The One Essential Ingredient of Every Successful Screenplay
Art and Experience: What is the emotional glue that binds us to a story? With over twenty-five years of professional story development and screenwriting experience, and nearly two decades of teaching screenwriting at the MFA level, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate on hundreds of screenplays and films.
During my extensive career, hands down the most common problem I see in screenplays and films is that they lack an emotional core, or what I call: Heart.
I define “Heart” as what the audience gets out of your screenplay or film. It’s the emotional takeaway that moves them.
Think of Heart as what the story is really about. Not the plot. But the universal experience that all people can relate to. One that moves the reader or audience on an emotional level.
Take losing a loved-one, for example. Go to any country in the world, from the biggest city to the smallest village, and people there will relate to the experience of losing a loved one. It is a shared human experience.
Great writers and directors know that human beings instinctively connect to emotion, rather than to a sequence of events, which is plot.
As humans, in one form or another, we’ve all experienced losing someone we love. It’s part of our collective conscience. It’s an emotion that transcends cultural barriers. And that universality touches on the larger human experience. That’s why it’s so relatable.
Research has shown that people, consciously and unconsciously, go to movies to feel something. That’s what makes screenplays and films so powerful—their ability to move an audience. Whether it’s to laugh, or cry, or be afraid, they want…the experience of emotion.
Great writers and directors know that human beings instinctively connect to emotion, rather than to a sequence of events, which is plot. And that’s the effect that Heart has on story. It’s what makes the audience relate and feel. It’s what the audiences gets out of your story. It’s their emotional takeaway.
Research has shown that people, consciously and unconsciously, go to movies to feel something.
Think about the film About a Boy with Hugh Grant. The plot of the film is: a thirty-eight-year-old wealthy slacker passes himself off as a single father as a way to date single moms so he can fulfill his sexual needs.
That’s the plot of the movie: the external ride that the audience goes on.
But the Heart of the story, the emotional core of the film is: a selfish, immature man is taught how to act like a grown-up by a little boy. Over the course of the film, the boy helps Hugh Grant’s character realize that other people are necessary in his life, and that caring about them gives his life genuine meaning.
That’s what the audience internalized from the ride they went on.
It’s what they can relate to and feel. It’s the emotional glue that binds them to the plot, and what made the film so successful. So, as you develop your screenplay, always remember: Heart is the emotional glue that will bind audiences to your story.