Correctly Using Emotions and Feelings in Screenwriting

I recently stumbled upon a podcast called The Screenwriting Life with Meg LeFauve and Lorien McKenna. Episode 49 interviews Micahel Arndt, who is a famous screenwriter. In the episode Arndt notes that what we remember from powerful movies are a few scenes and how they made us feel.

The idea of remembering how we felt is not seem unique to screenwriting, as demonstrated by this quote:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou

One movie that comes to mind The Great Escape (1963): I felt Disappointment when the escape tunnels were initially discovered, a mix of frustration and angst during the initial escape, and of course excitement during McQueen’s motorcycle jump scene. The scenes that I remember are emotionally intense and impactful. Certainly the theory holds true in this example.

But do we all feel these emotions? No. And do we all feel emotions in the same way? No. Plus, how we feel is dependent on our mood, preoccupations, personality, and probably other factors I am not thinking of. Hence why some people may really connect with a movie while others will not.

But some feelings do seem more universal and less subjective: Example being Rocky running up the stairs (energized/amped up) and the shower scene from Psycho (1960) (terror/fear). Then there are events in the real world in which broader society generally feels a certain way, such as paying taxes (annoyance/frustration) and recent images from the War in Ukraine (frustration/anger). Granted we do not seem to react to these emotions in the same way, but the fact that they do generate debate means that many of us do seem to feel them with at least some intensity: As the old saying goes: If it bleeds, it leads.

Digging a little deeper, what is an emotion anyways? Let’s take anxiety. Do you know what it means to feel anxious? Most screenwriters think so, and they will note that a character is anxious/anxiously before a line of dialogue (Note, this is a little tricky as many writers use the parathetical to add short action lines (as opposed to how a line should be delivered) and also gets into the amount of direction necessary for actors/actresses, but those are other subjects entirely). But there are a bunch of ways to be anxious. Here are some examples:

  1. Anxious – Running late for a meeting across town and trying to zip there quickly (Fear that you will be late).
  2. Anxious – Fearful that a person you dislike will notice you and get angry (Fear that you will be embarrassed).
  3. Anxious – Your heart beating quickly and being scared that you will have a heart attack (Fear that you will die).
  4. Anxious – When entering a dark basement in an old home (Fear that you will be caught/trapped).

All four of these basically universal anxious experiences are felt in very different ways: Some are more physical, some mental. To reiterate, picture this scenario: You are driving in a sketchy neighborhood after dark. Does that feeling of anxiety feel the same as when you are anxious that you are going to mess up a big presentation? No. Similarish, but no.

So here’s my question: If anxiety is an emotion that can be felt in different ways, are there basically an unlimited numbers of emotions?

The short answer seems to be no… kinda. According to one study, there, “are at least,” 27 unique emotions. Another notes thousands of unique emotions. It doesn’t help that the third line on the Wikipedia article for emotion notes. “There is currently no scientific consensus on a definition (of emotions).” Not helpful. This does not even get into the difference between emotions and feelings.

Correctly Using Emotions in Screenwriting

So this brings me to the title of this way too long entry: How the heck is a screenwriter supposed to correctly convey emotions? Can they try to create scenes that will be the most impactful? The answer seems to be yes, think of Rocky’s speech to his son in Rocky Balboa (2006). Monologues seem to be an easy spot to convey emotion. So does music: Think of Hans Zimmer’s Time during the final scene of Inception (2010), which contains 0 dialogue.

Then there is how characters act with emotions. For example, in Stalag 17 (1953) one POW notices that two of his fellow service-members (go to 3:40) are laid out dead in front of him. He taps the shoulder of the solider next to him to let him know, then that guy motions to the next guy, etc. The feeling of shock is clearly universal, but even under immense pressure from the camp guards, each character reacts in a slightly different way.

This all warrants further research on my end, but when it comes to using emotions and feelings in screenwriting, the message is this: Simply writing scared, or happy, or sad (ex. Joe looks sad.); no matter what one-word adjective, big or small, is used… seems shortsighted.