The Screenwriter's Column
INCORPORATING EMOTION INTO YOUR PLOT: PREPARATIONS &
by Linda Cowgill
Stories are stronger when characters are moved by the events;
credible emotional reactions allow the audience to connect more deeply with the work. But
if a writer gets carried away with emotion, he's apt to sacrifice plot momentum. Here are
some ways to keep the train of events on track and moving, and still get to the emotional
When characters share emotions with the audience, it deepens the
experience of the story. Viewers are made available to the storyteller through emotion:
writers seek an emotional connection with their audience the same way actors and
directors do. A smart plot is intellectually satisfying, but movies are about more than
that. Audiences expect emotional stories. A clever plot is satisfying on its own, but
one that fools and surprises us as much as the characters is all the more satisfying
because in movies we like being manipulated, startled and stunned.
But writers who get carried away with emotion can sacrifice the
plot's momentum. We want the audience's emotional connection to our stories, but it's
also our job to craft a sound plot with a rising action that builds through obstacles and
complications, to crisis, climax and resolution. We generally donšt want the dry plot of
a docudrama or the melodrama of soap opera. We want a credible plot that carries us
Basic cause-and-effect plotting, where scenes specifically link
actions and emotional reactions, helps keep a plot on track, building from one important
point to the next. But a plot must do more than add story beats, the momentum of
these beats must increase as the story unfolds.
We can intensify a story's momentum and heightening the audience's
emotional involvement with sequences of preparation and consequences. We construct a
sequence that sets up an important event in the protagonist's (or another main
character's) future, then follow the character through the event to its end.
Preparations and consequences offer the screenwriter the opportunity
to include emotional content without sacrificing momentum through plotting a sequence of
scenes that uses directed action focused on a specific result. This keeps the story
moving forward while the audience still gets to connect with the characters. The
concentration on the lead-in to the scenes of conflict adds dramatic weight to the
action, making the scenes more powerful. Scenes in such sequences force the audience to
worry about the future of the characters as they prepare, and feel with the characters in
the wake of the events.
A scene of preparation consists of an important character (or
characters) getting ready for an approaching dramatic event. Sports movies and war films
contain the most obvious examples of this type of set-up. The former have locker room
scenes where coaches psyche up the athletes for the big game. War films show soldiers
before the battle, serious and nervous, anticipating the pressure of the impending
conflict. Tension builds for the audience during these scenes because they feel the
characters' anxiety and worry about the potential outcomes. If the event isn't truly
important to the character, his anxieties, excitement, or anticipation will feel forced
and undercut exactly what you're trying to achieve.
Most films make use of preparation scenes somewhere in their plots.
In The 3:10 To Yuma, almost the whole last act consists of Dan and Wade waiting in
the hotel room for the train to arrive. Part of Dan's preparation is to send his son out
of harm's way with Mr. Butterfield. In this scene we see his courage and fears. Twice
the director has started these scenes as we near the fateful hour on Dan's watch ticking
down. Just before the climax starts, the director opens on Dan, head in hands, the watch
held tightly in his hands. Wade sits across from him, sketching in the Bible. He makes a
remark about the watch and Dan hurls the pocket watch across the room. We know what Dan's
up against and we know how he feels, and feel the tension with him as he heads off with
Wade to meet his fate.
Preparation Scenes Build Tension
Several times, Se7en readies the audience along with the
characters for upcoming events. Once the detectives have the lead to what turns out to
be the "Sloth" crime scene, a big buildup illustrates the SWAT Team getting ready to move
on the location. A lot of time is spent showing policemen being briefed and readied
before they shove off.
In act three, we see Somerset and Mills preparing to go with John Doe
to the final crime scene. It starts with the men in the washroom shaving their chests
for the wires they"ll be wearing. Somerset does his best to prepare Mills, wanting him to
be ready for anything. If the man in the moon should pop out of his head, "I want you to
expect it," he says. Then Mills makes a small joke and the two men laugh, the audience
with them. But as they return to their work, the seriousness of the situation overtakes
them, and words slip away. They're worried, and the audience can see it in their faces
and their reactions. The next shot shows the men in silence, buttoning their shirts over
their wires, putting on bulletproof vests and their holsters. They check their guns. All
of this communicates to the audience the life-or-death nature of the situation they face.
We then cut to John Doe, in orange jumpsuit, head shaved, hands cuffed, escorted down
the stairs. The sequence builds until all three are in the car, helicopters flying over
them, other vehicles monitoring their every move; all the while the looming catastrophe
hangs in the future.
The interesting thing about this sequence is that it readies the
audience for another scene that is still meant to prepare them for the climax. John Doe,
Mills, and Somerset, get into the car on their way to the real dramatic event, the final
revelation of the crimes. All of this heightens the tension by increasing the audience's
worry (and plays into how screenwriters build suspense, another topic worth
Comedies use scenes of preparations and consequences, too. In
Juno, once Juno's situation has been established, the plot introduces the
potential adoptive parents: Vanessa and Mark Loring. The scenes actually show Vanessa,
though we only see her hands, preparing her home for the meeting with Juno. She wants
everything perfect, her picture straight, every towel folded.
