Here is a masterful example, taken from William M. Akers’, Your Screenplay Sucks, of how to set up a scene in order to create genuine and powerful emotion—in this case, tear-jerking compassion!
In Throw Mama from the Train Larry Donner, played by Billy Crystal, is roped into attending dinner at Owen’s house. Owen (played by Danny DeVito) lives with his mother. He is Larry’s worst writing student at the community college where he teaches. Owen is a rather simple-minded, talentless, irritating imp of a man who lives with his mother, a cantankerous old woman with a painful voice and an even worse personality. We learn that Danny’s father is dead.
The dinner is terrible, Owen is as irritating as ever and his mother is just plain horrible. ‘Owen, you don’t have any friends,’ she rasps, stating the obvious. Larry desperately wants to leave, heck, we want him to leave, but he seems stuck there out of an abundance of politeness.
Up to now, the scene has made us uncomfortable, generated feelings of confinement, of being trapped in a hostile and hopeless environment. We shift in our seats and pray for it to end.
Finally the mother goes off to bed. Here is Larry’s chance to escape! But no. Owen asks Billy if wants to see his coin collection, and Billy is forced to say yes, again out of politeness.
“Knowing how to evoke emotion is the single most important skill to master in story-telling.”
Up to now, we have come to dislike Owen, well, for being Owen, and for putting Larry through such an excruciating evening. Not much to like here.
Then Owen dumps several coins on the floor—a few worn out quarters, some old dimes and nickels. So that’s it? This is his magnificent coin collection?
Then this happens: I’ll quote Akers who quotes Owen’s exact words from the scene: ‘ “This one here, I got in change, when my dad took me to see Peter, Paul, and Mary. And this one, I got in change when I bought a hot dog at the circus. My daddy let me keep the change. He always let me keep the change.” ‘
Wow! What a shift in our emotions—not a dry eye in the house! We’ve gone from loathing Owen to loving him through this sudden injection of feeling rooted in his nostalgia for his past life with his father. It explains why, in a certain sense, the child-like Owen stoped growing beyond the days spent with his father. He is still irritating, but now we understand him a little more, and we adore him for it; perhaps we even feel a little guilty for having loathed him in the first place.
This is masterful writing. Well done to the screenwriter, Mr Stu Silver!
Knowing how to evoke emotion in writing is the single most effective thing you can do to improve your stories.