If there’s one thing my friend and mentor, the late South African filmmaker, Elmo De Witt, taught me it is to focus on emotion in the stories I write. “Without emotion, no one will care about your story, no matter how much cleverness you weave into it,” he was fond of saying. How true. His early films, such as Môre, Môre (Tomorrow, Tomorrow), are testaments to that fact.
He’s not the only one. Here’s William M. Akers on the subject: “Give the reader an emotional experience or you’re wasting your time.”
But how do we do this? Here are some suggestions:
Never miss an opportunity to create an emotional moment, even in passing. Your Hero buys a newspaper one evening from a street vendour, a worse-for wear old man who looks like he’ll be stuck with the day’s remaining stock. Our Hero pays for the paper and moves on. The plot function of this bridging scene is for the Hero to discover, hidden somewhere on the back page, a vital clue to his case. Function achieved. Great scene. Right?
Wrong. It’s a missed opportunity.
How about having our Hero buy the whole pile of papers just to help the old man out? The plot remains intact, but adds a layer of compassion, which makes us feel something! This makes for a more successful scene.
Emotion can be anything: compassion, sadness, fear, lust, joy. In Rear Window Grace Kelly arrives at Jimmy Steward’s house with an overnight case. She opens it and we see she has packed a nighty. We gulp with anticipation, knowing she intends to sleep with him.
In the film, On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando confronts Rod Steiger about the thrown fight that ruined his life: “I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody.” The scene brims over with sadness and regret, which helps make it one of the most memorable.
And, how about one of the most moving scenes of all time – Dead Poet’s Society? Fired for encouraging students to think and feel for themselves, John Keating is about to leave his beloved classroom forever, under the withering gaze of the man who fired him, when one after the other, the students ignore possible expulsion and defiantly stand on their desks in support, calling out: “Oh, Captain, my Captain.” This is not only a plot victory for Keating, and his beliefs, but a hugely successful emotional moment, too. I don’t know about you, but my handkerchief was soaked through by the time the titles rolled.
The point is that we tend to remember, for a long time after, finely crafted scenes that reveal important information, but scenes that are supercharged with emotion, we remember forever.
Supercharge your scenes with emotion, and do it often. Your story will be more memorable for it.
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Image: Theodore Scott