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?
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?