Columns > Published on September 22nd, 2014

Screenwriting: The Emotional Spine

Film is an emotional medium. Reading a book puts you inside the protagonist’s head, but watching a movie plants you firmly in her shoes. The immersive audio-visual experience of a darkened theater, especially the score swelling through surround sound, is conducive to feeling, not thinking. We read a film not so much by listening to dialogue, but by watching emotions flicker across characters’ faces. We react physically to scares by jumping in our seats, and a dynamic chase sequence gets our pulse racing along with the protagonist’s. We commit to sitting still for a couple of hours so we can escape our dead-inside realities on someone else’s hot-blooded rocket to the moon. We buy a movie ticket so we can be moved.

This is why it’s sometimes counterintuitive to think of a screenplay purely in terms of the rational and intellectual – action sequences, set-ups/pay-offs, act breaks, narrative beats, turning points, climax and closure. A screenplay needs a solid structure and should be organized along logical lines. However, a purely clever and logical screen story leaves the audience cold. Is that all there is? Sometimes it’s a good idea to think not about what’s moving your story forward, but what’s holding it together, what’s keeping the audience engaged from scene to scene.

The best screenplays rely on an emotional spine to engage hearts as well as heads in the opening pages, and thus carry the audience all the way through to the final credit roll. 

An Emotional What?

The best screenplays rely on an emotional spine to engage hearts as well as heads in the opening pages, and thus carry the audience all the way through to the final credit roll.

The spine is an amazing piece of engineering across all vertebrates, a complex structure that supports the whole mass – whether the mass is a 59’, 23 ton Spinosaurus or a tiny, tiny frog (the 0.27” Paedophryne amauensis). It protects the spinal cord and nerves, ensuring the smooth transit of signals between physical processes and the brain, and carries the weight of up to half the body. In evolution, the development of a vertebral column happens before the development of the brain. While most mammals have evolved with a similar spinal structure, different creatures have developed along specific paths. In humans, the size and strength of the spine allows us to walk upright. In cats, the flexibility of the spine allows them to twist different parts of their body in different directions, up to 180˚ apart – which is why they rarely hurt themselves when they fall.

The spine has three main functions in a vertebrate: strength, flexibility and communication. The emotional spine of a screenplay serves those same purposes. It provides strength, joining the separate elements of plot and character, and connecting the three acts. It provides flexibility, especially within characterization, allowing people to twist, to be flawed, erratic, make bad decisions and U-turns – as long as they remain connected to the spinal cord. It permits the communication of messages, particularly within subtext and meta-narrative, running deeper than dialogue, or a single character’s arc. The emotional spine articulates the whole, allowing the audience to empathize with the characters as well as understand their story on a rational level. The emotional spine carries engagement, relatability, affinity, all the things that make the audience give a damn.

Your Story’s Backbone

The vertebral column consists of a series of interlocking bones (the vertebrae), which connect to various muscle and bone groups outside the spine, and protect the spinal cord, a tightly woven mass of nervous tissue that extends from the brain stem to the waist. 

The emotional spine of a narrative similarly has two parts. It consists of a series of interlocking emotional beats and an underlying cord, comprised of a bundle of philosophies, messages, themes, symbols – everything that gives a screenplay satisfying depth and consistency.

Emotional Beats

Emotional beats are difficult to write because they usually occur in the white space of the screenplay page rather than in the printed word. An emotional beat is a moment of pure, visceral feeling (e.g. when happiness makes the character feel lighter than air, or a shock makes them feel like they’ve been kicked in the stomach) or a shift in consciousness (e.g. when eyes meet across a crowded room, when the worm decides to turn, when the terrible realization hits, when the light appears at the end of the tunnel, when victory is suddenly within reach, or when all hope is vanquished forever). 

Emotional beats in a screenplay tend to be reactions, rather than actions, and are heavily dependent on performance. They occur after a revelatory line of dialogue or a devastating explosion, not on it.  A novelist can write the beat explicitly (“With his words, her world shattered into tiny pieces.”) but a screenwriter can only create the space and opportunity for the moment; the actor manifests it, sometimes with the merest twitch of the lips or flip of an eyebrow. Good actors can elevate mediocre material by adding their own emotional beats to a scene. Bad actors miss the beats that are already there, or add ponderous pauses in cringeworthy places. Subtext is a bitch.

Unlike narrative beats, which should occur in a logical sequence, at least once in every scene, emotional beats happen organically, when they feel natural to the story. They don’t even have to happen to the protagonist; it’s always a pleasure to see supporting characters own an emotional beat. Like vertebrae they should be evenly spaced: too close together and your sensitive drama becomes twisted soap opera, too far apart and your audience will disengage as your narrative disintegrates. Like vertebrae they should also interlock, each emotional beat connecting to the one before, and the one after it. When joined together, they also provide structure and flexibility to what might otherwise be a shapeless mass. If our protagonist is confused, wandering in physical or moral fog, or struggling through the chaos of battle, no end in sight, then emotional beats keep us connected, moving on and up, regardless.