Dramatic works also rely on these types of scenes. In One Flew
Over the Cuckoo's Nest, after the ruckus over the cigarettes (spurred on by the
revelation to McMurphy that most of his fellow patients voluntarily committed
themselves), McMurphy, Cheswick and the Chief are subdued by the attendants and taken for
treatment/punishment. The three men are led down a hallway and seated outside a room.
McMurphy doesn't know what's happening and stays his usual lighthearted self. The Chief
keeps up his mute, impassive facade. But clearly Cheswick knows what's coming. He
whimpers while Mac watches, puzzled by his reaction. The attendants carry Cheswick into
the next room. McMurphy watches, clueless, but the audience anticipates what's next:
electroshock therapy. What's wonderfully original about this sequence is how the
audience, through the use of Cheswick's character, worries about McMurphy before he
As Mac and the Chief wait their turn, tension builds. Then Mac
offers the Chief a stick of gum, and another revelation comes: the Chief speaks.
"Thanks," he says.
Shocked, McMurphy offers him another stick just to be sure he heard
right, and is delighted to be sharing the Chief's secret. And now, while the audience is
still anticipating the upcoming treatment, they watch these men interact and plan their
escape. This develops both men's characters and the audience's relationship with them.
When the medical staff brings Cheswick out on a gurney, still as death, the audience is
totally aligned with Mac and the Chief as they view Cheswick, and quiet down.
But McMurphy still doesn't get it. The attendants come for him, and,
tickled by the Chief's deception, he heads in with a spring in his step. Inside, he
obliges the medical staff's every wish. With forehead swabbed, electrodes in place,
mouthpiece in his teeth, the audience sees and feels the current hit him.
This sequence builds tension by using Cheswick's reactions as the
barometer of events to come. Mac and the Chief wait for Cheswick to finish his treatment
and the audience anticipates the danger soon to befall the men. But the writers disarm
us. They let the two men connect emotionally, deepening the meaning of the repressive
The result of a dramatic event, shown in the consequences of the
action, puts the focus on how the action has cost or benefited the characters, both
physically and emotionally. Here the characters process - try to make sense of - what's
just happened, and the audience does the same. Time allows the situation to settle for
the characters, as well as the audience, and it broadens our understanding of the
The consequence scene for the sequence above from One Flew Over
the Cuckoo's Nest starts back on the ward. The ubiquitous mood music is playing;
patients are sitting down for yet another therapy session with Nurse Ratched and it seems
like an ordinary day. Then McMurphy enters, shambling dully across the room. The men's
hearts sink - he's had a lobotomy. Even the Chief, who is in the back shuffling with his
broom, looks dismayed. Then Mac suddenly jumps, scaring them, and he's back to his
devil-may-care self, promising to be a good boy for Nurse Ratchet and not cause any more
This scene works wonderfully. It offers a scare, and then relieves
with a laugh. It shows the audience McMurphy is all right and that the effect is he now
intends to behave himself knowing what the cost is if he doesn't.
In Juno, the result of Vanessa and Mark's interview is shown
after Juno and her father leave. Vanessa, tears in her eyes, smiles happily at her
husband and wraps her arms around him. In The 3:10 To Yuma the consequences are
shown in Wade's reaction to his henchman Charlie Prince shooting Dan. (Spoiler Alert!)
Wade processes the action, and in a split second responds with a death force that stuns
everyone, including himself. He then completes Dan's mission, turning himself in and
getting on the train.
In Se7en, the direct aftermath of the climatic scene of the
movie (where the final murder is revealed) is the film's resolution. We see the ultimate
effect of the events on Somerset: he will keep up the good fight and not give in to the
forces John Doe represents.
Preparations, Consquences & Reversals
Preparations and consequences often set the audience up for one
result, but then deliver its opposite. These are wonderful tools when plotting a
reversal. The aftermath of the electroshock therapy scene for McMurphy is exactly this.
The audience believes worst has happened, but suddenly the scene spins and everything is
all right. When the action completes in a surprising way, the audience experiences a
stronger emotional impact.
The beginning of Jerry Maguire illustrates this beautifully.
Jerry is laying out exposition for us, but he is really preparing his Mission Statement.
His frantic intensity drives the action and reveals how important the Mission Statement,
entitled "The Things We Think But Do Not Say, The Future of Our Business," is to his
psyche. Jerry has the memos copied and distributed. He returns to his hotel room where
he immediately has second thoughts. He tries to recall the memos, but it's too late. As
he panics, the audience panics with him. Then in the following scene as he nervously
prepares to enter the lobby the next day, he's met with applause. The audience is
whipped around and smiling with him. As he exits the lobby, the focus shifts to two
agents. "How long you give him?" asks the first agent. "Mmmm. A week," says the other.
A second reversal hits the audience, and both feel right.
Preparations and consequences are strong tools for developing and
outlining a plot. They'll help you design the sequence of scenes so that you know where
to place the emotional emphasis. When actually writing these scenes, remember to find the
emotion and use it in an interesting yet authentic way.
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