Scripting emotional scenes


Désirée wrote a post regarding emotion in scripts. It kept me thinking- whether we can use logic in writing emotion in our scenes. I think we can use logic in writing better emotional scenes. But it is an area where our intuition overrides our conscious planning.

Still I think there are some general rules that we can follow.

Don’t try too hard

If I think about all those scenes that have really worked for me, one thing about all of them is that they are subtle. I didn’t feel that writer/ character was actively trying to grab my empathy. Consider the scene in Forrest Gump where he reacts to the knowledge that the boy who is watching TV in front of him is actually his son. He almost weeps with joy and asks, ‘Is he smart?’ Never before in the movie has Gump expressed any emotion regarding he being a little dull. But when he asks that question we realise that this has been the thing that has defined his thoughts through out his life and that knowledge somehow touches us.

Hit when the iron is hot

 It takes some intuition to get the timing right. For me the emotional peak of Titanic was not when Jack died. It is after the end of the flashbacks, when the old Ross lies to sleep (or die?) and gradually drifts off to the intact Titanic and the waiting Jack. It gives us a longing to go back in time when the tragedy was yet to happen.

Another such moment that comes to my mind is from ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.’ The moment in the railway station after the European trip when Kajol asks Shahrukh when they are going to meet again. SRK says ‘Never again’ and walks away leaving behind a crestfallen (or perplexed) Kajol. When you think about it, this scene could have been set up pretty early in the train also. The chemistry had been already established and facing this issue of separation was inevitable. Why didn’t the writer think of putting this scene inside the train itself and get them into a discussion or something? Things like this differentiate a good writer from an average writer.

Set it up

An emotional scene works in the totality of the script. You cannot decide midway in the script that you need an emotional scene and then proceed to write it. Emotions are produced when we have travelled with the character and what we know about the character evokes empathy in us when one particular incident happens.

Consider the last scene in Black. Why does the Alzheimer’s afflicted Bachan touching the graduation gown of Rani Mukherjee with a tint of recognition affect us? Because Bachan’s earlier persistence and desperation for Rani to achieve this mile stone has been set up through the entire movie.

In Lives of others, the transformation of Stasi official Wiesler when he hides the typewriter to save the playwright Dreymann is another example. This is because until that point the script had done a good job in showing how he had been a lonely no-nonsense idealist with no meaningful human relations. So the change is meaningful and satisfying.

Create novel yet identifiable situations

The challenge for a scriptwriter is to create scenes which are different. He should avoid cliches. At the same time he has to create characters and scenes with which audience can identify.

 If your situation is novel- like an astronaut choosing to stay back and die on an asteroid so that mankind can be saved- there is a basic theme of sacrifice there but I think it will always remain a little alien to audience. If you talk about a girl who is ditched by her boyfriend on the day of prom- fine but it doesn’t evoke enough situational curiosity because we have seen enough of it. But if it is a story of mother who loses her infant during a party and is reunited with him years later only to find that for him she is just a stranger trying to take him away from a caring stepfather- there I would say is both novelty and identifiability.

It is easy to satisfy any one of this criteria but tough to do both at the same time.








Photo by Johan_Leiden


9 thoughts on “Scripting emotional scenes

  1. Hi

    Interesting thoughts.

    I’ve been thinking about this also, since my husband’s remark.

    You know, it is a little dangerous to presume things like “we realize”. You realize one thing. I might realize something else. You pick a favorite scene, I’m likely to pick another.

    I don’t think one can presume what feelings a situation causes to another. My emotions are based on my background.

    What I do can presume is that something causes emotions, and if done correctly it will likely be about the same as intended.

    1. Hi Désirée,
      Thanks for the comment.
      ‘It is a little dangerous to presume things like “we realize”. You realize one thing. I might realize something else.’
      I agree. But whatever be our presumptions or inferences, the basic process I tried to adopt has been an attempt to find some general ‘helplines’ (than rules). For that I had to take some scenes which have affected me. I didn’t concern myself with whether some one else had the same emotion as me during that point. When I write a ‘sad’ or ‘angry’ scene as a scriptwriter, I will have to assume that its universal, and what I am trying to impart is something having same causes and same effects. I dont think that it is that anarchic that we can’t ‘presume what feelings a situation causes to another.’ May be not the finer details. But every one would feel sad when Jack died in Titanic, wouldnt they?