The Underlying Cord

What’s your screenplay about? No, what’s it really about? What ties it together? What’s in the bundle of concepts, themes and principles underlying every key decision? Are we talking hope, redemption, inspiration, or hate, fear and depravity? What’s the message? What do you want your audience to take with them when they walk out of the theatre door?

The underlying cord bestows a quality often lacking in screenplays: cohesion. Cohesion is the property of unity in a narrative. It comes from discernible links between screenplay elements, such as repeated phrases in dialogue, a belief or philosophy shared by different characters, locations visited several times, a common theme explored from different angles, subtext that flows from scene to scene. Again, cohesion should come from the implicit, rather than the explicit. As with the delicate spinal cord, your underlying cord shouldn’t ever be exposed to the outside air – it should remain buried deep behind those protective emotional beats. If it’s too obvious, too on-the-nose, the writer has started preaching and stopped storytelling, and it’s game over for the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.

The Truth Will Make You Cry

...the emotional spine can hold different genres of movies together in different ways. It’s not just for “women’s films."

The best way to appreciate the value of a sturdy emotional spine is to examine how it works in your all-time favorite movies, the ones that never fail to make you cry. These are not the movies that inflict gratuitous emotional trauma on the audience through the use of trigger tropes usually involving a lingering or painful death (teenagers dying of cancer! A dog that grows old faster than his owners! Macauley Culkin being fatally stung by a bee!) and/or an over-the-top score written entirely in D Minor (which is the saddest of all keys, I find). These are the movies that earn your tears by making you care so desperately about the characters and their fate that you’ll weep in grateful release even if there’s a happy ending. These are the movies that bring tears to your eyes if you attempt to describe them, or hear a snatch of dialogue, or the love theme. These are the movies that, if you chance upon them playing on late-night TV, pull you in, whatever the hour, and make you tardy for appointments the following day.

If you’re looking for a masterclass in the emotional spine in storytelling, reach for the films Douglas Sirk directed during his peak years at Universal-International Pictures in the 1950s:  All That Heaven Allows (1955), through There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), Written On The Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957) to Imitation of Life (1959). These are lushly photographed, impeccably crafted dramas, filled with raw emotional beats and wrapped around an underlying cord of social issues, psychosexuality, and the politics of gender and race. Although dismissed at the time as “women’s films," Sirk’s oeuvre underwent critical re-evaluation in the 1970s, and he has many fans among today’s filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino and Todd Haynes.

While its presence is more obvious in some movies than others (see: Beaches, Field of Dreams), the emotional spine can hold different genres of movies together in different ways. It’s not just for “women’s films." If you get lost amid the avalanches, elevator shafts and exploding buildings of Inception, for instance, you can follow the spine of Cobb’s intense feelings towards Mal through to the end.

The Elephant Man (1980)

The story of John Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’ could have been told in many different ways on screen, especially by the director of Eraserhead (David Lynch’s only previous feature film at the time). It has all the trappings of a horror film (monsters, freakshows, medical experimentation, savage cruelty and exploitation – Ryan Murphy would have a field day) yet is held together by a solid, dignified and beautifully crafted emotional spine that elevates it beyond the usual confines of a genre piece.

From the top, Merrick (John Hurt) is positioned as the object, rather than the subject of the narrative. We’re invited to take the cool, privileged, scientific perspective of Treves (Anthony Hopkins) as he hunts down a prize medical specimen.  Although there are tears in Treves’s eyes the first time he looks upon the horror of Merrick’s deformities, this is a fake emotional beat: we later come to suspect that these are tears of anticipatory joy at how much the boys back at the Pathological Society will be impressed by his find.

Treves pushes the rational components of the story forward, rescuing Merrick, taking him to the London Hospital, putting him on display to surgeons and high society, telling his boss that his discovery is “an imbecile, probably from birth." Meanwhile, more powerfully, wordlessly, Merrick pulls us through a series of steady emotional beats, through revulsion, pity, anger, curiosity and, finally, to wonder, as he starts talking and reveals himself to be a gentle, intellectual soul, capable of memorizing chunks of the Bible.

From then on, the emotional spine carries the weight of the story. Merrick remains passive, pushed and pulled by other characters. It would be all too easy to present him as a downtrodden victim, an object forced to suffer through a series of grim vignettes. However, the emotional beats keep the story upright and flexible. In the moments when we see Merrick’s dandified joy at his new suit, or his quiet awe of the collection of family photographs, or admire his model-making skills, or hear him express his simple hopes (“I wish I could sleep like normal people.”), it seems as though anything could happen, despite the fact that, historically, we know he is doomed.

