I read a lot of new writers' screenplays through my reading service and the one major thing I notice is the lack of 'emotional honesty' in their work. Too many characters simply spit out lines that sound cool, usually with a flippant or jokey tone or attitude, which rarely do anything to enhance character. When I use the word emotion I don't mean characters simply getting angry, shouting, hitting out, or that so over used cliche of the single tear running down a character's cheek. As a writer you have to dig deeper.
In every scene you have to ask yourself...
- What are the characters' goals?
- How will they go about achieving these goals?
- Who wins out at the end of the scene?
And most importantly...
- How do the characters feel and react to other characters' actions in their attempt to achieve their goals?
It wasn't until I learnt how to do this, how to keep the characters' actions and responses 'emotionally honest', that I started to receive a great deal more interest in my work. I finally understood there are many different emotions and many layers of each, which emotions and their strength and how they show themselves, all depends on who the character is. The key is knowing your characters well.
Here's a scene taken from my optioned screenplay FAITH. Michael has just suffered an epileptic fit and his sister, Faith, is cleaning him up.
INT. FAITH’S FLAT, BATHROOM - DAY
Faith and Michael sit in the bath.
Faith stitches the wound above Michael’s eye with a needle and thread. Michael winces but doesn’t move.
Scars cover Michael’s back, arms and chest, evidence of an old horrific beating.
With the final stitch in, Faith tenderly washes away the blood.
A gentle kiss and she wraps Michael into the comfort of her arms.
The scene illustrates just how close these two are. Despite the pain Michael lets his sister stitch up his wound... he trusts her to look after him. Equally Faith, once finished, kisses him gently and holds him tight in her arms to comfort him. That simple gesture alone speaks volumes about much she cares for him and the type of character she is. No words were needed. She didn't need to blurt out her concerns. She just had to hold him. And the old scars on his body hint at Michael being hurt in the past, adding another layer to a very powerful and emotionally honest scene.
Think more about each line of dialogue, each action and importantly the reaction of your characters. How can they help build emotion while keeping it real?
If someone's relative is killed most people wouldn't head off on a killing rampage, or try to extract revenge. Some would fall apart, stray, become lost, others would busy themselves so they didn't have time to think about things. A little extra care and thought could really make the difference to your characters and screenplay.
One book I recently discovered has been a great help in assisting this process is; The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. Although written with novelists in mind I have also found it translates well to screenwriting. Hunt a copy down and get working, and soon you'll be writing characters and scenes that readers won't be able to put down.