The Emotional Pattern of Plot
When we think of plot we usually think in terms of action. Action is driven by what the characters want and the conflict that stands in their way. So the basic parameters of plot give a story direction and meaning: characters act on their desire, which leads to action, which in turn leads to conflict. But drama is as much about the repercussions of an action as it is about the action itself. It's not just the momentum of action that frames the story, but how characters respond to the action that ultimately conveys meaning to the audience. Is a character devastated when his lover rejects him, or secretly relieved? After arguing with his wife, does the protagonist unload his anger on his daughter and feel bad about it or go get drunk? Different outcomes lend different interpretations to the material. The audience needs to see the results of action, the consequences, the affect, to fully understand the dramatic weight action carries. The emotional reaction to action, the blowback of desire, is often where the heart of your drama lies.
~~ Plot is Structuring Action and Emotion
Plotting a story is more than just mapping out specific steps a character takes toward his goal within a conflict; it is structuring action and emotion to achieve an intended effect. We want to make the audience feel a variety of emotions throughout a story - tension, excitement, fear, frustration, joy - and not just at the end. Action carries us along; emotion adds dimension, ups the stakes, increases empathy or antipathy, and creates meaning.
Orchestrating a character's emotional growth or regression allows the audience to experience the story with him. It helps develop the character's transformational arc more fully by creating an outline or pattern of emotions that evolves in relationship to the action. This pattern can't progress willy-nilly (as it may appear to in life), but must be ordered to make sense logically. When conceived and executed properly, the emotional pattern of the plot, reflected and defined in the protagonist, will deepen the audience's understanding of every factor in the story.
~~ Emotion Deepens the Audience's Connection to Your Work
Good stories are conflict-driven; protagonists must fight their way through plots they are responsible for having set in motion. The harder the protagonist falls, the more emotionally charged the story. Writers should rake their heroes over the coals because this is how stories develop emotion and emotion is how stories connect with their audience.
Take our example above: A father takes out the anger he feels with his wife on his daughter. In another, separate beat, he regrets doing this. We understand and empathize with both man and girl - who hasn't snapped at a loved one (or been snapped at by a loved one) and not felt bad about it? Throw in a sensitive teenager witnessing the father/daughter interaction through a video camera and you intensify the empathetic response. In American Beauty we see Ricky's reaction to Lester's actions with Jane and feel it with him.
The angry father who couldn't care less about hurting his daughter's feelings? His reaction creates distance and antipathy from the audience. It's harder to relate to him because of his coldness, and this might be exactly what you want for your particular story if dad is really supposed to be a rat. Dad's lack of remorse will provoke its own emotional response from the audience - a negative one. (The one thing you don't want from your audience is neutrality.)
When a character responds to dramatic events intensely (even if he represses or sublimates his response in, say, alcohol or misplaced anger), the audience sees what's at stake for him. The character's emotional response to conflict clues us in to who the character really is even more than our character's original desire-fueled action. Which tells us more about Jim Carrey's character in Bruce Almighty: his original use of almighty power or the way he comes to regret the responsibilities that go with it?
~~ The Difference Between Professional & Amateur Scripts
What separates professional screenplays that get turned into successful movies from amateur screenplays is this: the pros' scripts are based on strong, simple story lines that are well developed and well plotted. Characters feel full and real, with emotional lives; the action has weight and meaning. Amateur screenplays are generally over-plotted in terms of action and underdeveloped in terms of character and emotion. Amateurs focus on the "action" - what characters do - and leave off the page the emotion - what characters feel. Amateur scripts feel flat and confused, and because so much happens, the significance is lost.
~~ Great Films Show Characters Defined by Emotions
Take a good look at a great movie and you'll see characters defined by their specific goals and their emotions. Characters are set up at the beginning of the movie with certain traits and emotional lives. Emotion progresses through the story in relation to the character's goals, the conflict and/or other characters, and it intensifies as the conflict escalates and the climax approaches. By the end, the character arrives at a new emotional state that defines him and confirms or denies change (included in the character arc).
