Do you ever find yourself working on your screenplay and asking, “where is the emotion?” “Will anyone feel anything when they watch this movie?” It happens to the best of us! When you’re focused on structure, getting from plot point A to B, and making all of the overall mechanics of your story work, you can find your script missing some emotional beats.
So today, I’m going to explain some techniques so you can learn how to add emotion to your screenplay! You can infuse emotion into your script through conflict, action, dialogue, and juxtaposition, and I’m going to teach you how.
Look for Conflict
The first thing I do when I feel like my script lacks emotion is to check for sources of conflict. We all know that conflict should drive your script, thus driving your characters through a transformation as well as changing emotional states. You might notice your characters emotionally coasting, and this is a signal that there are places in your script that you could punch up with more conflict. Is your main character leaving every scene in the same emotional state as they entered it? This can be a sign that something is missing conflict-wise. You want your scenes to begin and end by alternating positive and negative charges to keep your character’s emotional state from going flat.
Don’t Write a Novel
You may be tempted to describe emotion in your script, but writing a script is not the same as writing a novel. Taking this easy way out will leave you with a screenplay that looks and reads amateur. Screenwriters can’t just describe the emotion a character is feeling; we need to show it. A good script expresses character emotions through actions. Instead of writing “Sara is sad,” a screenwriter might say, “Sara chokes back tears.”
Strong action verbs can help to add emotional characteristics to a protagonist’s actions and make us, the audience, empathetic. Words like stomp, grin, gloat, strut, and cower all can have emotional connotations.
Emotional Dialogue is Key
Find opportunities in your dialogue to convey your character’s emotions. Sometimes people say the opposite of what they really mean. Sometimes people get mad at something arbitrary, but they’re actually upset about something else. Sometimes people talk about meaningless things to avoid talking about something of substance. Keep in mind all the different ways people communicate and demonstrate emotion when crafting how your character speaks. Without saying it plainly, what is the subtext? Go over some dialogue scenes with your main character and see how they express their emotional state. Are they passive-aggressive or more obvious about how they’re feeling? You might find opportunities to make your character’s emotions come across clearer.
Be Prudent with Parentheticals
You can put a parenthetical before your character’s dialogue to express how they’re saying the line. So, if you wanted your character to say their line “calmly” or “angrily,” this would be one way to do that. I’d suggest using parentheticals sparingly, though, as it can seem like you’re trying to direct from the page. Emotion should be built into the dialogue by subject matter and action, for the most part.
Juxtapose Your Locations and Characters
Really consider what’s happening in your scene and look for opportunities to enhance or further demonstrate your character’s emotions. Is your character feeling upset but is in a stereotypically happy place, like an amusement park or a kids’ birthday party? Juxtaposing a character’s emotional state with a contrasting location can bring out something interesting in how your character interacts with the space or others. When used correctly, this technique can heighten the audience’s tension or make the audience laugh through the character’s uncomfortable state.
Or maybe two siblings are at their mother’s funeral; one is bustling around organizing things, making sure everyone’s taken care of, and the other is sitting by herself drinking. Showing two characters’ very different reactions to the same situation can give us further insight into who they are as people, perhaps making the audience feel for one and be angry with the other.
Viewers need emotion-filled moments to connect with characters and with your story. They need emotionally charged writing to invest their time in a TV show or a movie. You don’t want to undercut your script by missing opportunities for emotional relevance. As someone who struggles with having scripts hit all the right emotional beats, I make sure to do an editing pass where I’m just reading for emotion. It can be helpful to narrow down your scope with each rewrite to question if your character’s emotional journey is realistic and clear to the audience.
Hopefully, this blog gave you some ideas about how to add emotion to your screenplay! Happy writing!