Pt. 1 Visceral Experiences and Creating Award Winning Drama

This is part one of the “Gut Punch your Audience with Emotion” presentation originally given at Fyrecon 2, June 23, 2018 at Weber State University Davis.

Parts two and three are now available:


Simply put, a visceral experience is one that literally “grabs you by the guts.” Adrenaline junkies are hooked to it and seek it out rock climbing, riding roller coasters, and even throwing themselves out of airplanes. A truly visceral experience makes you feel alive, makes your heart pump faster, and makes you sweat. It’s scary and exciting at the same time. This is what your audience is seeking, a memorable experience.

Maya Angelou is famous for saying –

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

As creatives, we have the rare privilege of making our audiences feel this same visceral experience by working to create strong emotional experiences for our characters.

“Ugly Cry” Movies

To better understand why strong emotional experiences are so compelling, let’s study some of my favorite “ugly cry” movies.

The Lion King


There are three elements at play during any super emotional moment. The first is the audience’s relationship with the characters. Mufasa is shown as a kind and caring king, and a wonderful father. He is patient, wise, and speaks in the soothing voice of James Earl Jones. Simba is a playful child who is learning his place in the world with his father’s guidance.

The second element is timing. Had Mufasa been killed in the opening scene, we would never have had the chance to see this wonderful relationship with his son grow.

The third element is how relatable the situation is for the audience. While death is a universal truth for everyone, it’s too abstract on its own to be compelling. Loss of a loved one, on the other hand, is something everyone understands. The Lion King ratchets this up another emotional notch by focusing on Simba’s reaction. He believes that he is responsible for his father’s death and is both terrified and heart-broken. I don’t know about you, but watching children cry gets me in the feels every time.



Titanic scores a double “ugly cry.” The first is when Rose realizes that Jack has died and must let him sink into the depths so that she can be rescued. Jack has proven himself to be a wonderful character. He is full of life and excitement and teaches Rose that she must live her life on her own terms if she is ever going to find happiness. In fact, it is at the peak of Rose finally letting go of her reservations and allowing herself to be happy when the boat hits the iceberg. Talk about timing. The situation strongly resonates with audiences as well because we all crave to find a soul mate who will bring us alive. The worst thing that could ever happen is to lose that person.

I score this a double ugly cry because there is a second beautifully emotional moment right at the end of the film. If you remember, the film started with Rose as an old woman. She was invited to visit Titanic’s last resting place and tell her story.  At end of the movie we see her as an old woman again and are shown pictures from the wonderful life that she lived because of Jack’s influence. She releases the heart of the ocean diamond to the depths of the sea and when we see her next she’s young and beautiful again on the stairs of the Titanic, and Jack is waiting for her.

Crap. Where are my tissues…

Life is Beautiful


This is my all time “ugly cry” champion. Holocaust films already have tragedy sewn right in. Good people are going to have horrible things happen to them and they are going to suffer and die. The main character, Guido, is a goofy, caring, and wonderfully romantic fellow with a knack for making the best of any situation, no matter how much it costs him. When he gets taken to the concentration camp he has one goal, to protect his son. Time and time again we see the risks he takes to keep his son alive and happy.

The war is ending and there is panic in the camp. Guido is frantically trying to keep himself and his son out of sight of the German soldiers. When he knows he’s caught, he sticks his son into a box telling him it’s an exciting game of hide and seek and he’ll win the big prize – a tank – if he can stay quiet and in the box until morning. We see Guido do a silly march to make his son laugh as the soldier pushes him with the tip of his gun. Only when Guido is out of the frame do we finally hear the gunshot.

Please excuse me as I go ugly cry for a bit. Talk amongst yourselves.


And the Oscar goes to…


It’s no surprise that each of these films won hoards of awards. Stories that hit the emotional sweet spot tend to be winners because they made their audiences feel something deeply. Just for fun, here is the list of Oscars these films won:

The Lion King

  • Best music, original Song
  • Best music, original score
  • No “best animated feature” category at this time (or it would have totally got it)


  • Best Picture
  • Best Director
  • Best Cinematography
  • Best art direction – set decoration
  • Best costume design
  • Best sound
  • Best Film Editing
  • Best Effects, sound effects editing
  • Best effects, Visual effects
  • Best music original song
  • Best music, original dramatic score

Life is Beautiful

  • Best actor in a leading role
  • Best music, original dramatic score
  • Best foreign language film
  • Nominated for Best picture


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About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
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2 Responses to Pt. 1 Visceral Experiences and Creating Award Winning Drama

  1. Pingback: Pt. 2 Engineering the Perfect Storm and Finding Balance | My Literary Quest

  2. Pingback: Pt. 3 Using Personal Experience and Applying What You’ve Learned | My Literary Quest

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