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7 Ways To Evoke Emotions In Your Screenplay

coupleMovies are supposed to be emotional rollercoaster rides. More often than not, movies get exciting, then they stop with a huge bang!   That qualifies as an emotional roller coaster ride.  But great movies move people in different ways.

Excitement is one of the easy ways.  Fast cars, bullets, space ships, all evoke excitement.  And sometimes that works .  Snakes on a Plane  got away with it.  The Fast and Furious series gets away with it.

Infusing different emotions into a screenplay is one of the most overlooked tasks in the aspiring screenwriter’s repertoire.

First, what are some emotions other than excitement?

Sadness, Hurt,  Anxiety. Boredom, Focus, Exhaustion, Agony, Curiosity, Envy, Exasperation, Grieving, Scared,  Bold, Frustration, Arrogant, Paranoid, Aggression, and Ecstasy.

Now we’re going the talk about characters:  First a quick trick to show layers of a character; always show the character 1) at work, 2) at home, and 3) at play. Do this with your major characters, especially the protagonist and the antagonist.

Now here’s a few tips from a psychologist on how to infuse your screenplay with emotion:

1. Actually describe how a character is feeling, instead of announcing it.

To describe how a charcter is feeling don’t do this:

Jonathon was afraid to open the door to the basement steps. He stood at the far side of the kitchen, debating what to do.

Rather, do this:

Jonathon’s hand trembled as he reached for the locked doorknob. He’d been warned not to open the basement door when he was alone, but others would be due home soon, so what could happen?   He bit his lip and tightened his fingers around the cold knob. A shiver shook him. He inhaled only a shallow breath and then struggled for another.

2. Make a character sympathetic, so the reader identifies with him.

Protagonists can have flaws.  They’re only human. But we want the reader to root for the protagonist.    If the reader can identify with a character—with his dreams or habits or choices—he can also identify with their emotions—pains and joys and sorrows. (Readers can also identify with the shared human condition, so sometimes a particular situation will resonate with readers even before the character becomes involved.)

Make sure the reader knows/understands/identifies with the character before trying to connect emotionally. The reader won’t be affected by a character’s deep emotions on page one, simply because he has no ties to the character.

By the second act, if you’ve put the reader in the character’s place in the story, what touches the character can touch the reader. By the screenplay’s climax, the reader should so identify with the lead character that the character’s pain becomes the reader’s pain, his triumphs, and the reader’s triumphs.

The reader may have a physical response—laughter or tears or shivers—as if whatever happened to the character had actually happened to the reader.

3. Make the bad guy an unsympathetic character. 

Let him do distasteful things.  Let him lie, steal and cheat.  He can have some positive traits, as well. But on the whole, the reader should not fall in love with the antagonist.

4. Show the reactions/response of characters to the actions of another character.

Characters must do more than think about the evil of another character. They must have a response in terms of action and/or dialogue.

5. Always set things up, before you kill off a character.

Don’t be afraid to let a main character die. First establish how everybody cares about that person. They are the most special person in the world.

If Jacob gets a phone call, with someone saying his son has died, readers won’t feel grief, even if you show Jacob grieving, unless you’ve created a tie between Jacob and the readers, unless you’ve prepared for the death ahead of time, showing Jacob’s love for his son, perhaps his ear for his life or his dreams for him.

If he’s never been mentioned and we don’t know how much he means to Jacob, an announcement of his death will have little emotional impact on the reader.

If, however, Jacob had been worried for his safety or has been sitting at his hospital bedside, the reader is connected both to Jacob and his son, and his death can shake up the reader

6. Don’t be afraid of killing off someone close to your main characters or of taking away something else dear to them.

If they are crushed, the reader can be as well. This is fiction; you’re not really hurting someone if you write them into a car accident.

7. Tease the reader with hints of what’s to come.

Hints, for example, show the character coming back from the hospital with a cane and a bottle of oxygen.  Then in ten scenes, if they keel over dead, it’ll have more impact.

The idea here is tht you’re painting with a wide brush, that includes emotions.  Like a musical conductor, you’re creating a story, filled with plot and charcater, but also emotion.  And not just emotion from the characters.  Think about how to move the people watching your film.


If you have questions about how to use more emotion in your screenplay or other issues as a writer or creative professional, for a free phone 20 minute consult to discuss, just click here.

Image credit: Creative Commons, JASON (179)s, 2008 by Hotlanta Voyeur, licensed by creative commons CC BY 2.0



7 Ways To Evoke Emotions In Your Screenplay

David Silverman, MA, LMFT

A lot of careers can really knock you around. The compettiion is fierce, in graphic design, architecture, you name it -- especially in creative careers in Hollywood. Writers and performers get slammed with rejection constantly. If you're going through something -- anxiety, addiction or depression -- I help people like you get through it. And thrive. Let me help you get your dream back on track.

Please check out my website: My story: my brother grew up with a severe case of OCD, and while I just a kid --- in family therapy with him, I witnessed a miracle as he was transformed, and now is enjoying the life he deserves. I went to Stanford University to study Psychology, and USC Film. I've worked in FIlm/TV and experienced high levels of anxiety, and got slammed with rejection myself. I learned how to get through it. Today, I love to help people to regain the lifestyle they deserve.

David Silverman Psychotherapy

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APA Reference
Silverman, D. (2015). 7 Ways To Evoke Emotions In Your Screenplay. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Jan 2015
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