“Any time a character gets injured and needs medical care, either from a doctor or romantic interest, we feel empathy.”
Writing for Emotional Impact
“Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul and shows to people these secrets which are common to all.”
Yesterday I woke up at 4:30 in the morning with a migraine. The kind of headache where there’s no escaping the pain. The kind where it wouldn’t help even if you could be locked away in a totally dark room sealed off from any sounds. And to top that off, later that morning I had to go to the hospital for a hernia operation. (The result of carrying our aging 85-pound golden receiver upstairs.)
In those kinds of situations I always trick myself by saying, “It’ll give me something to write about.” Here I am. After they gave me some morphine for the headache at the hospital, I started to think about the post for today. The anesthesiologist then came in the room to go over the ground rules. He was Asian and a little hard to completely understand.
It reminded me of my first surgery when I was a walk-on football player at the University of Miami and I dislocated my shoulder. A hispanic nurse or anesthesiologist held up my left arm and said, “This right arm, no?” I was pretty sure he meant, “This is the arm we are operating on, correct?” Not a time where you want something lost in translation. Yes, the arm he was holding—the left one—was the one to be operated on I pointed out to him.
I can laugh about it now but — “This right arm, no?”—was a little scary at the time. When I told that story to the doctor who was doing my operation yesterday, he said that some reports show there’s actually a 25% chance of error in an operational procedure. (Did he mean in war-time like M*A*S*H, or in some third world country? Couldn’t be true in modern time USA could it?) I was glad to see him physically mark the spot before I went under.
Anyway, I woke up after the surgery and the headache was gone, but I had a new scar. The third one I’ve acquired over the years. And the chances are good that even if you’ve never been operated on or gotten a migraine you’ve had your own share of external headaches and internal scars.
Isn’t that why we write? Isn’t that why throughout the history of civilization we are drawn to stories? Writer Walker Percy once said something to the effect that every story—every novel, movie, and soap opera—is basically the story of man trying to get better. To rid the headaches and heal the scars so to speak. (And yes, be entertained at the same time.)
Doesn’t Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca have scars? Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) in Citizen Kane? Natalie Portman in Black Swan? Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? Bambi, Nemo, Woody? Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon? Mel Gibson in The Man Without a Face? Mel Gibson as Mel Gibson? That young man in Wall St. has his share of scars.
I’m running out of ink here. But you get the point. Movie characters and real life people resemble manatees in Florida whose backs are scarred by the boat propellers of life. You just don’t always see the scars, but everybody’s got ‘em.
The best screenwriting book to deal with this subject is Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias. He’s got a whole chapter on why audiences care for characters: Injustice, undeserved misfortune, physical/mental/health/financial handicaps, haunted by the past, abandonment, betrayal, loneliness, etc.
“Emotions are universal, connecting people despite their differences. The key to connection, then, is to create events and experiences that cause familiar emotions in the characters. Don’t tell us what the characters are feeling. Show us through dramatization, and we’ll experience their journey vicariously.”
I don’t think there’s a better single scene in cinematic history dealing with physical scars than the scene in JAWS (written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottieb) where Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss compare their scars;
What follows is a monologue by Robert Shaw that is writing for emotional impact at its best. (And, according to IMDB, uncredited on the Indianapolis monologue were John Milius, Howard Sackler, and Shaw.) If you’ve seen it, you remember it, and if you haven’t I won’t spoil the moment.
But in Shaw’s character Quint, you have an external scar that points to a deeper internal scar. That’s powerful stuff if you can capture it in your writing.