Script Coverage Chronicles – July 2014: When You DON’T Want Your Screenplay to Evoke Emotions

Today I’d like to talk about emotions.  Seasoned screenwriters know how to trigger emotional responses, and intuitive newbies quickly learn to tug at the heartstrings.  It is without question a skill you need to master.  As in everything, however, there’s a catch. 

You need to generate the right emotions. 

If you play to the wrong emotions, your script may incite frustration, sadness or anger – not the way to sell a story. 

Let me explain.

Positive and Negative Emotions

People have this annoying need to feel good.  Movie audiences and screenplay readers are no exception. 

If your script inspires readers to appreciate what they have – bingo!  If it allows them, for a moment, to participate in romantic feelings that aren’t otherwise available to them – double bingo!

If your script happens to remind your readers of something really negative in their lives – not bingo!

Bad. Very bad.

If you do this, readers may hate your script, even though the writing is actually quite good, and even though they’re not fully aware why they hate it.

An Example of How This Can Happen

Alexander Payne is one of my favorite writer/directors.  In addition to other films he’s made, I very much enjoyed About Schmidt.

My parents, however, hated the movie.  

Since I found it so well written, I pressed them a bit as to what they disliked.  They had trouble articulating what they found so disagreeable.  They agreed that Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates did excellent jobs.  They just – didn’t like it.

Here’s the thing.  The film involved the main character retiring from his job.  My father had recently retired before seeing the movie.  He was very unhappy about being forced to retire, as was my mother.  

Watching a character retire on screen made my parents cringe from the moment the story opened.  For my parents, the whole premise stirred up negative emotions, and no amount of movie magic was going to rescucitate their bad feelings about this film.

As another example, I’ve noticed that tales about cheating spouses tend to risk stirring up very negative emotions in those that have been hurt in such a manner.  The same is true about films involving divorce, being fired, serious illness, death and pretty much anything else that reminds us of the dark side of life.

So What Does This Mean?

Does the possibility that some may react negatively to your emotional cues mean you shouldn’t attempt anything controversial?  No, it absolutely does not mean that.

It’s just something a screenwriter should be aware of.

When writing for a genre that typically requires a large budget and aims for widespread audience appeal, you should know that most producers will be wary of subject matter likely to evoke negative feelings. 

In dramas and other “indie” films, there is generally more freedom to experiment.  Still, there is always the risk in any genre that the arousal of negative feelings may impair the popularity of a story.

You may not care.  You may set out to write a sad movie for people who like sad movies.  That’s great.  

The point is to avoid accidentally inciting negative emotions.  If you don’t think that happens very often, my experiences in two large screenwriting groups argue otherwise.
Awareness is the key.  You’ve got to work to predict each emotion your script will arouse and ask yourself if you want it to do so.

In the context of soliciting feedback as well, it’s important to know that a particular individual’s negative emotions may be a factor.  If someone dislikes your work, it may not be that your writing is “bad” in any intellectual sense.  It may simply be stirring up “bad feelings.”  I don’t mean you should ignore such feedback.  You shouldn’t.  You should ask yourself, is my script likely to stir up such feelings in many others?  If so, is it my scripting strategy to purposefully stir up such feelings?  Do I want to do that knowingly?


When giving script notes, I try to be as objective as possible and not let my own emotions cloud my judgment.  But I do mention it if I think a fair number of readers may react with negative emotions.  In the end, it’s about a film’s effect on an entire audience and not any one viewer that matters.