You cannot cheat emotion – go for quantity

Something I realized analyzing a story that didn’t work.

Obviously, when you write stories, you’re going to use little “cheats” here and there to flesh out the world and characters without having to actually dive deep into full histories. Everyone knows the old rule of “show don’t tell” but once in awhile you have to “tell” just to keep the story moving along and get everything done in a reasonable time frame.

Except when it comes to emotion.

Especially if you want the audience to feel it.

Let’s take a famous example:

In The Return Of The Jedi, when the Rancor keeper was crying over his dead  pet, why wasn't what he was saying had any English subtitles? - Quora

In Return of the Jedi, the rancor keeper there gives us about a ten second scene of tears. Yeah it’s a fine bit of acting, a nice little touch, and maybe even gets some sympathy from the audience, but it doesn’t hit us nearly as hard as…

What I Learned From Old Yeller – @Cinefille

Why? Because we the audience have more time with Old Yeller. We see the bonds and emotions between the dog and his boy over a much greater time span than we had the Rancor keeper.

Thus, the more impact you want on the audience’s emotions, the more time you need to spend on the emotion you want. If you want the audience to feel the love between two characters, then have the audience spend time with the characters being in love. Even though we know, intellectually, that things “should” happen to characters off screen, it doesn’t hit the audience’s gut thinking about those lost scenes the way it does when it’s actually visible. You cannot cheat at emotions and relationships.

I also want to stress that the quality will come from the quantity – the more you can get into the story, the deeper the emotion will resonate. By that I don’t mean you need to make a lot of scenes centered around the emotional goal. Packing in lots of scenes where characters stand around talking about feelings can get very dull fast. Think of it more like a game – if you have a scene accomplishing multiple or different tasks, find a way to squeeze in an emotional moment in there as well.

THIS moment in Attack of the Clones:

Padmé Amidala & Anakin Skywalker on We Heart It

Did more to convince me these two characters loved each other than the ENTIRE previous hour of the film which was the two of them talking at each other.

Why do you think Han & Leia worked out so well? Even their most steamy, emotion-focused scene started out as one about repairs, and then had the emotion sneak into it. Other than that, the emotion between them was always boiling up while in the middle of other things.

And this isn’t just romance. What kicked this off was discussing how little we got to see of Jack interacting with Sam and Dean Winchester during season 14 – a season where we really should have gotten more father/son moments between the three of them. (Instead all we got is 1 quality episode.)

ANY kind of relationship, ANY kind of emotion between characters, always try to find more space and more ways to convey that relationship and emotion in your story, ESPECIALLY if it is central and a major plot point to your story.

Want an example of it done well?

The Supernatural episode Swan Song. The montage at the end isn’t just a collection of clips from the character’s memory, it is a collection of clips from OUR memories. Because we, the audience, were there too for all of those moments shown.

Don’t cheat your audience out of the feelings you want them to have. Drag them through every minute.

9 thoughts on “You cannot cheat emotion – go for quantity

  1. Thanks, that was exactly what I needed to read. Was working on writing an emotional scene in this space adventure but kind of got lost, so skipped ahead and wrote a bunch of action scenes, then came down to a climactic major plot twist, and got stuck again. Just reading what you wrote cleared it up: can’t write the the action scene/confrontation twist until I work out exactly what the emotional pay-off is. The emotional pay-off IS the scene!

    I’m new to this stuff, appreciate it.

    • Keep at it, you’ll get it. 😉 Above all keep writing. Sometimes I had no idea on a scene or destination but kept at it and then when I looked at what I had, the themes/destinations/etc just leapt at me.

      Or to sum up, don’t be afraid to write your story forward AND backward.

  2. Nate, that is so true, I so agree that it’s vital to the success of certain situations and outcomes with any story. The prime example I’d quote is what I affectionately think of as Star Wars, the Search for Han. When Han Solo is frozen in carbonite and sent off to pay his dues we the audience care, because there’s an established relationship with Leia and Luke, we care, because they care. It was pivotal to everything that happened next, the whole “I love you/ I know” conversation works only in the context of the established relationship, it’s now iconic and often quoted.
    I pay my TV service charges and movie ticket prices because I want to feel something whether it be sadness, anger, joy whatever, otherwise the whole thing doesn’t resonate and you do not care to ever watch again or even remember what it’s about, let alone quote it. The best stories give you that.

      • We certainly do have the same mindset on this. I’m now getting great joy sharing with my 20 something son the fine art of excellent ( in my opinion)story telling through the medium of films considered classics. Sometimes we watch the remakes and more often than not, he appreciates the story telling of the original versions better (despite the the disparity of special effects or film quality) along with the unique authenticity of the feel of the relevant time period. To quote a case in point, The Taking of Pelham 123.

      • Interesting. I’ve been wanting to see both versions of that film.

        Yeah it’s great to go back and watch stuff. Just the other day I finally got a cop of the Rocketeer (a long time favorite) and rewatched it again. It’s just… a great movie. The writing on it is tight, well paced, nothing wasted at all.

        This isn’t even old man complaining about new stuff. I’ve seen plenty of new movies (often from foreign countries) who can still tell competent stories. Something about the modern age they can’t even get the basics right.

        Hopefully this too shall pass soon.

      • Oooh, you should, well worth the effort, both versions are admirable and have their own strengths, but we are unanimous original is best in this instance.

        Interestingly, talking of old films, it was wet and miserable here and I had a voucher so I treated myself to a copy of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, I’m really excited to watch, many, many people speak highly of it.

        Storytelling has still got strongholds but it seems to have fallen victim a little bit in parts of the movie world where there is too much dependency on special effects or what I’d term ” franchise goodwill” where the audience will still turn out, like James Bond or Star Wars , or similar.
        There’s also a strange phenomena that’s happened in the world of architecture which has also afflicted the film making world. The trend for the use of/ dependence on what seems to be the same stock plan, template or formula, that makes the final product seem so much more generic, regardless of genre or bucks spent. The movie makers out there need to be more bold, more brave and take more risks with new writers, new ideas.

        I do alway keep an open mind with movies though, eternal optimist and movie lover here 🙂 Hopefully as you say, writers will get back to the basics and create more great stuff for us.

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