Preparations & Consequences: Ways to Incorporate Emotion into the Plot
When characters share emotions with the audience, it deepens the experience of the story. Viewers are made available to the storyteller through emotion: writers seek an emotional connection with their audience the same way actors and directors do. A smart plot is intellectually satisfying, but movies are about more than that. Audiences expect emotional stories. A clever plot is satisfying on its own, but one that fools and surprises us as much as the characters is all the more satisfying because in movies we like being manipulated, startled and stunned.
But writers who get carried away with emotion can sacrifice the plot's momentum. We want the audience's emotional connection to our stories, but it's also our job to craft a sound plot with a rising action that builds through obstacles and complications, to crisis, climax and resolution. We generally don't want the dry plot of a docudrama or the melodrama of soap opera. We want a credible plot that carries us along emotionally.
Basic cause-and-effect plotting, where scenes specifically link actions and emotional reactions, helps keep a plot on track, building from one important point to the next. But a plot must do more than add story beats, the momentum of these beats must increase as the story unfolds.
We can intensify a story's momentum and heightening the audience's emotional involvement with sequences of preparation and consequences. We construct a sequence that sets up an important event in the protagonist's (or another main character's) future, then follow the character through the event to its end.
Preparations and consequences offer the screenwriter the opportunity to include emotional content without sacrificing momentum through plotting a sequence of scenes that uses directed action focused on a specific result. This keeps the story moving forward while the audience still gets to connect with the characters. The concentration on the lead-in to the scenes of conflict adds dramatic weight to the action, making the scenes more powerful.
Scenes in such sequences force the audience to worry about the future of the characters as they prepare, and feel with the characters in the wake of the events.
A scene of preparation consists of an important character (or characters) getting ready for an approaching dramatic event. Sports movies and war films contain the most obvious examples of this type of set-up. The former have locker room scenes where coaches psych up the athletes for the big game. War films show soldiers before the battle, serious and nervous, anticipating the pressure of the impending conflict. Tension builds for the audience during these scenes because they feel the characters' anxiety and worry about the potential outcomes. If the event isn't truly important to the character, his anxieties, excitement, or anticipation will feel forced and undercut exactly what you're trying to achieve.
Most films make use of preparation scenes somewhere in their plots. In 3:10 To Yuma, almost the whole last act consists of Dan and Wade waiting in the hotel room for the train to arrive. Part of Dan's preparation is to send his son out of harm's way with Mr. Butterfield. In this scene we see his courage and fears. Twice the director has started these scenes as we near the fateful hour on Dan's watch ticking down. Just before the climax starts, the director opens on Dan, head in hands, the watch held tightly in his hands. Wade sits across from him, sketching in the Bible. He makes a remark about the watch and Dan hurls the pocket watch across the room. We know what Dan's up against and we know how he feels, and feel the tension with him as he heads off with Wade to meet his fate.
Preparation Scenes Build Tension
Several times, Se7en readies the audience along with the characters for upcoming events. Once the detectives have the lead to what turns out to be the "Sloth" crime scene, a big buildup illustrates the SWAT Team getting ready to move on the location. A lot of time is spent showing policemen being briefed and readied before they shove off.
In Act three, we see Somerset and Mills preparing to go with John Doe to the final crime scene. It starts with the men in the washroom shaving their chests for the wires they'll be wearing. Somerset does his best to prepare Mills, wanting him to be ready for anything. If the man in the moon should pop out of his head, "I want you to expect it," he says. Then Mills makes a small joke and the two men laugh, the audience with them. But as they return to their work, the seriousness of the situation overtakes them, and words slip away. They're worried, and the audience can see it in their faces and their reactions. The next shot shows the men in silence, buttoning their shirts over their wires, putting on bulletproof vests and their holsters. They check their guns. All of this communicates to the audience the life-or-death nature of the situation they face. We then cut to John Doe, in orange jumpsuit, head shaved, hands cuffed, escorted down the stairs. The sequence builds until all three are in the car, helicopters flying over them, other vehicles monitoring their every move; all the while the looming catastrophe hangs in the future.
The interesting thing about this sequence is that it readies the audience for another scene that is still meant to prepare them for the climax. John Doe, Mills and Somerset get into the car on their way to the real dramatic event, the final revelation of the crimes. All of this heightens the tension by increasing the audience's worry (and plays into how screenwriters build suspense, another topic worth exploring).
Comedies use scenes of preparations and consequences, too. In Juno, once Juno's situation has been established and the plot introduces the potential adoptive parents: Vanessa and Mark Loring. The scenes actually show Vanessa, though we only see her hands, preparing her home for the meeting with Juno. She wants everything perfect, her picture straight, every towel folded.
