If you watch the above video from “Toy Story 2,” you’ll go on an emotional ride as Jessie (the cowgirl doll) sings a song that lets you experience how Jessie went from being a toy that her owner loved playing with to being forgotten to ultimately being dumped in a donation bin. Such emotionally charged scenes are vitally important in any story, so the key is to make every scene change something emotionally in both one of the characters and in the audience as well.
If you watch a good musical, you’ll see that every song expresses a changed emotion somehow. In “Grease” there’s a scene where Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) is having a sleepover with the other high school girl. While in the bathroom, the other girls sing a song making fun of Sandy’s goody two shoes, clean cut behavior. When Sandy steps out of the bathroom, she sees this and now the whole world has changed emotionally for Sandy (she now knows what other people think of her) and the other girls (they feel embarrassed having been caught making fun of Sandy). As an audience member, you’re also changed emotionally because you can feel both the embarrassment of the girls being caught making fun of Sandy and the pain of Sandy realizing how the girls really feel about her. This emotionally charged moment helps set up two changes.
First, Sandy is motivated to change. Second, the other girls are motivated to help her change to make up for the fact that they were making fun of her and got caught. Sandy’s ultimate change at the end would make no sense if she didn’t have the motivation to change and the other girls didn’t have the motivation to help her change.
Beyond musicals, watch any good movie and you’ll find emotions lurking even in the toughest action films. In “Die Hard,” the opening scene shows the hero being afraid of flying, which is the emotion of fear. Then his fellow passenger gives him advice to scrunch his toes in the carpet. This fellow passenger momentarily experiences fear when he sees the hero’s gun, but the hero shows that he’s a cop and puts the other passenger at ease.
Even though these emotions are minor, they make the scene far more interesting as the audience is at first amused at the hero’s fear of flying, then momentarily frightened at seeing his gun. As innocent as this opening scene may appear to be, it sets up the rest of the story that the hero is a cop, he has a gun, and eventually he’ll be barefoot. The emotions in the scene simply make the scene far more enjoyable to watch while getting us to remember these set ups.
If even one scene of you screenplay lacks some type of emotion, rewrite it. Emotion is the key to story telling. Make sure every scene toys with the audience\’s emotions at some point. That will make each scene interesting and if each scene is interesting, then your whole story will be interesting as well.
To see how the lack of emotion helps kill a story, watch a bad movie where scenes simply exist to give information without any emotion whatsoever. Such scenes are dull, which contributes to an overall mediocre story.
In the latest remake of “The Fantastic Four,” there’s a short scene showing the Human Torch knocking down a drone. Yet there’s no emotion in the Human Torch, the characters watching the Human Torch knock down the drone, or in the audience watching this mildly interesting action. So ultimately this is a complete waste of a scene since it gives us information without making the story any better. Delete this scene and the story doesn’t really suffer.
Study good and bad movies and you’ll see which ones have an emotional thread behind it and which ones don’t. Bad movies lack emotion. Good movies create emotion. Great movies let the audience experience the emotion for themselves.