is an emotional chain-reaction. It should start with characters having feelings, and then those feelings grow to allow the audience, (and sometimes the characters,) to become aware of the emotional stakes. Once those stakes are dashed or peak they will result in emotional reactions from everyone involved – on screen and off. Your reward is when the audience, who have been witnessing the changes in mood and mental state of all the characters all the way through the chain-reaction, have the emotional reaction that you, the screenwriter, planned before you started writing.
Easier said than done!
For added effect juxtapose emotions.
When planning your emotional beats, remember to take into account the emotional tone of each scene and their position on the timeline. It’s a cheap and easy trick, but the impact of an emotion is stronger when it’s contrasted with what went before and what’s coming after. This is why thrillers and horror films often weave comedic moments into their storylines, contrasting the tension with a form of release, which is then followed by even greater tension.
One of the main reasons that people watch films is to enjoy an emotional rollercoaster ride with no personal consequences. It’s a safe place to experience laughter, fear, sorrow, revulsion, delight… all in a fun emotional ride lasting roughly 100 minutes. If the screenplay is devoid of emotion, the film is seldom worth watching.
Now you know what you need to do, you have the power, go out and use it.The Scribe Writers Room List of over 500 Emotions