There’s an interesting book called “The Impact Equation” that focuses on helping people refine their ideas. While the book isn’t about screenwriting, you can still apply its basic principles to writing anyway. One interesting idea in the book is about combining emotion with information. For screenwriters, you just need to combine emotion with story.
One common problem with many screenplays is that they don’t define a specific emotion and maintain that emotion throughout the story. So if you’re writing a horror script, every scene needs to contain some type of horror. This not only keeps the dominant emotion in the audience’s mind at all times, but it also keeps the story focused. After all, a horror film that deviates into comedy periodically would weaken its overall message.
Every story needs emotion. You’re not just telling a story like an objective documentary. Instead, you’re telling a story geared towards manipulating a specific part of the audience’s emotions.
- Horror manipulates fear and the sudden realization of something terrifying
- Comedy manipulates joy and laughter that concludes with a happy ending
- Romance manipulates happiness and the dream of finding true love
- Action manipulates the fight or flight emotion and often the desire for revenge
- Drama manipulates making people feel the highs and lows of life
“Don’t Breathe” is a horror film where every scene is either about horror or about something negative such as the hero and her friends breaking into a home to rob it and trash the place just for fun. Even when the hero is home with her mother, her mother insults her and treats her like a tramp. Having a mother who cares for you isn’t horrifying, but having a mother who actively and deliberately treats you like garbage is horrifying in a certain sense.
“Office Christmas Party” is a raunchy comedy about a company throwing a party that spirals out of control. Every scene includes comedy of some type such as a scene where the hero is locked out of an employee’s office because she’s paranoid and has a keypad lock on her door, which seems out of place for just an ordinary office.
“La La Land” is a romantic story where every scene is about love. The two characters constantly meet and gradually get to know each other. Later they break up and finally come back together again, but every scene is about one character showing love to another, or showing the negative side of a relationship by fighting even though they still love each other.
“Die Hard” is a pure action film that includes the emotion of greed and selfishness in the villain and humor and resourcefulness in the hero. The hero and villain gradually get locked in a battle of wits against each other that finally erupts into a face to face battle to the death.
“Hidden Figures” is a drama that constantly shows the main characters struggling against multiple obstacles and each other.
Before writing a screenplay, clarify in your own mind the major emotion you want to convey. “Ghostbusters” could be a horror film but it emphasizes comedy instead. “Alien” is a horror film but it could have been an action film instead like its sequel, “Aliens.”
Once you know the dominant emotion you want to convey, make sure that emotion comes through, loud and clear, in every scene. Remember, you’re not just telling a story. You’re telling a story with a dominant emotion behind it. The type of emotion you choose determines the type of story you’ll tell.
“Ghostbusters” could have been a horror film but the dominant emotion instead is comedy. Study every scene in the original and there’s always comedy involved from the simple act of the hero electrocuting a student to be alone with a pretty co-ed to the hero instructing everyone else to go ahead of him to face the villain because he’s trying to save his own neck.
So identify your story and then identify the dominant emotion you want to deliver. Whatever it is, make sure that dominant emotion comes through subtly or loud and clear in every scene. Doing this will give your overall screenplay a stronger sense of purpose.