Notes: Writing For Emotional Impact

As a screenwriter, it's often tempting to fantasize only about the screen and to forget that there's one great gatekeeper: the reader. The words on the page have to paint a picture in the readers mind that is engaging, emotional, and most of all interesting. If we fail to grab the reader's attention or if we lose it at any point, we've failed in the ultimate goal of making the reader care.

The central premise of Writing for Emotional Impact is probably best exemplified by Karl Iglesias' description of The Emotion Palette. "Just as the painter adds a particular touch of color to the canvas for emotional impact, the writer does the same with words. … Instead of words on your palette, you have emotions—the character’s emotions (anger, fear, joy, confusion) and the reader’s emotions (curiosity, anticipation, tension, surprise). You craft a scene by knowing what the character will feel in the scene and add these emotions to the palette. Then, knowing what emotional responses you want the reader to have, you figure out the techniques you’ll use. The key to building a fascinating scene is to jump around the palette for each beat."

Iglesias spends a good majority of the book attempting to break down character and reader emotions along with the associated techniques to evoke those emotions. The core concept is to harness these emotions in order to keep the audience interested because in Iglesias' view, that's the main goal of the screenwriter: to grab and maintain interest. If allowing boredom and indifference are the cardinal sins of storytelling, then maintaining interest is surely the golden rule. If you lose the reader, you've lost your story.


The Concept and the Strange Attractor

If we think of our screenplays/stories as needing to pass through a gauntlet of gatekeepers, we can assuredly say that the first gate is the story's concept. Iglesias points out, "nine times out of ten the concept is the deciding factor in requesting a read. … It's the single most common problem I've found with scripts. Concept is the core of the script." Terry Rossio agrees with Iglesias and says, "Very often the screenwriter has picked, from the start, a concept that even in its best form isn't the type of story that sells to Hollywood." The hard truth is that if you can't get someone interested in the concept, chances are low you'll ever get them interested in the content.

So this naturally gives rise to the question, "How do we create a great concept that will entice a reader?" Karl Iglesias says it requires a concept that is "uniquely familiar." Rossio calls it the "Strange Attractor". Both agree that the concept should involve something new, unusual, unique, and yet also universally human. Universal human experiences tend to be more primal, as Blake Snyder would say. Check out Maslow's Hierarchy of needs. As a general rule, the lower on the pyramid the experience can be found, the more primal it is. There are universal experiences that extend beyond health, safety, love, and social acceptance, but take caution if you find yourself needing to get too academic or abstract to explain the central human experience in your concept.

The other half of a uniquely familiar experience, of course, is the "unique." With the thought that a concept must have a "strange attractor" that intrigues and excites those that hear it, what is it about a "strange attractor" that gives it an element of strange? One answer is that a strange attractor provides a unique juxtaposition. The strangeness is found in an intriguing gap between expectation and reality, or in a contrast between two things that seemingly shouldn't go together.

The basic concept of Jurassic Park is, "What if a group of visitors were threatened by live dinosaurs in a modern theme park?" When we think of dinosaurs, some of the first thoughts that come to mind are "dead", "old", "ancient", "historical." We think of free-roaming beasts from an era long gone. Jurassic Park subverts this expectation by essentially enticing us with the idea that not only would dinosaurs be alive, but they'd be exhibited in all of the spectacle of a modern day theme park.

Breaking Bad asks the question, "What if a high school chemistry teacher cooked meth for money to provide for his family after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer?" When we think of high school chemistry teachers, we don't usually jump to drug kingpins. The juxtaposition between a high-school chemistry teacher and a meth cook is a great subversion of our expectations and it provides a uniquely strange attractor in its concept.

Another important element of a good concept is that it must promise conflict. Many times conflict is promised in the juxtaposition of the strange attractor, but the conflict can be promised more explicitly. Consider the crisis and peril promised in Apollo 13 with a crew running out of oxygen, stuck in space, and without enough energy to get home. Or consider the concept behind Speed, "What if a city bus rigged with a bomb must stay above 50mph or risk detonation?" The conflict doesn't have to be life-threatening, of course. Interpersonal (or intrapersonal) conflict can be just as wrenching. The important thing is that there must be a piece of the concept that intrigues us with conflict.

Here are a list of some possible strange attractors: Crisis and peril (Apollo 13, Europa); Intriguing or twisted villainous fantasies (Black Mass, The Godfather), