Monday, May 28, 2012

The Emotion Factor

If it’s true that there are only seven basic plots (or twenty, as I recently learned) and there’s nothing new under the sun, why do we keep buying books or going to the movies? Why is storytelling such a popular form of entertainment?

Perhaps the biggest reason is that storytelling can provide us with something we all crave: a strong emotional experience. Good stories can offer us a glimpse of what our lives might have been like if we’d been raised in another country or century, or if we’d been born a different gender. But the best ones make us experience someone else’s life as though it were our own.

Stories have the power to touch us in a variety of ways: be it the feeling of falling in love, the loss of a loved one, the rush of adventure, the thirst for justice and revenge, intense fear or deep exhilaration. Whatever the emotion might be, if the director/writer has done a good job, the audience will feel it. Ever said, or heard someone say: “I loved that film. I cried so much with it”?

A couple of months ago, I attended a Writers Conference where Screenwriting Instructor Rick Reichman mentioned that every director in Hollywood knows that emotion is the key to selling a film. He emphasized the importance of choreographing every scene to evoke a specific emotion in the viewer.

“Drama is when the audience cries, not the actors,” he said.

In Advertising, they understand that every ad must have an “appeal” for the audience. One of my college professors repeated these four as the most powerful ones: sex, humor, hunger and emotion. But there are many others. It all boils down to identifying the costumer’s primary need and offering them a solution to satisfy it. Storytelling is no different. There are genres for every “emotional need.”

True emotion or manipulation?

Here’s where things become muddy. Emotion is very personal, and it can also be subjective. Recently, a good friend of mine sent me this link. She was shocked when I told her I didn’t cry with it. “But I liked it!” I said. She called me “insensitive.” I defended myself by saying that I had cried with Juno and Cinema Paradiso. Well, guess what, she hadn’t cried with either one.

Part of my problem is that I’ve been studying storytelling for so long that I can identify many of the tricks filmmakers use to touch the audience. Not to say that I’m never touched by a film or book anymore. I am. (Recently by Gran Torino and always by Steel Magnolias and My Girl). So why this and not that?

I couldn’t say for sure. But I know that unpredictability and “hope and fear” have been determining factors in my reactions as a viewer/reader. If I’m invested in a story and character, and I suspect something bad is about to happen but don’t know for sure (I keep hoping for the best, but fearing I may be wrong), I’m devastated if my worse suspicions come true. However, it’s fundamental to like—or at least understand—the protagonist.

On the other hand, if I can predict with certainty the outcome of a story, then I’m less likely to be touched. For example, when I saw The Notebook, I was not familiar with Nicholas Sparks’ work so I didn’t know the ending would be so sad. Needless to say, the story touched me. After a while, though, I recognized the pattern in this author’s work and became immune to the “Sparks effect.”

The same has happened to me with several Latin American soap operas. When the main character and her love interest have (yet) another fight and break up, I know (like everyone else) that in the end they will be together, so my emotions are not invested in the heroine’s suffering. However, some telenovelas throughout the years have managed to surprise me with an unexpected, unforeseeable and painful event (like the death of a loyal friend or family member) and such incidents have been heartfelt and extremely upsetting for me. At first, I couldn’t understand why the script writers would do this. Were they crazy? Didn’t they know I loved that character?

But then I read this passage in Donald Maass’s book “Writing the Breakout Novel” and everything made sense:

“Trials and tests are the stuff of character building, of conflict. Ask yourself, who is the one ally your protagonist cannot afford to lose? Kill that character. What is your protagonist’s greatest physical asset? Take it away… Push your characters to the edge, and you will pull your readers close.” (Maass, Pg. 78)

But please, don’t go on a killing spree and down all your side kicks and mentors!

The funeral scene in Steel Magnolias is masterfully executed: it's poignant, it has tension
and a touch of humor (which gives us a glimmer of hope in spite of the blackness).


Emotion doesn’t only mean crying your eyes out. Another strong emotion that has kept me reading/watching a film is frustration. And what propels frustration and anger more than injustice? Some of my favorite stories are the ones where a big injustice has been committed toward the main character (like being wrongly accused of a crime and having to pay with years of hardship and pain in prison.) I live for the moment when the protagonist (now hardened, stronger and wiser) finds his way out of jail and comes back for revenge against those who hurt him.

My favorite examples of this emotionally-charged storylines are: Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption, Sydney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes, and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Montecristo. Anybody remembers the 80’s Australian mini-series Return to Eden? How I loved that show! And how about the film Midnight Express? (That was just painful to watch.)

I realize this type of emotion is not for everybody, but it’s definitely for me!

In The Shawshank Redemption, an innocent man is wrongly accused of killing his wife
and her lover, and must serve two consecutive life-sentences in prison. 

Can I open my eyes now?

Fear is another driving emotion. The popularity of ghost stories in folklore, Halloween and scary movies is an indication that us humans love to be scared (as long as we know it’s not real). Isn’t it strange how in fiction we crave the emotions we abhor in real life?

Butterfly explosion

But not everyone is a masochist (or we’re not masochistic all the time). If you’ve been married for too long, you may want to reexperience butterflies in your stomach instead of indigestion. Perhaps the healthiest way to do this is through fiction. Many attribute the success of the Twilight Saga to the theory that many women around the world fell in love with Edward Cullen. Bella was simply a blank canvas to project themselves on. (This rich, good looking, powerful man fell for ordinary-me!)

The same is true for thousands of romance novels and films throughout history. But the illusion of falling in love is very tricky. I believe that the butterfly moment can only happen once in a story (twice if you’re lucky). Usually as a consequence of many encounters between the protagonists where anticipation has been built. The payoff is that first kiss or sex scene (when done tastefully, I think.)

Again and again I see in TV shows an attempt to recreate that initial magic between the two characters that finally get together. We saw it in Friends. After that initial kiss between Ross and Rachel, things leveled and eventually became pretty static between them. With the breakup, the jealousy episodes, Ross’s many failed marriages and Joey’s sudden interest in Rachel, the writers tried to bring back that initial sexual tension between Ross and Rachel. For me, it didn’t work. In fact, it became annoying (especially the last season!)

One of the most famous kisses in television history.

How NOT to convey emotion

After several drafts of my first novel and a couple of my second, I finally realized that I have a tendency to be overdramatic and often resorted to cliché scenes and phrases to evoke emotion in my readers. Don’t do this. Come up with unique ways to describe reactions (don’t have them trembling over everything like I did!) and please, no more airport tension scenes at the end of your novel (I’m guilty of having done this SEVERAL times) but the problem is everyone knows what the outcome will be. Another way of not conveying emotion is to simply name the feeling (she was so sad, or hurt, or mad, or whatever else). It’s better to let her actions/words do the work.

In the end, there is no secret formula to touch the reader. Killing all your characters is not a guarantee that your audience will feel anything. To some, it may seem melodramatic and contrived. As writers all we can do is be honest with ourselves and our audience. Take the story where it needs to go, not where you think it has a better chance of making your readers cry.

Do you remember fondly those stories that made you cry? What are your favorites? What is the emotion that moves you to watch a film or read a book?


  1. 'Ask yourself, who is the one ally your protagonist cannot afford to lose? Kill that character.'

    Okay, this socked me in the gut.

  2. Sister Lorena, you have touched a very important issue in the relationship between reader and novel, just as we have different tastes, we don´t always exhibit similar reactions to the same stimuli. Once in a lit. class, the Professor asked us to name a book that ha made us cry. I remember lots o girls who have cried with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I didn’t. On the other hand, guys confessed that Dickens’ and Jack London’s works had dampened their eyes. I had to confess those books ha made me cry too. Did that make me less feminine? I wondered.
    As a character-oriented reader I wouldn´t invest time in any novel whose protagonist's fate made me cold.

    Novels that made me cry: GWTW (book and film) I still cry every time I see Melly dying. The English Patient (book and film). Brideshead Revisited (book and miniseries). The Red and the Black (book and telenovela. You should have seen Victor Mallarino playing Julien Sorel)

  3. It's very rare that a book or film makes me cry. I do get mad at the men sometimes when they do the female protagonist wrong. For instance, I recently finished Philippa Gregory's "The Queen's Fool" and, although not the most fascinating novel I've ever read, there was one part that really made me mad. My husband walked into the room to ask me a question and the first thing out of my mouth was, "This guy is such a bastard!" He kind of stared at me for a moment and then walked away.

    Two stories that always seem to touch me and are still my favorites to this day are "A River Runs Through It" (book and film) and "The Last of the Mohicans"(the Daniel Day Lewis film, not the book because that's a bit of a bore). I'm not a big fan of Stephen King, but I did enjoy "The Shawshank Redemption."

    I also just wanted to add that I find few problems in killing off a character, because I believe Donald Maass is absolutely right. If done well, killing off that character will evoke some sort of emotion in the reader or viewer.

  4. Dogs.

    My kids won't even read books with dogs on the cover anymore, because the dog always dies, and it's too sad. If you want to make people cry, put a dog on the cover of your book. (This actually did work for me, even as forewarned as I am, with "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle." It's a dog book, and sure enough ...)

