Screenwriting: The Emotional Spine (Cross Post)


Film is an emotional medium. Reading a book puts you inside the protagonist’s head, but watching the movie plants you firmly in her shoes. The immersive audio-visual experience of a darkened theater, especially the score swelling through surround sound, is conducive to feeling, not thinking. We read a film not so much by listening to dialogue, but by watching emotions flicker across characters’ faces. We react physically to scares by jumping in our seats, and a dynamic chase sequence gets our pulse racing along with the protagonist’s. We commit to sitting still for a couple of hours so we can escape our dead-inside realities on someone else’s hot-blooded rocket to the moon. We buy a movie ticket so we can be moved.

This is why it’s sometimes counterintuitive to think of a screenplay purely in terms of the rational and intellectual – action sequences, set-ups/pay-offs, act breaks, narrative beats, turning points, climax and closure. A screenplay needs a solid structure and should be organized along logical lines. However, a purely clever and logical screen story leaves the audience cold. Is that all there is? Sometimes it’s a good idea to think not about what’s moving your story forward, but what’s holding it together, what’s keeping the audience engaged from scene to scene.

The best screenplays rely on an emotional spine to engage hearts as well as heads in the opening pages, and thus carry the audience all the way through to the final credit roll.

An Emotional What?