In the movie “Dune,” there’s a scene where a narrator tells us that the hero and a woman are falling in love. As we watch the hero and the woman kiss, the narrator tells us, “And their love grew.”
Seeing them kissing is enough. We don’t need to have a narrator tell us that their love is growing when we can see for ourselves. Even worse, we don’t get to experience their love. Instead of letting us watch them hesitant about meeting, see them gradually getting to know each other, and then finally falling in love, we just get a quick scene of two people kissing and a narrator telling us they’re falling in love. That’s about as engaging as watching two strangers kiss in the park. If we don’t feel emotionally engaged with the characters, we won’t really care what they do, even if they experience intense emotions like love or hate.
Every movie is about giving your audience an emotional experience. People want to experience intense emotions. Horror movies scare us. Comedies make us laugh. Action thrillers pump up our adrenaline. Romance stories help us relive the sensation of falling in love. Every great movie stirs up intense emotions in the audience. Every bad movie does not and simply parades a bunch of characters in fancy settings that can’t substitute for getting to know the characters in the first place.
In “127 Hours,” there’s an intense emotional scene where the hero finally decides to cut his arm off to escape. Any time you have an emotional scene, you can’t rush it by simply showing the character doing something and having a narrator tell us, “And then he felt the pain of cutting his own arm off to free himself.” What “127 hours” shows us is a long, slow build-up to the actual event. First, the hero contemplates cutting his arm off at the midpoint of the movie. Then he fails. As he’s gradually growing weaker and hallucinating, he makes a second attempt. As he starts cutting into his arm, there’s a nerve that he has to sever. Each time he tries, he screams in agony. Rather than get the emotional scene over with in a hurry, “127 Hours” drags it out and forces us to cringe as the intensity of the moment ratchets up to a climax as we see the hero trying to cut his nerve over and over again. After several tries, the hero finally severs that nerve and manages to free himself.
When he finally cuts off his arm, the scene doesn’t happen too quickly so when that moment finally arrives, it’s a relief from all the tension we’ve been feeling up until that point. To make any scene emotional, you must draw it out and lengthen it. Make us cringe. Force us to face our fears, then don’t let us escape it too soon.
Another way to ratchet up the emotional intensity is to surprise us. In “The Shining,” there’s a famous scene where a kid rides a tricycle through the empty hotel. As he rounds a corner, he suddenly sees the ghosts of two girls that alternately flashes between the two girls standing and looking alive, to the two girls hacked in blood and sprawled on the hallway floor.
To get to that intense emotional moment, “The Shining” showed us the kid on the tricycle twice before where nothing happens. Then the third time the horror moment arrives and it catches us off guard. Even though the scene is short, the emotional intensity is powerful and memorable.
So if you want to create intense, emotional scenes in your screenplay, you have two techniques. First, draw out the agony, tension, and pain. Second, surprise and shock us. Both methods can work. The only wrong way to write a screenplay is where you don’t have any emotional engagement at all.