Happy New Year!
And swiftly on to instalment 5:
In Character is Everything, I talked about engaging with characters on an emotional level. But I think emotion is worth a discussion all to itself, because it is the thing that makes great stories resonate with us for years to come, and it is the thing that can be lacking at times in a lot of the scripts we read.
The strength of your characters, and our emotional engagement with them, will make an idea stand or fall. Without this glue of empathy between character and audience, you ultimately have very little. You might have form and content, but you won't have something meaningful. And this is still true for the craziest of comedies as it is for the deepest of tragedies - if we don't feel emotion, then we don't feel anything.
A mistake often made is that writers have a big idea, a concept, a conceit, a world/universe they want to explore. They then set about creating suitable characters through which they can do this. But given the power of genre and archetypes in storytelling, it's very very rare that a writer will come up with a wholly original concept or conceit that has in no way been shown or explored before. And unfortunately, it's very very common for writers to come up with stereotypical, two-dimensional characters that fill out an idea. If you want to explore a concept, you need to do it through the strength of your characters and our emotional connection with them, otherwise what you will have is a cold, cerebral, intellectual conceit that has no emotional impact, and therefore no real impact at all. Memento is a complex and sophisticated essay on memory, time, and the meaning of action within a temporal vacuum. But really, it is the tale of one man trying to work out how to live his life day to day, moment to moment, with a unique condition that appears to take him further and further away from what he has lost in his life, while never allowing him to forget the pain of it. The first is a concept. The second is a story with emotional impact.
Great stories, and great scripts, should always aspire to have a real, physical, emotional effect on an audience. It's what I've seen/heard referred to as the 'squelch principle'. Put another way, and depending on what kind of story you are telling, it should be so poignant it makes us cry real tears, so funny it makes us laugh so hard we develop a painful stitch, so scary it makes us nearly wet ourselves, so excruciating it makes us sweat, so embarrassing it makes us want to shrivel up, so thrilling it makes our heart beat at twice it's usual speed. It should be so effective that it makes us feel real, powerful emotions - so good it makes us 'squelch'.
And why is all of this true? Because great stories, whatever the genre and tone, matter on a human level. Stories are about people; people need stories. Humanity developed the storytelling gene so that it could laugh, cry, love, fear, hate and hope for characters, and, by extension, humanity itself. Your script needs to make us laugh, cry, love, fear, hate and hope.