      Also some one may disagree with my interpretation of the Forrest Gump scene. Or with my argument that the emotional high point of Titanic has been the final scene than the death scene of Jack .
      But it doesn’t matter. I agree that in these kind of issues, subjectivity is a very important factor.
      From the same scenes that I have mentioned some one may come up with 10 inferences entirely different from my own. Whether they are acceptable depends on our tastes, as you said.
      But what I feel is that, in writing and writing about writing, we dont have to even think about an objective frame of reference. If some one writes a emotional scene and the ‘helplines’ I mentioned reminds him of rectifying something, well fine. But if he wants to trust his intuition rather than the ‘spiritual kingdom of scriptguruism’ he can do that. Because after all said and done, we don’t write with ‘checklists.’ Whatever we assimilate from classes and books and blogs, we do it in a subconscious way.

      1. I agree with you.

        We will likely have about the same feeling for a particular scene, but when it comes to the details, our emotions and interpretations are very personal.

        What I meant was that I as a writer look at my story with my eyes and it is easy to forget that I’m the only one who does that.

        You might like the scene I’ve written, but for other reasons than I. It is easy for me to presume that we are on the same line and forget to guide the emotions a little.

  2. Nice post, man.

    Every man is a specimen of the whole mankind and if we introspect and correlate all actions of men can be justified and understood.

    “If I think about all those scenes that have really worked for me, one thing about all of them is that they are subtle. I didn’t feel that writer/ character was actively trying to grab my empathy.”

    I agree totally. I guess it comes organically, if one really understands the story he is telling. And these are moments in a film, it is very difficult to write a movie that is full of such moments.

    Also, the stuff about the viewer’s background is necessary. A genius loves a well made movie about another genius. A misanthrope loves to see his story being told on screen. But, a film should make the person realize why exactly is he a misanthrope. This is not done with effort but comes automatically from the writer coz’ the writer understands it and he gives his understanding a form and a structure.

    Also, I think it would be useful to look into the background of some of our k-soaps and see why they make housewives cry. Obviously, the world of a housewive is shown in a superficial manner– plus it lacks craft. Then why does it work?

    It works because the apathetical background that is needed to give the story a dimension already exists in the viewer’s mind. So, the effect is obviously good.

    But this kind of storytelling wouldn’t stand the test of time and would not affect someone with a different background.

  3. This was well thought out post. As you mentioned, proper set up is very important for emotional scenes to work. They work when we start understanding the character and the context in the story. You gave very relevant examples. One other example which comes to my mind is that final scene in ‘one flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ when that Native Indian breaks free from the prison/hospital. It works so well because, till that point, his character is shown as full of restrain, as if he is internalizing all the injustice and anger till that final moment. The terrible death of Jack Nicholsan could have killed us, but that last scene gives us some hope and retribution.

    “If your situation is novel- like an astronaut choosing to stay back and die on an asteroid so that mankind can be saved- there is a basic theme of sacrifice there but I think it will always remain a little alien to audience”

    I’m not sure about this. Because human experience is universal and it depends how you bring out that emotion rather than the specific context-whether astronaut saving earth or a kid saving his dog. Also, how much we love and care for that character in the end is lot responsible for our emotions. For instance, star wars and such movies talk about big issues, but they still primarily work on human angle- i.e. few well etched out characters in these stories.

    @Sameer: That was a very interesting perspective regarding why k-soaps work.

    1. @ Dev
      Let me tell you a curious thing. I wrote the exact same example from ‘One flew…’ for this post but deleted it in the last moment because it was getting too long.
      Regarding the ‘astronaut situation’, in retrospect that example is debatable. I can still say that in comparison with the other situations that I have mentioned, it is relatively alien.
      I would give a perfect example of ‘novel but identifiable’- The last scene in ‘Eternal sunshine of spotless mind’- where Kate asks Jim why they should get together as she would get bored again and they would be committing the same errors- that really touched me. The whole premise of the movie is novel (memory erasure) but the issues raised by that scene (movie) regarding human relationships are very close to our hearts as we go through them many times. That is a stroke of genius.

      @ Sameer
      Thanks sameer. The reason why k serials work is that as you said, the premise already exists in the viewer’s mind. So they are easily identifiable. There are good and bad mother in laws, good and bad daughter in laws so that you can have your pick regarding with whom you identify with.

  4. Nice post. The most emotional scenes have in recent times come from animation films. The montage of the couple’s life in Up and also some scenes in Toy Story 3 prove that touching the emotion high points is all about creating empathy for the character and setting up the story well so that it leads to big pay-offs for the audience.

    I look forward to more of your writing. Keep writing! 🙂



    1. Thanks Adite for the encouragement. Good to see another Indian scriptwriter blogging out there. Going to add you in my blog roll.

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