5

Cut the feelings

If I read the line ‘she smiled at him lovingly’ one more time, I swear I will kill the writer.

Uncountable are the screenplays where characters are constantly smiling, looking ‘lovingly’, expressing ‘dark anger’.

Some inexperienced writers are of the belief they can implant emotions into the brain of the audience simply by describing the faces the actors should pull. This is a fallacy.

By the time we are supposed to feel the emotion, you need to have done your work as a writer. The actors cannot save you here.

You want the audience to feel sorry for your character?

Don’t describe a sad face but rather create a situation that will make us feel sorry for the character.

Do this well BEFORE the actor expresses the emotion.

This explains why it almost never works when a character cries in the opening scene of a movie. We don’t know the character, we don’t get why they cry. We don’t care.

Of course there are exceptions.

Extreme cases, such as the loss of a child, instantly trigger emotions.

But did you feel for the old man crying at the beginning of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN? I didn’t. (Much later, we got it)

Did you feel for the friends at the funeral in FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL or for Lucilla watching Maximus die in GLADIATOR? Sure! We were all crying like babies.

Similarly, a love scene at the mid point or in Act Three can be fabulous; in the opening scenes it looks like soft porn.

Before an audience will go for an emotion, they will need to see a reason on the screen to feel it.

You can’t force it upon them. An actor purely acting out the emotion is soul-less.

And finally, believe it or not, I once read a live action screenplay in which the emotions of a bird were described. The writer must have been inspired by BABE. What can I say…

Animals – no matter how well trained – will NOT express feelings through performance.

So, with an exception for animated films, you cannot describe facial or other expressions with the intention to evoke an animal’s feelings.

If you must give the audience the idea the animal is happy, have humans SAY so. In other words, don’t write in action “The dog is pleased with the treat, he happily trots off.” but put in dialogue something like:  “Look how happy Fido is, he is wagging his tail!”

Bottom line:

Stop describing the faces of your characters. Show us the reason(s) why they feel a certain way.

And I will smile at you lovingly.

with an exception for animated films, animals ‘“ no matter how well trained – will not express feelings through performance. The writer must not describe facial or other expressions with the intention to describe an animal’s feeling or emotion. However, this can be circumvented by having the – human – characters express them.

Not: (Action:) The dog is pleased with the treat, he happily trots off.
Better: (Dial.:) Look how happy Fido is, he is wagging his tail!


If you found this tip useful, check out the Screenplay Checklist, an A-Z of commonly made mistakes by aspiring screenwriters.

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About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

Comments 5

  1. Sounds like good advice, but what about describing where the character is looking, ie. into the other persons eyes, or at the floor. Seems a more subtle way to convey information about what’s going on. If not overused is that an acceptable technique?

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      Author
  2. Regarding the advice:

    “Animals – no matter how well trained – will NOT express feelings through performance

    … If you must give the audience the idea the animal is happy, have humans SAY so. In other words, don’t write in action “The dog is pleased with the treat, he happily trots off.” but put in dialogue something like: “Look how happy Fido is, he is wagging his tail!””

    I’m not sure that is going to make a script better.

    Let’s look at a very successful film with an animal who regularly had ’emotions’ – Legally Blonde.

    Here are some excerpts from the script (Shooting Draft: Last update 18-Sep-2000, Pink Pages):

    (The animal character is a chihuahua named ‘Underdog’)
    1 – “Underdog stares at her, concerned”
    2 – “Humiliated but dutiful, Underdog bounds off”
    3 – “Underdog watches from her purse on the table, intrigued by her line of questioning.”

    Clearly each of those are doing exactly what you are saying we should avoid – expressing feelings (such as concern, humiliation and intrigue) through ‘performance’. (Or at least choice of camera angle and pose .. this isn’t exactly Oscar worthy emoting here!)

    Imagine how bad the film would have been if the writer had used dialogue to communicate that information “Look how humiliated but dutiful that chihuahua is!”

    In each of those occasions, of course, the audience is projecting their own idea of what the rodent is really feeling – but the idea is that the chihuahua is meant to be communicating ‘I am intrigued’ with a pose and facial expression …

    Mac

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    Author

    Thanks Mac,

    Great example, as I believe it proves a few points.

    Firstly, it is important to distinguish comedy from every other genre. The screenwriter is deliberately breaking the rule in order to “implant emotions into the brain of the audience”, or rather: the reader. You’ll agree that in no other genre you would be able to achieve the same result.

    Plus: if you were to ask the audience what the dog’s emotions are in these shots without seeing what came before, they’d be lost. This is an excellent case of the Kuleshov effect: we project feelings on the subject because of what we saw on the screen just before.

    I strongly disagree when you say this is an example of “expressing feelings (such as concern, humiliation and intrigue) through ‘performance’.” Are you serious? Do you really believe the director made efforts to have the dog PERFORM the emotion? The dog’s face is what it is, as it always is.

    The only exception I can think of that contradicts my statement above is the chimpansee, who can be trained to pull certain faces.

    Still a great example you brought up as it forced me to think harder about my – possibly rather simplistic – hypothesis. ;)

    Thanks for your comment!

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