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Breakin’ The Law, Breakin’ The Law

Many thanks to Milli, who’s asked me about emotion in screenwriting.

As a writer, I always say: there are no rules. Believe in yourself and your own writing. Only you know what you wanted to achieve with this story. You love your characters more than anyone else – and only you know *truly* why you chose to tell this story. As a reader however, I am always struck by the fact there are certain things writers fall foul of in communicating all the above. It’s a conflict, sure – but it needn’t be a Catch 22 or deadlock.

The stories that stay with readers are those with what I call “heart”: in other words, emotion on the page. I have read stories like these with terrible format, terrible structure, whatever – yet still liked them, even loved them. I read a helluva a lot of scripts – yet I recall scripts with heart from five, six years ago – in a way I don’t always with scripts I read just a few months ago. In short, if you can convey “heart” in your script, then a reader *can* forgive you a multitude of other sins.

But how can you get “heart” on the page, how do you convey emotion? Well it’s a toughie and one I don’t think anyone can answer with absolute certainty… But I’m never one to shy away from difficult questions, so I’m going to have a bash based on the squillions of scripts I’ve read (where incidentally, only approximately fifty or sixty stand out as having “heart”):

Care about your story. If you truly care about your story, want the best out of it without sacrificing anything for the sake of it being “easier” or more commercial, this should come through in your writing by default. I don’t believe it’s any accident that many of the scripts I’ve read which have “heart” have been the writer’s OWN story in some way. Don’t forget though – it needn’t LITERALLY be your story to do this – the universal theme of your story (as opposed to a blow-by-blow account) sometimes works a whole lot better in communicating heart to the masses.

Emotion is not limited to facial expression, body positions or tears. When a writer becomes a little more experienced, they are struck by the need to make actions more “concrete”: in other words, they won’t want to write novelistic scene description about stuff the audience cannot see all the time. This inevitably leads to said scribe attempting to make every emotive moment the sum of its physical expression – and the script will inevitably read as a series of contorted facial movements, grabbing of arms, standing positions or bucketfuls of tears. This inevitably affects heart, because it all becomes a little wooden and prescriptive. like this:

Justin sighs, sits down. Puts his head in his hands, rocks back and forth in his chair. All his FRIENDS stand around him, wait.

JUSTIN: I don’t know what to do.

Like all things screenwriting-related, moderation is key. If characters don’t know what to do for example, why not:

Justin agonises: should he admit it? The faces of his FRIENDS stare back at him, hopeful.

JUSTIN: I don’t know what to do.

We all know what someone “agonising” LOOKS like – this is a guy who will look really worried; all the sighing, rocking back and forth, etc just feels like overkill. Obviously you won’t want to do it for every line of scene description, but it’s okay to use shortcuts like this for “colour”.

Biopics make great heart movies. Not sure what to write – genre not your thing, but drama isn’t either? Why not try a biopic? Over the years, I’ve discovered a startling amount of my fave specs have been biopics: a whopping six out of my top twenty, in fact – and two have been THIS YEAR and it’s only February. They don’t have to be of *really* famous people either – obscure characters from literature and history work just as well as the “greats”. I think the reason scribes write such good biopics is because often they REALLY CARE about the person they are writing about. The pointer there of course is not to care SO much you end up muddling the characters’ journey with too much fact – ironic and weird, but sometimes fiction has more truth than what *really* happened in the *right* order.

Genre has a heart. Two of the best scripts I’ve read in the last two years had acres of heart – and both involved vampires, two of my least fave supernatural creatures as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows. Like their Buffy predecessors, they were very slick, cool and provided fantastic imagery. But unlike the likes of Underworld, they didn’t stop there: they provided their protagonists with very real stakes (pardon the pun – arf) and gave them very difficult decisions and obstacles in the course of their respective narratives. I actually cried like a baby when reading one of them – and to this day have a nightmare about one particular sequence. That’s how good it was. A script gave me nightmares!!! But it’s true – because I could relate to it, because it had heart.

Keep dialogue realistic…. Ironically, the more emotional or poetic dialogue is, the less a reader will believe in it, so the potential for heart is adversely affected. Of course this is a generalisation and like anything depends on the context, but *generally* speaking, very emotional dialogue will feel on the nose. Whilst real people may make proclamations of love or anger that may make any screenwriters’ toes curl, generally speaking we need to be cleverer with our dialogue in our scripts to make readers (and thus audiences) FEEL what the character is saying. I’ve seen a trend lately in which writers have rejected the more typical Whedonesque dialogue for the style of Shakespeare and other great playwrights like Marlowe or Ben Johnson; whilst this dialogue is often beautifully crafted with fantastic attention to detail, metaphor and/or literary allusion, it does little for realism: those guys are hundreds of years out of date, so the scripts feel like they are in a time warp.

… Or not. On the flipside, scripts set in the past needn’t have realistic dialogue of the time at all if you don’t want; one of the best scripts I’ve read this year literally planted a 21st century woman into the Victorian era – her dialogue in particular – and yet I was able to believe in the story 100%, because I could relate to her plight. Her story felt like my story – and every other woman’s who’s been done over by a husband or partner. (Sorry boys… )

Scripts with heart don’t have to be downers. Lots of writers attempt drama – and why not? It’s a great training ground for the new scribe in particular, since limiting oneself to certain places, events and things can make you think “outside the box”, really forcing the creativity to flow, rather than having lots of theatrical conversations set in boring living rooms. But the thought a drama *has* to be a complete downer in order to have heart simply is not true. I’ve read lots of drama scripts with happy endings that are not only good, they are entirely logical in a way a downer ending will have felt tacked-on and dissatisfactory as it would not feel “organic”.

What films have you seen that you think have bags of heart? How did they affect you and why?

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5 thoughts on “Breakin’ The Law, Breakin’ The Law”

  1. Ooh I am officially chuffed to bits, you said my script had a lot of heart.

    As for my favourite films, ‘Cry Freedom’ has a lot of heart I totally root for Steve Biko and Donald Woods even though I knew what happened before I saw the film. It’s not just their friendship, but how it ends up affecting Woods and his family. One of scene that sticks out for me years later is Woods and his wife saying goodbye as he leave to try and escape, as he is disguised, they can’t say goodbye probably.

    My other favourite would be ‘Beautiful Thing’ seeing the boys struggle with world around and find each other in the middle of that is totally heartwarming. The end when the boys dance together brings smile to my face every time.

  2. Thank you, Lucy!! This is perfect. I’ll be rereading this blog post with close attention as I finish my revisions.

    For me, ‘Rocky Balboa’ had heart. I chose this movie because it was a complete outsider as far as my tastes go.

    I’ve never liked watching men bash each other’s faces in and have never understood the bloodlust of the crowd as men get paid big bikkies to do this. But Rocky had so much heart — and so much belief in himself, even when those around him (including his own son) said he was an embarrassing old wash-out — even *I* was madly cheering for him to win against the snotty modern kid.

    Inside his HEART Rocky won the fight … and that’s where it counts.

    I still get tears about that.

  3. I agree, a story should move people. But I hate manipulative sentimentality for the sake of it. Timely article Luce, gave me ideas for the country and western script. Yeehar!

  4. I agree with Rocky, absolutely brilliant. ET has LOTS of heart.

    But my favourites are Magnolia and Boogie Nights.

    Paul Thomas Anderson always seems to really be able to reel you in and empathise with his characters.

    For me, one of the most gifted screenwriters (and directors)around.

  5. I just realised I wasnt clear on something.

    I was meaning the original rocky. The new one was good but the original made me feel for him so much more.

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