In 2018, Hollywood global box office revenues hit a record $41.1 billion. That’s a pretty big pie just waiting for you to come and claim your slice.
Still, before you start churning out blockbusters faster than Tony Stark can say, “Give me a scotch,” you need to master the art of screenplay writing. That’s right, it’s time to pull out those old college notes and review the essentials of storytelling through a cinematic medium.
Today, we’re talking about one such screenplay essential: emotion. More specifically, how to convey character emotion through your writing.
Think emotion is an unshootable element not worth including in your next screenplay? Then keep reading because we’re proving you wrong.
Emotion: An Unshootable Element?
You don’t need to write “unshootable” elements into your screenplay, right? Wrong! Some unshootable elements are absolutely vital to your storytelling.
Never is this distinction more apparent than when it comes to writing emotion.
Your screenplay isn’t a novel. You can’t wax poetic about your hero’s feelings regarding the characters, the settings, the plot points… Well, unless you want to include voiceover, which— let’s be honest— is a major screenplay writing cliche these days.
So, how do you convey emotion when it’s an unshootable element? There are two ways to do it. First, we’re talking about the more straightforward way to describe character emotion: through character and setting introductions.
Emotion in Character Introductions
Introducing a new character in your screenplay is a prime location to include emotion. However, keep in mind that the emotive descriptors you choose to include should serve a purpose. Namely, to paint a better picture of the character you’re introducing.
These descriptors play a huge role in how the audience will perceive your main character. Or, a role in how your POV character perceives other characters, which in turn influences how your audience will react to them, too.
So, how do you do it?
When writing emotion in character introductions, don’t plainly state, “Grace was ecstatic about her upcoming wedding.” Instead, show her excitement via her actions and dialogue. For example, Grace’s character introduction might look like this:
GRACE HARTFIELD, 32, is tasting cakes in a local bakery, flashing a hefty diamond ring at every opportunity. She wears a pristine white suit with the sleeves tastefully rolled up, brushing her front continuously to dispel any crumbs that might leave a stain. She knows she has to choose a single flavor, but they all taste so darn good. Why, she probably wonders as she digs into the red velvet, is wedding cake so much better than normal cake?
Emotion in Setting Introductions
Characters don’t just have feelings about the people they know and meet throughout your story. They also have feelings about places— places they’ve been, places they haven’t, and even places that exist only inside their minds.
Introducing the setting is almost as important as are character introductions in a screenplay, especially when trying to set the tone. Heck, some settings might as well be considered characters in their own right.
That’s why you should include emotive descriptors in your setting introductions, too.
Going Beyond the Text with Emotion in Screenplay Writing
Adding emotive descriptors to character and setting introductions is all well and good. Yet, you may wonder: is that enough? Can an actor carry the rest of the script with no other emotions to speak of?
Most screenplay writing experts would disagree. You must also include emotion in the story itself. To do this, you need to understand the structure of your screenplay and, more precisely, you need to get the difference between the scene and the sequel.
What are Scene and Sequel?
You’ve probably heard the age-old adage, “Story is more than plot.” Still, you may not know exactly what that means. The difference between writing a screenplay with a great plot and writing a screenplay with a heart-wrenching story is the difference between scene and sequel.
For this conversation, “scene” is used to describe an event where something happens. Whether it’s an actual explosion or the revelation of an explosive secret, the scene is where you get across the plot of your story.
Yet, a collection of scenes strung together would make for a boring movie. That’s because the movie would lack the elements that elevate it to story status.
This is where the sequel comes in. The sequel is where the character reacts to the events of the previous “scene.” It’s when the hero mourns the loss of his parents to a gun-wielding thief or when the heroine tells her roommate about the steamy billionaire trying to woo her (*bites lip*).
While sequel may be the most obvious choice for including emotion, scenes can feature character emotion, too. Here’s how.
Character Emotion in Scene
There are four core human emotions you can use to enhance scenes in your screenplay writing:
Of course, you can use other emotional states to convey these core ones. For example, using annoyance to portray anger or passion to imply happiness. Which emotions you plan to use, though, isn’t as important as how you use them.
At the beginning of your scene, show the character in one (or perhaps two) emotional states. The event that makes this a scene instead of a sequel occurs next, and what does your character do? He or she reacts and moves to another emotional state.
Here’s an example: a young widow stands crying at her husband’s funeral. Suddenly, a ghost rises from the grave. The young widow screams and perhaps runs away, making a full transition from “sadness” to “fright.”
Character Emotion in Sequels
After the emotional transition of the scene comes the sequel. The sequel is vital because it’s when the character processes the events of the previous action scene and comes up with a plan for what to do next.
It’s a lot easier to incorporate emotion in sequels, especially since it often features the character confiding their feelings in a trusted confidante. Here, the character can literally say how they’re feeling without it ringing inauthentic to the audience.
Keep in mind that there are exceptions to this rule. For instance, if you had a character who is a loner or doesn’t like to talk about their feelings. In this case, an interesting arc might be that the person explodes from keeping everything inside at the end, leading to catharsis for the viewer.
You be might be wondering: what the heck is catharsis? We’re talking about that next, so keep reading.
Catharsis, or Getting Your Audience to Feel It Too
Want to write a screenplay that has audiences sobbing about the MC’s untimely death? Or maybe you’d prefer your viewers to cheer when the unlikely hero takes down the villains with a flame thrower? Or perhaps you’re the type of writer who wants to leave everyone baffled.
Whatever your style or genre, you need the single most important element of a crowd-pleasing screenplay: catharsis.
What is catharsis, you may ask? Catharsis is a word derived from the Ancient Greek word for “cleansing.” The father of dramatic storytelling himself, Aristotle, said that catharsis is the feeling the audience gets when a character’s story is over.
More specifically, it’s that feeling that sticks with you for weeks to come. It’s that feeling that has you wondering: was the main character really inside a dream, or did he finally find happiness in the real world? Or the feeling of nihilism after watching the main characters thwart death, only to be hunted and killed by Death itself.
Better yet, it’s the relief your audience feels when the hero saves the day or the protagonist gets what they want.
How to Write a Cathartic Screenplay
Here’s how you do catharsis right: you harken to your audience’s experiences by allowing them to relate to the characters on screen. While you may not know your audience intimately or what experiences your viewers are walking into the theater with, you do know those universal themes that speak to everyone.
The love of a parent for their child or the love of a spouse for their partner. The trials and tribulations of growing up and the feeling of rejection. All of these are universal themes that resonate with the majority of people.
Regardless of the events and conflicts going on in your screenplay, it’s these themes and the emotions that come with them that make people connect with a story. All you have to do to create a successful screenplay is to find the cathartic elements in your film idea.
Software to Sell Your Screenplay
Your screenplay writing skills may be on the way to greatness, but marketing your film? Forget about it!
That’s where Story Fit comes in.
At Story Fit, we want to help you make more informed decisions about marketing your movie. Using artificial intelligence-powered software, we give you the insights you need to become a smashing success. Get in touch with us today so we can talk about your next big idea!