The Elephant Man is a moral fable. Lynch never lets us lose sight of the underlying cord of tolerance and compassion, and the lessons we can learn from Merrick’s fortitude and dignity. When there are no words, tears come into their own. Treves gets a major emotional beat when he finally realizes that he has exploited Merrick as much as Bytes, the carny who displayed Merrick to crowds of gawping onlookers for cash. Mrs. Treves discovers him crying real tears – she already shed hers, the day Merrick first paid her an elegant compliment over tea. And, if tears aren’t welling up in your eyes as Merrick pulls the pillows off his bed in the closing scene, then you’re an animal, not a man...

The Great Escape (1963)

At almost three hours long, based on a true story, stuffed full of characters and set pieces, incorporating abrupt changes in tone, The Great Escape could have been an unruly, unwatchable mess. However, it’s held together by the emotional spine that helps structure the storytelling, and, again, elevates the material beyond an elaborate game of wartime hide and seek. 

The Great Escape is remembered primarily for its action sequences, but these are underpinned by some top-notch ensemble work, and linked together by the emotional spine. Thanks to the regularly spaced emotional beats that punctuate the fun and games, the audience can connect to each main character in a quiet, personal moment, and empathize more deeply with their escape attempt. Think of Hilts's (Steve McQueen) blank stare at the Cooler wall, or Ives's (Angus Lennie) anguish when he learns the tunnel ‘Tom’ has been discovered, or Blythe’s (Donald Pleasance) blind hope that his ruse with the pin might work. These emotional beats add depth to the story, and flexibility: they keep us engaged when the Boys’ Own tone of the first half turns dark.

The emotional beats also allow us access to the underlying cord of messages about duty, honor and sacrifice in a time of war, which are complex. The Camp Kommandant tells his new arrivals to kick back and relax (“with intelligent co-operation we may all sit out the war as comfortably as possible…”), but no one listens. They’re all hung up on the principle “it is the sworn duty of every officer to try to escape," soaking up Nazi time, energy and resources in the process. Squadron Leader Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) is the main advocate of this approach (he dreads “the humiliation if we just submit”), and his decisions drive the frenzy of tunnel-building, ID-card-forging and intelligence-gathering that occupies most of the characters for most of the plot. However, the underlying doubts expressed by the other men in their emotional beats betray their fear, and the nagging feeling that this sacrifice will turn out to be foolhardy rather than noble. The emotional spine offers flexibility to the storytelling: regardless of the gung-ho nature of the title, the stock characters, and the adrenalin kick of the action, The Great Escape speaks in many subtle ways to the futility of war.

End Of Watch (2012)

Shot documentary style, End Of Watch is a fast-moving blend of dashcam, handheld, aerial and night-vision footage, zip-lining the audience into the everyday travails of a pair of LAPD beat cops. We follow Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Michael Peña) into a burning building, a drug den full of dismembered corpses, an alley lined with furious pitbulls, and on car chases through the mean streets of South Central.  Writer/director David Ayer never loses sight of the emotional spine, however, no matter how kinetic the action gets. There’s a world of difference between End of Watch and even the most epic episodes of Cops.

The white-knuckle action scenes are punctuated with moments of contemplation, when Mike and Brian let what just happened register on their faces, and we see them processing their reactions as they cruise the streets on patrol. The emotional beats, once again, are steady and varied, as the cops cycle through elation, amusement, weariness, confusion and fear. In this way the narrative builds outwards. This is not just a movie about the fairground attraction of chasing drugs and money (“the two basic food groups”) around the division, as seen by a couple of wisecracking young guns. It explores the push-pull of adrenalin and exhaustion, the conflict between instinct and protocol, the desire for a family versus the risks taken to provide for one. Mike and Brian rarely articulate their feelings: the emotional beats are so well placed, and the underlying cord provides such cohesion, neither one of them needs to explain. We understand what it’s like to be them.

As a screenwriter, your job isn’t to dictate line readings or direct from the page. You should resist the temptation to write “Beat” as a screen direction. Instead, you should attempt to craft a story around a strong, but invisible spine, creating opportunities for your actors (and, further down the line, your editor and composer) to manifest the emotional beats in a scene, and to keep feeding into the underlying cord of connective tissue that transforms your screenplay from a series of choppy vignettes into a cohesive, satisfying whole. 

Table reads and workshops are a vital tool for developing your skills in this area. It can be very instructive (and humbling), to let actors range freely across your characters and situations. Watch their faces, listen for rhythms in their delivery, and make a note of where their instinct places the wordless beat. If it doesn’t fall where you want it to, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

The screenplay is a peculiar art form because so much emphasis is placed on white space. The fewer words on the page, the better. The more you can rely on an invisible emotional spine made up of wordless moments to do your narrative heavy lifting, the more powerful your screenplay will be. Unfortunately, there’s no easy prescription for the emotional spine, no “insert at page number X” cheat sheet. Develop your storytelling instincts, trust in your characters, and cut any and every word that does insufficient labor. Work those empty spaces, make every blank line resonate. Yup, subtext’s a bitch.

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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