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Where's the Magic in Your Screenwriting?

Oct 9, 2007
If you've ever been to a great magic show, you were probably astounded by the tricks the magician was able to pull off. Chances are that you may have figured out a few, but most surprised you and added to the enjoyment of the evening.

But to the professional, the actual trick is the least of what they are doing on stage.

What makes a magician great is their understanding of how to work with an audience. Their performance is designed to incite emotion, provoke curiosity, capitalize on normal assumptions, misdirect the senses, cause people to jump to incorrect conclusions, and finally, astound us with the new discovery in a way that has us love the magician. That performance is where the real magic is.

What if you did that with your screenplays?

Don't get me wrong, the normal "tricks of the trade" are extremely important. Just like magic, if you don't have the tricks, you don't have anything to base the performance around.

But the performance is what makes the magic special.


Okay, let me make sure this is clear. The same story with the same plot and same characters can be written in a way that is dull or emotional, cliche or magical. It is totally up to the writer.

Here's a few ways create some magic:

1. Be willing to cause wild shifts in people's emotions.

Not in your real life -- that is a way to get into serious trouble. But when it comes to your screenplays, you need to give yourself total permission cause people to go through all kinds of emotional experiences.

If this bothers you, ask yourself what you want out of a movie you pay to see. Isn't the "emotional journey" part of the experience that you demand from a movie? Sit down and watch your favorite movie and make a list of how many times they do something to generate some sort of emotion. You may be surprised.

Remember, if you aren't willing to cause people to have emotional experiences, chances are that those emotional experiences won't show up in your screenplays.

2. Look for opportunities to create an emotional experience.

Don't leave the emotional experience of your movie to chance. This is too important. In order to have an audience feel emotions, those emotions need to be set up and then played out. But in order to do that, you need to first know what kinds of emotions can be in your script.

Here are some possible emotional and mental states for your screenplay:

- curiosity
- anticipation
- suspense
- fear
- anger
- laughter
- sadness
- sorrow
- horror
- relief
- love
- loss
- betrayal
- desire
- and many more.

Second, keep in mind that writing the word "fear" in your screenplay is very different than designing a scene or act in a way that delivers the emotional experience of fear. Same with any other emotion. You need to deliver the experience, not just empty words.

3. Design your script as an "emotional roller coaster ride."

You may be thinking that step is redundant, but it takes the planning into reality. First, you give yourself permission to design change people's emotional states. Second, you are on a constant lookout for opportunities to deliver those emotional experiences. And third, you actually take full advantage of the emotional opportunities in your story.


Here's three of twenty ways to deliver a powerful emotional roller-coaster ride.

A. Add unexpected twists that make sense once they happen.

Twists are simply deviations in direction. Your scene is going toward a predictable outcome. Suddenly, the direction shifts and the audience finds itself with completely different emotional consequences.

Twists need to be set up properly and they need to make sense once they've happened. If either the setup or the logic is missing, the twist will seem contrived.

B. Alternate between certainty and uncertainty.

In the book "Stein on Writing," Sol Stein presents a method of creating an emotional roller-coaster. It comes down to two words: Hope/Fear.

You give the audience hope that the protagonist will achieve her goal. Then you put that goal in jeopardy and cause fear that she will lose that goal. You continue alternating that way until the goal is either won or lost.

Look at any good script and you'll see this used throughout the script.

HOPE: Jenny meets the "Man of her dreams."
FEAR: But he is in a relationship.
HOPE: Oh, that is just his sister he is hugging.
FEAR: Wait a minute, he kissed her. She's his wife.
HOPE: But she slapped him and threw the ring in his face.
FEAR: Maybe he still loves her.
HOPE: He calls Jenny for a date and explains that his wife is divorcing him.
FEAR: But he wants to take Jenny to the same restaurant, his wife's favorite.

I know it is a disturbing story, but notice how quickly Hope and Fear can be alternated. With just a little thought, you can quickly create the emotional ups and downs.

C. Mislead, then reveal.

Remember STAR WARS where Luke Skywalker was fighting Darth Vadar and finally gets the upper hand. Then, one line of dialogue reveals the truth that has been hidden all along.

"You can't kill me. I am your father."

Up until that point, everyone referred to Luke's father as a great hero. Luke was doing everything he could to become just like his father. No one had said that Darth Vadar was his father, but instead they'd led us to believe that Luke's father died in a heroic battle.

When done properly, a mislead/reveal will send audiences and readers into emotional spins.


Go through every page your current script and make a note of three things:

A. What emotion you are trying to deliver.
B. Places in your script that are void of emotion.
C. Places where the set up is there, but it doesn't pay off emotionally.

Do that on every page of your script and you may be very surprised at what opportunities you discover. It is a simple exercise, but it will clearly show you where you aren't delivering emotion and even more important, it will highlight in your mind what emotions you want a reader to be experiencing. That is a major step toward writing highly emotional stories.

Where's the magic? It's in the way you write your story. Deliver an emotional roller-coaster and you'll have producers, agents, and audiences loving the magic in your screenplays!
About the Author
Hal Croasmun is a writer/producer and the author of "33 Ways to Break into Hollywood." He publishes the ScriptForSale newsletter with articles about screenwriting and interviews with A-List screenwriters at http://www.ScriptForSale.com
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