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 career, hands down the most common problem I see in screenplays is that they lack an emotional core, or what I call…
I define Heart as what the audience gets out of your screenplay, the emotional takeaway that moves them.
Think of Heart as being what the story is really about. Not the plot. But the universal experience that all people can relate to. One that moves the reader 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 the people there will relate to losing a loved-one. It’s an emotion that transcends cultural barriers by being universal. And that universality touches on the larger human experience. That’s why it’s so relatable to us.
Does your story need Heart?
Research has shown that people, consciously and unconsciously, watch 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.
Heart is what makes the audience relate and feel. It’s what the audiences gets out of your screenplay or film. It’s their emotional takeaway from the experience of story.
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 selfish 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. The boy helps Hugh Grant’s character realize over the course of the film that other people are necessary in his life, and that caring about other people gives his life genuine meaning.
That’s what the audience internally gets out of the external ride they go on. It’s what they relate to and feel. It’s the emotional glue that binds them to the plot.
One of the ways to convey that emotional core is to show the audience how the characters feel about their situation. Get tips for doing that in The Engine of Empathy: Three Ways To Convey Characters’ Emotions.
How to make sure your story has Heart
To find your story’s Heart, you need only look to your main character. While there are certainly exceptions, Heart is almost always a direct result of your main character’s growth, or lack thereof, as they struggle with some type of internal issue over the course of your story.
The films that move us the most are usually inhabited by people who are contending with their own weaknesses. That’s what makes them so intriguing as characters.
Internal issues come in a myriad of different forms and amalgams. They can be emotional, intellectual, psychological, spiritual, an inadequacy, or just some internal wound that needs to be healed.
Character growth can be a positive change, usually coming in the form of an uplifting ending. Or a negative change, usually in the form of a tragedy.
In the film Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character goes from being a cocky, troubled kid living an emotionally safe existence – one where he pushes people away before they ever have a chance to leave him, and in doing so he avoids being in a situation where he himself might get hurt first. He goes from being like that… to a young man able to abandon that identity, trust others, and commit to a new life in a new city with the girl he loves.
This forms the Heart of the story. It’s what we as an audience internally get out of the ride we go on. It’s the emotional takeaway that moves us. And it comes in the form of a positive change and an uplifting ending.
Now let’s take the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Jack Nicholson’s character goes from being a happy-go-lucky guy trying to game the prison system by pretending to be crazy… to a man capable of nearly murdering Nurse Ratched, which ultimately leads to his lobotomy and death. A Heart that is a negative change and tragic ending.
It’s important to point out here that while a character’s growth can be hugely transformational, Like Schindler in Schindler’s List going from being a greedy war profiteer indifferent to the plight of the Jewish people… to a man who risks his own life to save thousands of people from certain death. Growth, however, can also come in much more subtle forms. Especially in genre films.
Take Jodie Foster’s character in the film Panic Room. She goes from being a vulnerable, fragile divorcee on her own for the first time in her life… to a woman who takes charge and fights to save her family. That’s her growth as a character. One that comes in a subtle yet still relatable form.
Pixar movies almost always feature a great display of heart. It’s worth revisiting The Secret Screenwriting Themes Behind All Pixar Movies.
Whichever the case, transformational or subtle, remember that a character’s growth will usually lead you to the Heart of your screenplay. That proverbial emotional glue that binds us all to story.
Tim Long is a screenwriter who has sold, optioned, and pitched feature film projects at the studio level, and has had original screenplays in development with Academy Award-winning and nominated producers. Mr. Long is also a nationally recognized screenplay consultant and taught screenwriting at the MFA level in a top ranked University film program. He’s currently Founder of PARABLE, an online, interactive, screenwriting course. Follow Tim on Twitter!