Erin Brockovich is an interesting example. At the end of the movie it doesn't appear Erin has really changed. Her circumstances have, but at first viewing she seems like a protagonist who forces the people around her to change while not really changing herself. But if we dig a little deeper, we find Erin does change, but through the force of her emotions.
Let's take a look. In act one, Erin (Julia Roberts) is desperate, angry, defensive and alienated. She feels like a victim and doesn't like it. She's angry about her life and how it's turned out. Specific scenes show us her pain and anger. The movie starts with her job interview. This shows us what she wants: a job. She doesn't get it. The filmmakers take a long beat on Erin standing outside smoking, leaning on the wall, before she gets in her car, only to be hit in an intersection. In these few scenes we see she's angry and hurt, and we feel her frustration and desperation. When she sues the ER doctor who hit her and loses her case, we feel it even more deeply.
We also see qualities: her sacrifice for her children when she feeds them in the restaurant and orders nothing for herself; her determination to find a job, which leads ultimately back to her lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney). Ed hears her desperation and gives her a chance. She takes it seriously and works hard. We see glimpses of her compassion, but she's still gruff, angry, defensive and alienated in the office. Eventually, she loses her job because she doesn't understand how to work in the world.
In act two, Erin is vulnerable and depressed as well as angry, defensive and alienated. But this represents an emotional change, a change in her character: because she is vulnerable, she allows George (Aaron Eckhart) into her life. This is a positive step, though it could lead to disaster, too (given who he is on the surface).
When ex-boss Ed comes back to Erin with a question about a case, Erin shrewdly gets her job back. She returns to work, but is still angry. She hears stories on the job that stir her compassion, but she remains defensive at home and unable to deal with her angry son.
Pressure mounts as she sees the enormity of the wrong done to the people of Hinkley, California. Upset and angry, she forces Ed to listen to her and this moves the case to a higher level. Part of Erin's problem is that her anger works for and against her. Her anger helps her in this specific job by keeping her focused on the company that has victimized the town residents. But the anger is destructive when brought home where it drives a wedge between her and her son, and George.
Her work pays off, however, and she wins more people to their side. Now Erin feels more confident and stronger. The big attorneys Kurt and Theresa (Peter Coyote and Veanne Cox) come onto the case, and this threatens Erin. Defensive, she goes too far and insults Theresa in front of everyone. Now Ed gets angry, and he shames Erin over her behavior. Erin is forced to the sidelines while the big guns do their stuff, but she's not happy about it, though it gives her time to think.
But in act three, the case starts falling apart due to the big lawyers inability to relate to the townspeople. "This case needs you," Ed tells Erin. She gets the case back on track and, validated, she's now able to apologize and ask George for help, and make headway with her son.
At the end of Erin and Ed's campaign to sign everyone up, Erin meets the strange man Charles Embry (Tracey Walter) in the bar. Because her attitude has now changed, she doesn't immediately blow him off. Good thing, too, because he has the documents that prove corporate PG&E is accountable.
Erin Brockovich has many more emotional moments than those noted here. Several scenes are marked with emotionally charged reactions that help us understand Erin - from minor moments like getting a parking ticket to a heart-wrenching encounter with a child dying of cancer to the ending resolution marked with happiness over their success and a final play on her defensiveness. Throughout the film, emotion intensifies the drama, raises the stakes and generally expresses and confirms a psychological growth pattern in Erin's behavior. Successful screenwriters use emotional responses to conflict to define who their characters are.
In The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri wrote some 60 years ago, "Only in conflict can you 'prove' yourself. In conflict your true self is revealed." Setting up the conflict, the roadblocks on the hero's path is obviously a necessary task. Equally important, however, is illustrating your hero's emotional reaction to these roadblocks. Don't be in a hurry to get your protagonist over the next hurdle; instead, take a moment, or scene, or sequence, and show how unexpected hurdles and setbacks change the emotional makeup of your character. If you take the time and do that, the next bump in the road might, with a different emotional mindset, turn out to be something your hero sees as a launching pad to his goal.
Meet the Author: Linda J. Cowgill
Linda J. Cowgill teaches at the Los Angeles Film School and Loyola Marymount University.