The most common advice given to writers is “Show, don’t tell.” What that means is that you want the audience to see something rather than be told something. However, seeing is not enough. The audience has to feel it as well.
A good story not only states facts but also touches our emotions. When we’re moved emotionally by a story, we’re far more likely to enjoy the story than if we’re just told the same story.
Think of someone telling you what a great time they had at a party last night. Now imagine if you had been at that party and had a great time. Hearing someone tell a story is far less engaging than experiencing that emotion yourself and that’s what you need to strive for in your screenplay. Make the audience feel as if they’re experiencing the same emotions as the hero.
There are two movies with similar plots about an outsider who learns to deal with a different culture, wins their respect, and turns against his former allies.
In “Dances with Wolves,” the hero is a Civil War veteran who learns to deal with the Native Americans. In “The Last Samurai,” the hero learns to deal with the Samurai of ancient Japan. “Dances with Wolves” is a great movie. “The Last Samurai” is just a good movie. The difference is the emotional bond.
In “Dances with Wolves,” we learn at the same time our hero does. When our hero tries to get himself killed by riding in front of the enemy, we cringe as he miraculously remains unscathed. Then we can feel a sense of victory as his action inspires the Union troops to charge the Confederates.
In “The Last Samurai,” we don’t get to experience emotions at the same time as the hero. Instead, we see a variety of flashbacks to show us what motivates the hero as he screams in nightmares, but because we’ve never experienced the horrifying moments that motivate the hero, we feel much less attached to the hero emotionally and his motivation seems distant. As a result, the hero’s story is much less emotionally compelling.
In “Dances with Wolves,” we feel like we’re in the story, sympathizing with the Native Americans and battling the arrogance of the U.S. Army. In “The Last Samurai,” we feel more like we’re watching a story rather than experiencing it. This is one reason why flashbacks are so risky because flashbacks only show us what happened, but don’t let us experience that emotion for the first time like the hero does.
In “Forrest Gump,” we get to experience his weird life that somehow places him in various historical moments without him realizing it. In “Die Hard,” we learn about the terrorists and their goals at the same time as the hero does. By letting us experience the emotion at the same time as the hero, we feel emotionally linked to the hero. By not letting us experience the emotions that have shaped the hero, we feel less involved.
In “WALL-E,” we see the loneliness of WALL-E on the dead Earth, so the arrival of Eve on a rocket ship is as much a shock to us as it is to WALL-E. Now imagine if we had flashbacks of WALL-E seeing similar rocket ship arriving and exploring the Earth. Then the arrival of Eve wouldn’t be a shock but feel like something old and familiar, which distances the emotional bond between the audience and the hero.
Your screenplay isn’t just telling a story but immersing your audience into an emotional roller coaster. Just as riding a roller coaster is more thrilling than having someone tell you about riding a roller coaster, so must your screenplay let your audience experience your hero’s emotions rather than just see them on the screen.
Get your audience emotionally involved and you’ll be on your way to making a great movie.