Novels have a huge advantage over movies because a novel can show us something and let us know the feelings of the characters in that particular situation. On the other hand, all movies can do is show us something but we can never get into the feelings and emotions of the characters. So how do you get around this huge limitation of movies? You create scenes that the audience can relate to. There are two ways you can do that.
First, pick an emotion that audiences can easily relate to so when they see a character on the screen struggling with that same problem, they’ll immediately feel themselves in that same situation. For example, nearly everyone is afraid of getting killed by a chainsaw so when a villain charges someone with a chainsaw in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” it’s not hard to squirm in your seat and feel an emotional bond with the character running for his or her life as the swinging chainsaw gets closer and closer.
Of course, to make sure audiences feel emotionally engaged with any scene, you really shouldn’t rely on the audience reacting correctly to a particular scene. Instead, you should make sure the audience reacts that way by adding extra meaning to that scene first.
For example, a villain coming at you with a chainsaw is scary. To make that more meaningful, show us the chainsaw cutting a minor character up first. Once we see a minor character getting ripped apart by a chainsaw, now we have our own emotional reaction to a chainsaw plus we just saw the horrible carnage a chainsaw can do so that reinforces the fear of the chainsaw in our minds. When the villain finally hunts down the hero with a chainsaw, we now have:
- Our own built-in fear of chainsaws to worry about
- The foreshadowing of the movie reminding us of the horrible consequences of the chainsaw when we saw the bad guy kill a minor character with that chainsaw
This double whammy makes us feel far more emotionally engaged than just seeing a chainsaw-wielding maniac attack the hero for the first time. What happens if a movie is peaceful and suddenly the villain attacks the hero with a chainsaw? Now we only have our own emotional fear of chainsaws to heighten the tension, but that will always be far less than seeing the earlier threat of the chainsaw killing a minor character and knowing how it can kill the hero too.
The final threat your villain needs at the end of your movie can be made far more emotionally engaging if you foreshadow that threat earlier in the movie. Give us a hint of this Horrible Consequence early so when it finally arrives at the end, we can see the problem and feel more emotionally engaged. Ratchet up the tension by not only foreshadowing the Horrible Consequence but show this Horrible Consequence threatening someone the hero loves.
Now you have three ways to make a scene emotionally engaging:
- Our own fears about something
- The foreshadowing that shows us the Horrible Consequences
- The threat to the hero’s loved ones
The threat to the hero’s loved one makes us both fear the loss of that character while also engaging our own fear of loss too. Think of the ending to “Argo.” The hero is trying to get a group of Americans out of Iran. So this problem tests our own fear of being trapped somewhere and possibly being killed or at least taken hostage.
Next, earlier in the film we see corpses dangling from cranes, so this foreshadows the fate the characters might face if caught. We also see the Iranians taking some Americans hostage and blindfolding them, so we see that fate as well.
Finally, the hero gets to know the trapped Americans and realizes that if he fails, they’ll likely get taken hostage or killed, so now it’s more than just getting them out, but also saving the lives of people that we’ve come to recognize as friends as well. “Argo” spends much of its time focusing on the trapped Americans so we can develop an emotional bond with them. Now their fate is far more meaningful to us than if we never got to know them at all and just saw them as a group of strangers who happen to be American.
Movies are always about emotions. You have to start with the audience’s main emotions (love, hate, anger, etc.), foreshadow Horrible Consequences, and threaten the hero’s loved ones to tap into the audience’s emotions once more (loss, guilt, fear, etc.). When you can tap into the emotional vein of your audience, your story will feel far more interesting and emotions are what drives a movie while the structure remains hidden.
You need a solid story structure, but you also need a solid emotional adrenaline rush to make your story structure far more compelling. Most Hollywood movies aim for emotions and lack story structure and sometimes they work. Sometimes Hollywood makes a movie with a solid story structure but devoid of much emotion, so it doesn’t do as well as it could. But look at the greatest movies of all time and you’ll see that they always combine a solid story structure with a strong emotional adrenaline rush as well. That’s the combination for a successful screenplay.