    Dog stories aside, it's pretty unusual that a story on the page or the screen makes me cry. (My spouse, on the other hand -- buckets. Apparently this is not unusual for men.) But very recently, I read Lauren Groff's amazing, astonishing, gorgeous literary novel "Arcadia," which did have me shaking and reaching for tissues. I haven't been so moved by a book in years. If you asked me WHY it had this effect on me, though, I'd be hard-pressed to explain it. The characters are very sympathetic, it's true, but that's not always enough. Groff does kill off an important character, but we see it coming for a long time so there's no shock factor. Everyone I know who's read the book has felt similarly moved, so I'd be curious if any other readers out there could explain what her magic trick is!

    The frustration tactic: This made me think immediately of Ip Man II, a martial arts movie we watched recently. I was completely enraged with the English boxer who was taunting Ip Man and the other Chinese fighter with blatantly racist insults. It was nice to have the Ugly Americans be British, actually, for a change, but I was so angry at how horrible this particular character was that I almost couldn't watch the film. It evokes this emotion really well. This builds to a nice release when the bad guy gets his just desserts, leaving the viewer immensely satisfied. It's a good storytelling trick, when you can pull it off.

    And Suze: you can always resurrect the Necessary Ally once you've killed him off. :) Worked for Obi Wan Kenobi AND Gandalf!

    1. C'est vrai! But the Force was strong with that one ...

  5. I'm a teary type. Even that P&G advert you linked to did the job for me. Loved Shawshank Redemption, but can't remember if it had me in tears. In the Name of the Father however - definite tears there if I recall!

    I remember the scene Stephanie mentions in Ip Man II - and I agree that was a very successful tactic to get the viewer onside and have them gunning for a showdown...

    1. I'm so glad someone else knows that movie!

  6. Dear Adina,

    Long time no see! It's great to have you with us again. I haven't seen Ip Man II but both of you have made me curious about it.

    Adina, you reminded me of a wonderful movie about injustice and sadness. How could I have forgotten "In the Name of the Father"? If something screams "emotion" it's that film!

  7. BTW, I don't think "Shawshank" is a crying movie as much as it is an "I'm so angry about this injustice I must see how it ends" type of story.

  8. Dear friends,

    You all have just confirmed how subjective emotion is. (Suze recently watched "Cinema Paradiso" with me and didn't shed a single tear!) Is there anything OBJECTIVE in Literature?!? I suppose anger over injustice is a more general reaction.

    Steph, I generally don't cry with dog movies (like you say, it's that predictability factor) although I was touched by "Marley & Me". You've made me very curious about "Arcadia". What is it about?

    Sister Violante, I was more shocked/frustrated with Bonnie's death than Melly's. The overall ending of GWTW was very dark and depressing for me (especially because I wasn't expecting it. I had imagined Rhett would forgive Scarlett and all would be forgotten. Now I see that it was impossible after Bonnie's death.)

    Sister Mary, I have yet to see "The Last of the Mohicans". Many people have recommended it. I tried to read "The Queen's Fool" but was turned off by several things at the beginning. I may give it another try, though.

    1. If you weren't interested in "The Queen's Fool" the first time around, then I suggest just skipping it.

  9. Nooo, Suze didn´t cry? I began crying after Alfredo goes blind and wouldn't stop until the end of the film!

    Sister Lorena, as my Beta Reader you know it´s easier for me to kill babies than grown characters. That´s because (with exceptions) the reader invests more emotion on adult characters. Children in adult novels are objects and catalysts, but seldom develop into real characters so it’s easy to dispose of them. Bonnie’s death breaks and transforms Rhett, but nobody else. Scarlett is immediately thinking of having another baby. She is not heartbroken and transformed as she was after her parents’ demises. On the other hand, Melly´s death breaks hearts all over Atlanta, and changes forever the lives of Scarlett, Ashley and Rhett.

    The reason why Rhett doesn´t forgive Scarlett is precisely because she has not changed like he has.

    1. I choked up when -- are you ready for this, my dear V? -- he sees the poster of Clark Gable once his mother finds out his father was felled on the battlefield. That little indomitable smirk of his just wrenched my silly heart!

      The end, though, when everyone's a puddle of tears, failed to move me. I will say this, though, what Alfredo left for him was ACE. That's the kind of detail we all wish to integrate so seamlessly!

    2. I see your point about children in film and I hadn't thought of it before, but then again, it's very personal. I was horrified with Bonnie's death, perhaps because I was a child myself when I saw it (12). But I was also deeply touched by the death of the children in "Flowers in the Attic" and in "My Girl" (I still cry when I watch that scene!)

