Stories that do not engender powerful emotions are unlikely to be popular. Make us cry or make us laugh, but don’t make us yawn. This sentence should be tattooed on the forehead of every fledgling writer.
William M. Akers agrees with me: “Give the reader an emotional experience or you’re wasting your time,” he writes in his book, Your Screenplay Sucks.
But how does one master the use of powerful emotions in writing? For a start we should look for appropriate places to create emotionally charged moments as often as possible.
“Story characters who solicit powerful emotions in readers or audiences directly contribute to the success of any tale.”
In Breaking Bad, Walter White supplements his meagre teacher’s income by working at a carwash. The idea that someone whose work once helped a team of scientists win the Nobel Prize now has to teach chemistry classes to unappreciative high-school students captures our sympathy. But the writer of the TV series takes it a step further: A couple of students spot Walter at the carwash squatting on his haunches, polishing tires. We experience Walter’s humiliation directly and this causes us to empathise with him more acutely than before.
All emotions are worthy of being foregrounded providing they serve the character and story—compassion, sadness, fear, lust, joy. In Rear Window Grace Kelly arrives at Jimmy Steward’s house with an overnight suitcase. She opens it and we see she has packed a nighty. We swallow with anticipation, knowing she intends to sleep with him.
One of the most moving moments in all of cinema occurs in Dead Poet’s Society. Fired for encouraging students to think for themselves, John Keating is preparing to permanently vacate his beloved classroom under the critical gaze of the man who fired him. Suddenly, one after another, the students ignore possible expulsion and defiantly stand on their desks in support of him, calling out: “Oh, Captain, my Captain.” This is not only a victory for Keating and his teachings, but a hugely successful emotional moment, too.
Although we tend to remember many finely crafted scenes that reveal essential plot information, scenes that are supercharged with emotion we remember forever.
Supercharge your scenes with powerful emotions, and do it often. Your stories will be all the more memorable for it.