The Engine of Empathy: Three Ways To Convey Characters’ Emotions

The Engine of Empathy: Three Ways To Convey Characters’ Emotions


One of the most crucial components of writing a compelling and emotionally engaging screenplay is conveying to the audience how characters feel about their situation. In the simplest sense, every narrative film is about a character(s) struggling to overcome and/or achieve something. Marty McFly tries to get back to 1985 without endangering his own existence. Dorothy must travel to Oz so the Wizard can help her return to Kansas. A giant ship hurls itself into an iceberg to cope with a boring love story (or whatever Titanic is about).

It stands to reason that an array of emotions would accompany a character’s struggle. Frustration, uncertainty, excitement, desperation, anger, determination, humiliation, and courage, to name a few. It’s these emotions that allow the audience to empathize with the character and become emotionally attached to their struggle. Without such a connection, the audience will mentally check out and instead fantasize about Christoph Waltz (probably).

Too often, though, writers fail to convey how their characters feel about their situation or struggle. Or, if they do make an attempt, it’s through on-the-nose dialogue.“I can’t believe I didn’t get the promotion! That makes me frustrated! I’m crying now!” Yeah, don’t do that.

There’s no doubt that conveying characters’ emotions in a screenplay is challenging; emotions are experienced internally, and screenwriting focuses on capturing what’s going on externally. But it’s possible—and necessary. Here are some tips on how it can be done.

Use Strong Action Verbs

When people feel a certain way, different behaviors and actions tend to manifest themselves. Their posture, physicality, speech, and facial expressions are affected. Since screenwriting is all about depicting what is happening visually, a great way to demonstrate how a character feels is to use action verbs that carry strong emotional connotations. Verbs that convey how a character is behaving or speaking or moving through space. Words like grimace, trudge, fidget, slump, smirk, amble, beam, stomp, seethe, shudder, cower, squirm, stride. (Consult your friendly neighborhood thesaurus for more!) Action verbs like these connote specific emotions that allow readers, directors, actors, and ultimately the audience to better understand how the character is feeling.

Read the full article on Screencraft.org

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