  10. Ohh that poster! And Alfredo had told Toto that his Dad loked like Clark Gable. I wasn´t moved by Toto´s romance but I did cry when I saw the endless chain of censored kisses.

    1. Yep. Su papi el Clarque Gableh. I'm going to really indulge and copy out my response to la hermanita Lore in an email and post it, here:

      'I thought a bit more about the film as I cleaned up last night and I came to a conclusion about why the scenes after the child didn't generally engage or move me: at some level, I didn't believe the story was about the same person. I mean, I knew it was all the same guy, but the little boy and the adolescent were somehow not the same person in my heart. By the time we got to the mature man, the disconnect for me, emotionally, was so thorough, I didn't quite come all the way back and seeing the same characters from his youth 'painted up' to look old just didn't do the trick. It felt thin.

      Alfredo insisting they never speak even though he's an hour's plane ride away fell very flat for me. I thought, somehow, that Toto would include Alfredo in his escape from this place where it does no good to keep talking anymore, so you just shut up. There was a joy, a levity, a zeal and a vibrancy in the scenes of Toto's childhood, despite its hardship, which faded with the lackluster portrayal of his teenaged infatuation and were little more than a memory -- and one whose nostalgia was only conjured well with the kiss reel in the final moments.'

      Aver? Que piensan las hermanas estimadas?

  11. I don't think anyone was particularly touched by Toto's romance with Elena. For me, it was purely entertaining but didn't have much "heart." But, like I told Suze, it doesn't matter because it wasn't the focus of the story. I recently discovered something horrific: the "director's cut" of Cinema Paradiso (also advertised as the "new version"). It focuses on Toto's relationship with Elena and what happened to her. Talk about soap opera! In the end, he reconnects with the old-Elena (who has a daughter that looks just like her) to find out that the reason why she never showed up that fateful day had to do with a series of Televisa-type misunderstandings and Alfredo's evil plotting. Absolutely hideous. I chose to 'ignore' that version (it was THAT painful and tedious) and keep the memory of the original.

    Choking moments in Cinema Paradiso: when Toto's father dies, when Alfredo says goodbye to him and warns him never to come back, when Toto sees the picture of Alfredo and him as a child, during Alfredo's funeral, when they blow up the Paradiso, and of course, the censored kisses. Lots of crying for me!

  12. I almost mentioned the director´s cut scenes, but I wasn’t sure you have seen them.

    So we are in agreement, Hermanas, Toto the adolescent sucked. The one that mattered was Toto, the child, (and a least to me) Toto, the old man, who had grown into a successful filmmaker but an emotional failure. Another moving scene. His mother telling him that every time se calls him at Rome, a different woman answers the phone, but there is no love in their voices. I think that is a Tornatore leitmotif, because at Malena’s end (another tearjerker) Renato says that s many women have begged him not to forget them, but the only one he remembers is Malena. It´s like a confession of a succession of empty love affairs.

    Sister Lorena you say, Toto's romance is not the focus of the story. His relationship with Alfredo, his town and cinema itself are. Bonnie is not the focus either, but the girl in My Girl is.

  13. "So we are in agreement, Hermanas, Toto the adolescent sucked."

    Well, I wouldn't go THIS far. I must confess that when I saw the film (90's) I had a small crush on the actor who plays Toto-teenager. I realize the actor (or the character) doesn't have as much charm as the little boy but I could see small glimmers of him in a few scenes: the confession, the run/struggle to get Elena's handkerchief, the banter with Alfredo. What didn't convince me was his love and devotion for Elena. We never knew anything about her (tastes, backstory, nothing) other than she was cute and her dad had good jobs.

    Very interesting about the director. Maybe one of his girlfriends was the inspiration for Elena and that was why he didn't feel the need to explain her and decided to indulge on the new, yucky version.

    "Bonnie is not the focus either, but the girl in My Girl is." Very true.

  14. Perhaps it was exactly this, that he never managed to have the love of at least one woman in his life -- after all Alfredo instilled in him -- which left me with a sense of futility at the end rather than anything approaching resolution.

    Alfredo dies in a town where his intellect runs aground because he has no one to talk to and Toto spends his devotion on affairs, brief encounters and women whose voices his mother never recognizes.

    Oyeme! Tanto beso y tan gran falta de amor. :(


    Hey, maybe this is meaningful. Maybe the kiss reel in the end is symbolic of the love that was edited from their lives ...

  15. Or a reminder that love goes beyond kissing.

  16. Wow, I'm seeing all these new dimensions in the film that I had never thought about! Thank you, hermanas. :)


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