One of the most critical factors to create a dynamic screenplay story is how your characters express themselves and how they react to others. Not to be confused with normal novel writing, screenplay emotion is somewhat different because you are writing for viewers, not readers. Within a novel you can effectively write out what a character feels and the inner dialogue that surrounds that emotion. Screenwriting has no inner dialogue, unless you know how to effectively (and sparingly) use “on screen” or “off screen” narration. When writing your screenplay, you must capture emotions through mostly images and action, and not words.
Much of the emotion within a script will rely heavily on dialogue, using key phrases that will point towards a specific emotion. Let’s take hate for example: to describe hate within a dialogue you can employ different techniques. If Johnny hates his brother Bill, you cannot directly say “I hate you!” because the audience would not feel or understand the depth of the hate. You can add action and images between cuts of dialogue to express Johnny’s hate, or you can have Johnny speak about his hate to another character who has opposing views to create conflict. Adding a voice over (V.O.) could also show how much Johnny hates his brother, such as “I can’t stand this person, every single moment I look at him I feel sick to the stomach. Sometimes I wish Bill could just fade out of existence… ” and so on. Or you could have your character writing about his feelings in a secret diary.
Various techniques of color and scene can play an integral part in transcribing characters’ emotions. This time let’s use love as the emotion. You can set up a scene in which the surroundings look bright, calm, and soothing. Then you can describe characters or objects as part of the scene. You can write “Birds are chirping, it’s a sunny afternoon, and a Frank Sinatra love song is playing in the background.” Remember that your audience’s sensory faculties are limited to sound and images; thus, it important to use concrete and dynamic images to express emotions.
Any emotion that you use for a character is one you must know or have experienced firsthand. This way you can extract emotions from your own personal life and create scenes that actually have… well… life! No viewer wants to watch an emotionless movie for two hours straight; you need to learn how to transcribe what stirs your emotions into the script.
To aid you in capturing real emotions, you could purposely create moments of emotion within your life and see how you react and how the other people react. You can also observe other people interacting, watch their movements, and listen to the tones of their voice. Try to get deep inside and submerge yourself within the emotion itself. Being receptive to different emotions will help you create more memorable, lifelike characters who viewers can relate to.
If you choose not to take such a direct approach to learning new emotions, then study movies in different genres, such as romance, horror, drama, and action. Make notes about what made you feel tense, unhappiness, happiness, terror, love, hate, and so on. Then try to implement those elements within your screenplay’s scenes.