Dramatic works also rely on these types of scenes. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, after the ruckus over the cigarettes (spurred on by the revelation to McMurphy that most of his fellow patients voluntarily committed themselves), McMurphy, Cheswick and the Chief are subdued by the attendants and taken for punishment. The three men are led down a hallway and seated outside a room. McMurphy doesn't know what's happening and stays his usual lighthearted self. The Chief keeps up his mute, impassive facade. But clearly Cheswick knows what's coming. He whimpers while Mac watches, puzzled by his reaction. The attendants carry Cheswick into the next room. McMurphy watches, clueless, but the audience anticipates what's next: electroshock therapy. What's wonderfully original about this sequence is how the audience, through the use of Cheswick's character, worries about McMurphy before he himself does.
As Mac and the Chief wait their turn, tension builds. Then Mac offers the Chief a stick of gum, and another revelation comes: the Chief speaks. "Thanks," he says.
Shocked, McMurphy offers him another stick just to be sure he heard right, and is delighted to be sharing the Chief's secret. And now, while the audience is still anticipating the upcoming treatment, they watch these men interact and plan their escape. This develops both men's characters and the audience's relationship with them. When the medical staff brings Cheswick out on a gurney, still as death, the audience is totally aligned with Mac and the Chief as they view Cheswick, and quiet down.
But McMurphy still doesn't get it. The attendants come for him, and, tickled by the Chief's deception, he heads in with a spring in his step. Inside, he obliges the medical staff's every wish. With forehead swabbed, electrodes in place, mouthpiece in his teeth, the audience sees - and feels - the current hit him.
This sequence builds tension by using Cheswick's reactions as the barometer of events to come. Mac and the Chief wait for Cheswick to finish his treatment and the audience anticipates the danger soon to befall the men. But the writers disarm us. They let the two men connect emotionally, deepening the meaning of the repressive shock treatments, and the whole sequence of preparation and consequence.
The result of a dramatic event, shown in the consequences of the action, puts the focus on how the action has cost or benefited the characters, both physically and emotionally. Here the characters process - try to make sense of -- what's just happened, and the audience does the same. Time allows the situation to settle for the characters, as well as the audience, and it broadens our understanding of the events.
The consequence scene for the sequence above from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest starts back on the ward. The ubiquitous mood music is playing; patients are sitting down for yet another therapy session with Nurse Ratched and it seems like an ordinary day. Then McMurphy enters, shambling dully across the room. The men's hearts sink - he's had a lobotomy. Even the Chief, who is in the back shuffling with his broom, looks dismayed. Then Mac suddenly jumps, scaring them, and he's back to his devil-may-care self, promising to be a good boy for Nurse Ratched and not cause any more trouble.
This scene works wonderfully. It offers a scare, and then relieves with a laugh. It shows the audience McMurphy is all right and that the effect is he now intends to behave himself knowing what the cost is if he doesn't.
In Juno, the result of Vanessa and Mark's interview is shown after Juno and her father leave. Vanessa, tears in her eyes, smiles happily at her husband and wraps her arms around him.
(Spoiler Alert!) In 3:10 To Yuma, the consequences are shown in Wade's reaction to his henchman Charlie Prince shooting Dan. Wade processes the action, and in a split second, responds with a death force that stuns everyone, including himself. He then completes Dan's mission, turning himself in and getting on the train.
In Se7en, the direct aftermath of the climactic scene of the movie (where the final murder is revealed) is the film's resolution. We see the ultimate effect of the events on Somerset: he will keep up the good fight and not give in to the forces John Doe represents.
Preparations, Consequences and Reversals
Preparations and consequences often set the audience up for one result, but then deliver its opposite. These are wonderful tools when plotting a reversal. The aftermath of the electroshock therapy scene for McMurphy is exactly this. The audience believes worst has happened, but suddenly the scene spins and everything is all right. When the action completes in a surprising way, the audience experiences a stronger emotional impact.
The beginning of Jerry Maguire illustrates this beautifully. Jerry is laying out exposition for us, but he is really preparing his Mission Statement. His frantic intensity drives the action and reveals how important the Mission Statement, entitled "The Things We Think But Do Not Say, The Future of Our Business," is to his psyche. Jerry has the memos copied and distributed. He returns to his hotel room where he immediately has second thoughts. He tries to recall the memos, but it's too late. As he panics, the audience panics with him. Then in the following scene as he nervously prepares to enter the lobby the next day, he's met with applause. The audience is whipped around and smiling with him. As he exits the lobby, the focus shifts to two agents. "How long you give him?" asks the first agent. "Mmmm. A week," says the other. A second reversal hits the audience, and both feel right.
Preparations and consequences are strong tools for developing and outlining a plot. They'll help you design the sequence of scenes so that you know where to place the emotional emphasis. When actually writing these scenes, remember to find the emotion and use it in an interesting yet authentic way.
Meet the Author: Linda J. Cowgill
Linda J. Cowgill teaches at the Los Angeles Film School and Loyola Marymount University.