What Is Emotion And Why Is It So Important To Your Screenwriting?

I’ve previously talked about emotionally engaging your reader, or giving your audience an emotional response to improve your screenplays, but how do you define emotion? That’s a bit like trying to define love and create it in a test tube. But here goes anyway.

Emotions can be broadly defined as a mental and physiological changes in response to an external stimuli evoking feelings, behaviours and thoughts. Hopefully the stimulus is your screenplay. Punch up every scene with emotion. Take your audience through a rollercoaster ride. Make them feel many emotions in a scene, one after the other. Make them laugh. Make ’em cry, and not by peeling onions. The only thing that should be flat is your stomach.

The five basic human emotions are happiness, sadness, love, anger and fear. Two are positive and two are negative. Anger is an interesting response, because it relates to “fight or flight” situations, where we must act to protect ourselves and sits somewhere in the middle It is associated with the release of adrenalin. Our hearts beat faster, we sweat, our concentration improves, we become alert and lose some our ability to feel pain. Some psychologists believe all are emotions lie along a spectrum polarized by fear on one end and happiness on the other. Everything else is a subcategory of these two key emotions.

Psychologists have characterized emotional response in terms of basic human needs. If these needs are unbalanced or unmet, then a negative response occurs. If they are met.. well we’ve all been in love and floated on clouds. If we experience them in abundance (manic behaviour), then we have psychological problems. Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs.


These are listed from the basic to more evolved. Typically they are structured as a pyramid.

  • Physiological – breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostatis, excretion. These are unconscious actions designed to keep us alive.
  • Safety – security, body, employment, resources, morality, family, health, property, shelter. These are conscicous actions designed to protect us.
  • Love/ Belonging – friendship, family, sexual intimacy. These are sociological actions designed to boost relationships. We are social animals.
  • Esteem – self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others. These are outgrowths of ego designed to allow us to function in a community.
  • Self- Actualization – morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts. These are egocentric behaviors allowing us to function as individuals.

Karl Iglesias has defined emotions in stories as being voyeuristic (allowing audience to experience a character) and sympathize with them), vicarious (allowing audience to empathize with a character and identify with them, and visceral (primal emotions such as anticipation, relief, dread, suspense).

A good story is built on a character wanting something and something or someone opposes their efforts. In its rudimentary form, this is called conflict which creates drama in a script.

In terms of stories, Karl Iglesias has reduced scripts to requiring four emotional elements. Audience love stories to satisfy the following needs:

  • to obtain new information
  • to bond/ socialize
  • to understand and resolve conflicts
  • to get completion/ closure
  • to be entertained

So there you have it. Add some resonance to your scripts and give them some impact.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. ChuckG says:

    Awesome stuff here!

    1. JG Sarantinos says:


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