“Find what gave you emotion: what the action was that gave you excitement. Then write it down making it clear the reader can see it too.”
Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea)
“For me, it’s about setup and payoff. I try to set things up so that they pay off in a way I hope evokes a strong reaction,”
Eric Roth (Forrest Gump)
“What you are doing is feeling the emotions that your characters are feeling, and finding the best way to express those emotions in the most powerfully felt, truthful, effective, moving way to yourself.”
Ron Bass (Rain Man)
The title 40 Days of Emotions sounds epic and Biblical, so I brought out the big guns (Hemingway, Roth, Bass) to lead off this post that marks the end of 40 consecutive days writing about emotions in regard to screenwriting and filmmaking.
I didn’t start out with this 40-day goal in mind. I was inspired by the book Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias (all the above quotes above were pulled from that book or his other book, The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters) and I got on the emotion train and it just kept going.
What make emotions so powerful in screenwriting and movie making is they are closely connected to conflict and theme—two areas that are crucial in connecting with an audience. If you wonder how a film can have a good plot, solid structure, and interesting characters, and be totally unremarkable I’d blame it on the writers and filmmakers failing to make an emotional connection with the audience.
Over the years I’ve written about writers who start with plot, character, theme, or a situation. But I had never heard about a writer starting from emotion until I read that’s how Tennessee Williams started his plays.
“Some screenwriters, and many playwrights, begin with the emotional story, or inner story…They layer key dramatic moments between the protagonist and antagonist in conflict with each other, creating heightened emotional moments that serve as climaxes and story beats. By intuiting the depth of character conflict, without emphasizing plot and structure, they work through the unconscious movement of the story by way of external character, revealing ‘story’ as a by-product. Tennessee Williams worked this way.”
Storytelling is Screenwriting
Recently I listened to an old CD (circa 1951) recording of The Glass Menagerie written by Tennessee and featuring Montgomery Clift as Tom. The emotional symbolism Tennessee uses is powerful stuff. Four actors, one apartment, one mediocre recording, and it still has plenty of emotional impact.
It’s fitting that I close this post with what I consider the most emotional scene I personally have ever scene on film. It’s from the film Glory that I saw in the theaters when it opened in 1989. While it’s the film where Denzel Washington won his first Oscar, it’s the first time I recalled ever seeing him on screen. Part of what gave the scene below its impact on me was I wasn’t watching a movie star or even an actor. It was like I was in that moment. That’s an emotional connection.
(This You Tube clip doesn’t compare to the experience of seeing it on the big screen. You don’t really see the scars, the twitch, the tear or know the backstory that leads to this powerful moment—but here it is just the same.)
When we use terms like head and heart to separate intellect and emotions it’s really a metaphor. Because emotion really does flow from the brain as well. Perhaps a different part than the logic part, but emotion is not anti-intellectual. Part of what gives that scene from Glory its emotion impact is knowing the history of slavery in the United States and the resulting racism that overflowed into our culture.
In ’65 tension was running high at my high school
There was a lot of fights between the black and white
There was nothing you could do…
Bruce Springsteen (Graduated in 1967 from Freehold High School in New Jersey.)
Personally it’s growing up in Florida in the 60s & 70s and being well aware of racial tensions. I was aware of the Ku Klux Klan. I remember what a cultural event it was in the pre-internet, pre-cable Tv days of 1977 when Alex Haley’s Roots first aired. It was said that 85% of the homes in the United States saw some of the eight part series and the final episode was watched 100 million viewers. (The Roots finale is still the number #3 watched Tv program in U.S. history.) It won eight Emmy Awards including Best Writing in a Drama Series—Ernest Kinoy and William Blinn (for part II).
I doubt that if Roots aired today that it would be anywhere near the cultural phenomenon it was back in 1977. We live a world a way from there. (Not perfect, but a long way from 1977.) I remember back in the late 70s when the debate around Tampa Bay QB Doug Williams was whether blacks could really be successful playing quarterback. Seriously. Williams went on to be the MVP of Super Bowl XXII with Washington. And also since 1977 we’ve seen the rise of successful and visable African-American leaders like Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and President Obama.
All that to say that emotion is not void of thinking—it’s not disconnected from cognitive knowledge. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan was emotional for me even though I was never in the military. But I imagine if you were in the military during World War II, or Korea, or Viet Nam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan or Iraq—or really any war in any country—that that scene would have even a deeper emotional impact because of your personal life experiences and the memories and knowledge you have of watching those around you die in battle.
Lastly, the screenplay for Glory was written by Detroit-born Kevin Jarre (who passed away earlier this year) and the movie was directed by Edward Zwick. The script was nominated for a WGA award, but lost to Alfred Uhry/Driving Miss Daisy. Jarre told the L.A. Times of Glory, “I never thought I could interest anybody in it. A Civil War epic, about black people. But I’d got really attached to the story….I’d end up in tears when I got through writing.”
Notice in the scene above how many words it takes for Denzel to communicate a wide range of emotions—zero. There have been enough people over the years pounding “structure-structure-structure” that I think it’s time to balance that with “write visual stories full of emotional meaning.”
So there you have it—from Hitchcock to Hemingway and beyond—40 days on the importance of emotion. For good measure let’s memorize one sentence written by Karl Iglesias; “Emotion is your screenplay’s lifeblood.”
P.S. From the odd connection department—Screenwriter Craig Mazin (The Hangover II) also graduated from Freehold High School where Springteen attended.