This is part two of the “Gut Punch your Audience with Emotion” presentation originally given at Fyrecon 2, June 23rd at Weber State University Davis.
Here’s a handy link to the other parts of the series:
- Pt. 1 Visceral Experiences and Creating Award Winning Drama
- Pt. 3 Using Personal Experience and Applying What You’ve Learned
In the first part of this presentation, we talked about the importance of finding emotional resonance with our audience by creating a character they cared about, waiting until the perfect moment to have the worst happen to them, and giving them a relatable problem. These three things, plus intensity, combine into a phenomenon that I’d like to call “The Perfect Storm.”
The Perfect Storm
Clearly, the “ugly cry” movie examples take this formula and pull it to its extremes, and do so successfully. They are masterful examples of what can happen when these elements are expertly used. The intensity in each of these movies keeps audiences engaged and emotionally invested.
We don’t read stories or watch movies to experience what we feel everyday. Annoyance, insecurity, disappointment are all average emotions. What we really want is to experience as a character gets dragged down to the depths and then learn from them as they overcome the conflict. We want to live through their rage, despair, and hysterics from the safety of our armchair and know there is going to be a happy ending, somehow.
If intensity is the key, then we should create a super intense story, right? Okay, challenge accepted.
Opening scene – a car is careening off a cliff, screaming children inside as a father watches from the roadway. He’s hysterical, desperately trying to call for help on his phone. There is the click of a gun being cocked. The father turns to find a mobster pointing a gun in his face. He’s thrown into the back of a car with his hands and feet duct taped. As they pull out, sirens sound. A police chase ensues while the father madly works to escape his bonds. He frees himself and at the ideal moment leaps free of the car. Both the cops and the mobsters slam on their brakes and they all proceed to run Assassin’s Creed style through the industrial district of LA. A building explodes and a giant robot smashes the mobsters and grabs hold of the father, hauling him away to a science facility…
Admit it, you stopped reading halfway through when you realized it wasn’t going anywhere. Man, writing that made me tired. Ladies and gentlemen, this is what some people refer to as:
Don’t get me wrong. There is a market for super action adventure thrillers, just look at any movie directed by Michael Bay. However, if you are seeking something a touch more fulfilling, you will need to master balance.
Let’s say you’ve created a wonderful character and have given them a compelling conflict – congratulations! Way to go. Your job now is to find balance between high and low emotional moments. As the creative behind the story, you have complete control over when and how you ratchet up or tone down the tension.
Like the lovely lady in this pic, you too might fall on your face a few times before finding the perfect balance for your story. Never fear, I have some tips.
If we are going to regulate emotional tension, we really need to understand the entire spectrum of human emotion, including all its highs and lows.
May I present, drumroll please, the happy rainbow wheel of the emotion spectrum –
Tah-dah! This wheel has ten rings. The outermost rings show us lower tension and as we travel toward the center we reach more intense emotions. Most people living their daily lives will try really hard not to leave the outer three rings. Traveling inward any further is uncomfortable and even painful. No one likes to be uncomfortable.
This is why the inner rings are a creative person’s playground. Our audience depends on us to be able to experience the full rainbow of human emotion safely.
And here’s how –
Introducing the roller coaster of basic storytelling.
Here we have a plot/tension diagram of Star Wars, A New Hope. Don’t read into those labels too closely, whoever made this lovely graph (attribution will be posted at the end of the series, I promise) is clearly not a hardened nerd. I won’t hold it against them.
If you notice, the story starts with a bang. There is a heavy action sequence with a space battle and Leia’s plea for help. We have no context other than there’s lots of shooting and lots of people are dying. It’s okay to start off with an action scene as long as immediately after there is some character building and conflict building.
And check it out, the next few bumps on the graph are lower tension as we learn about Luke and Old Ben Kenobi and their connection to the rebel alliance. Yay for world and character building.
Something needs to happen to kick our main character out on their quest, and for Luke, it’s the murder of his aunt and uncle (for you writerly nerds, yes, this is the inciting incident).
As you study the graph, you’ll notice that these peaks and valleys continue to grow upwards and upwards until we reach the climax. Each peak is an action scene where the characters must either succeed or fail and each valley is them recouping their efforts and deciding what they should do next. For those in the know, this handy phenomenon is often called scene and sequel, and it’s an excellent topic for another post.
Nearing the climax, the action peaks grow closer together and the reaction valleys get shorter and shorter. Again – you are in complete control of the emotional tension. This is not the time for your character to wander off and get himself an ice cream cone. The reaction bits should still be a bit tense until the thrilling conclusion where your main character brilliantly and bravely saves the day.
After that, especially if you’ve made your audience cry, you need a scene or two to gently lower that tension back down again. In Star Wars, it’s the awards ceremony. This gives the ladies in the audience a chance to wipe off the mascara tracks before the lights in the theater come back on. It also lets you resolve any loose threads you might have left dangling. Trust me, no one likes a dangler.
Stay tuned for part three “Using Personal Experience and Applying What You’ve Learned” coming soon!
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