How to Tell a Story Through Emotions


What is the one thing that connects all people who have ever lived? Emotions. No matter where you are from, you deal with the same emotions as every other human being that has ever lived.

It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, black or white, religious or agnostic, a king or a country peasant you still go through the same emotional journey over the course of your lifetime.  We all know what it is like to hope for something and your dreams come true.  And just as importantly, we all know what it is like to hope for something that never comes.  If you are over the age of 21, your probably know what it is like to have been cheated on by someone that you loved and trusted.  If you are over the age of 31, you probably know what it is like to be on the opposite end of the relationship, being the one that cheated.  If not physically, you at least fantasized about it which made you feel some sort of guilt.  Who hasn’t been jealous at some point?  And who among us hasn’t left someone that we loved (friend, family, or group) hoping that by leaving, the loved one would some how be emotionally hurt.  So hurt, that they would beg us to come back.   Have you ever met someone that made you so happy, all the bad parts of life became irrelevant?   These things make us human.  And as writers, we can use these experiences to write stories that attach themselves to each person in the audience soul for the rest of their life.

Unless you live under a rock, you recognize the cover photo above from the movie, Dreamgirls.  It is my favorite musical.  The story is about a trio of singers, trying to make it big the music business.

Not very many people can say that they have had the experience being in a famous singing group.  However, the show was a huge hit in the 1980’s and an even bigger hit when it was released as a film over 20 years later.  What makes this script so important to people isn’t the synopsis.  There have been lots of scripts about someone trying to make it in the music business.  And even though most people of a certain age would tell that the story is secretly about Diana Ross and the Supremes,  that isn’t the reason why people still flock to the theater whenever the show is being produced.  What audience can’t get enough of is the level of mature emotions that the characters go through.  Each scene is loaded with emotions that everyone can empathize with. Here is the first few scenes of Dreamgirls, told just through the emotions:

  • A group of friends lose a talent contest.  Since this is one of many loses for them, they are ready to stop kidding themselves and go get regular jobs that actually pay them. (Emotion:  Feeling Defeated)
  • They are given a chance of a lifetime to sing backup to a famous singer that travels all over the country. (Emotion:  Hope, Joy, Dreams are coming true.)
  • A young, inexperienced girl falls for an older man that says all the right things to get in her pants and steal her heart. (Emotion: Hope. Joy. Lust. Meeting the person of your dreams.)
  • A singer has his song stolen because it wasn’t copy written. (Emotion: Anger. Hurt. Taken advantage of. Feels like a sucker.)

I can go on, but hopefully, you get the point.  If you begin your next scene with question, “What emotion will I show in this scene?” you will have a story that has some meat on its bones.  A story that can stick to an audience’s ribs.  So today, when you write a scene, what emotion will you connect us with?  Can you do it within 4 to 12 lines?  Can you do it through a song?  Whatever you do, be sure to show us an emotion.  The further the story goes along, the more complex the emotion can get.  For example, by the end of Dreamgirls, the emotions that the characters go through are so complex, you can no longer describe them with one or two words.  Case in point, by the end of the story, the Deana Jones character deals with the emotions of having the man of her dreams, being lied to by him, being used by him to hurt someone else, finally being free of a controlling man, being able to be someone that she has now grown into being, and being happy to have an old friend back in her life after a decade of not talking.  And these are the emotions that one character feels in one scene!  That takes some building up.  I don’t think you can begin a story with that much emotion, but as the story goes on, that should be our goal:  Give our audience an emotional climax so great that they burst into tears of joy.  They should recognize the emotional journey the characters have gone through and grown from.  Good luck with your scene today!

*The photo from the Dreamgirls Film above belongs to Paramount Pictures, DreamGirls Pictures, and Lawrence Marks Production Company.

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