Monday, August 23, 2010

Hold the tears, trust the audience

I've talked before about how crying scenes in scripts can often come off as overwrought and melodramatic. It's something that crops up a lot in screenplays and I can understand how it happens. Writers are told to show, not tell - so when it comes to someone's emotional state - why wouldn't you have them break down in a crying fit to demonstrate that they're sad?

One reason not to do so is that with film, the audience can be manipulated into a position where they'll project their own emotions onto the character. Thus, the character doesn't need to oversell the emotion - all they have to do is provoke the emotion in the audience.

In re-reading The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler, I came across an excellent example of this theory. On p. 149, the scene where Luke returns to his uncle's farm to find his aunt and uncle killed by stormtroopers is discussed. It's noted that Mark Hamil wanted to play the scene with him falling on his knees sobbing in despair upon discovering the corpses. Director George Lucas insisted on a more neutral performance. "Lucas knew that later he would edit the sequence in keeping with the art of montage as explained by early Russian filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov, in which the juxtaposition of shots would arouse emotion rather than just the actor's performance."

You can find more about the Soviet montage theory here.

Now, as writers we're not supposed to call out each shot, doing the directors job for them. However, in writing the description you can subtly suggest the imagery and editing. For example, the description for the scene in question might read:

Luke's speeder arrives at the Lars farm. Luke gets out, rushing towards the homestead.

Smoke rises from the enclosure.

Luke runs closer than stops, frozen with surprise.

Two corpses lay sprawled amid the carnage, their skin burned completely off.

As the smoke continues to rise in the sky, Luke casts his gaze downward, processing his loss.

It's easy not to overwrite dialogue, but not overwriting emotion takes a defter touch.


  1. When I went to Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography for the courses, when I was in High School, we had to read the actual books. Still got them on my shelf:
    "Montage" and "Method" :) But I love the theory. I think the greatest Eisenstain montage is in the "Battleship Potemkin" in the sequence on the Odessa steps with the baby cart falling down & the soldiers marching. So powerful. I wonder, what it had looked like in the script, by the way. Maybe someting simple: "The mother is shot, the cart falls, soldiers march down the steps". And the montage makes the sceene mind blowing.

    By the way, did anyone ever notice, that in the scenes on the actual ship, when the sea can be seen in the shot, the water is not moving along the ship, but across? ;)

  2. "As the smoke continues to rise in the sky, Luke casts his gaze downward, processing his loss."

    It's interesting how easily we go to computer/machine words to "process" (handle) our emotions. Like sports terms in war, it's a sign of Americans' distance from fully experiencing emotions.

    "More explosions please!" (he said satirically)

  3. Sojourner, I'd have to disagree with you there, as to 'process' being a computing term we use to describe emotions. The etymology of the word 'process', as a verb, was being used for matters legal, medical and even culinary long before computers came into existance. It originally stems from the Latin, prõcessus, which basically translates to 'a course of action'. This was turned into the French procés, which was then appropriated by the Anglo-Normans, and turns into the word we use today, which I'd like to think was applied to emotions before computers. It makes sense - when things happen to us, we have to accept it on two levels: emotionally and rationally. When there is a descrepancy between the two stages, it can create a sort of emotional limbo. We take time to fully grasp the reality and consequences of traumatic or shocking events. Our mind churns the concept, like milk turning into butter. Process; a process; processing. Computers took it afterwards, I'd argue ;)

    It's definitely not just an American thing, to distance oneself from emotion; I think it's a common bad habit of the Western world, sadly!

    Fantastic post, and I think "The Body" was a stunning example. Watched that episode once, and never will again if I can help it. Absolutely wrenching.