Emotional authenticity is the difference between a derivative genre flick and an Oscar winning film that moves audiences to tears. Think of your absolute favorite movie and why you love it.
The Matrix is mine, and the reason I love it so much is not simply because of the rich sci-fi world the Wachowskis created, but because Neo’s journey is so captivating. How would you react when everyone builds you up to be “The One,” only to be told by the wise Oracle that you’re not? Neo chooses to ignore the Oracle and create his own path, and
When it comes to selling your scripts, the most powerful weapon you have is being able to make your audience feel something. Emotion will get you where structuring and formatting and perfect grammar alone cannot. That’s why today’s post is all about finding ways to connect with the emotional core of your story!
Step One: Why This Story?
Why these characters, and this situation? What drove you to capture this particular story?
In essence, what is your story really about?
My spy thriller The One We Left Behind was really about my main character’s journey of self-discovery. Boy Meets Assassin is about the conflict between my character’s work life and his love life. The Last Prodigy is about responsibility. Love Letters from the Dance Floor came from my newfound love of ballroom dancing, but was really about how we connect with others both on and off the dance floor.
Step Two: What Inspired You?
What was the core piece of inspiration that lead you to an idea?
It could be a movie you love, a short story you read, a new hobby, or a conversation you overheard.
The Last Prodigy was inspired in part by this photo I took on vacation in Hawaii:
At the end of the cavern are one hundred stairs that descend down the side of the cliff. But you don’t see that in this photo because the light obscures it. You only see the man preparing to make the climb down the mountain, not the extent of the journey.
This striking photo was one of the many pushes that got me thinking about the story I wanted to tell. It’s the heart of my vision for the story.
Step Three: Who In Your Life Appears in Your Story?
The people in your life (and their quirks, phrases, and witticisms) often make appearances in your stories, even if you don’t fully realize it. The most riveting, complex characters sometimes are amalgams of people a writer has met throughout their life — so make use of every encounter with interesting people! You may be able to use their mannerisms, personality, or characteristics in a story somehow. The study of people is one of the most useful trains of thought a writer can follow.
Two characters in particular from my scripts were based on aspects of real people in my life: Dale Turner from The One We Left Behind and James Riordan from The Last Prodigy.
Dale is an idealized version of one of my old friends, and nearly everyone who has read TOWLB cites Dale among their favorite characters. He’s a charming, good-natured journalist who is perpetually curious about other people’s stories. He’s naturally interested in who you are, and is attentive without having an ulterior motive.
James, on the other hand, is based on a reclusive genius who lived in a small town near mine. He had done some truly amazing things, and his quick intelligence and sharp wit was really something special, and I knew I had to write about him.
Step Four: What is the Theme?
One of the wisest working screenwriters I know taught me that theme comes organically through the story. You can’t start with a theme, because then you’re on the slippery slope to preaching morals on a soapbox instead of telling a meaningful, engaging story.
People will often read in their own themes into your work — as they should! — but the value of your work increases when you’re able to connect with the personal theme that drove you to write the story in the first place. Don’t force something into the story that’s not there. Instead, just try and uncover the meaning that’s already there.
The highest accomplishment a writer can achieve is creating a body of work that moves their audience in some way. After all, that’s what storytelling is about!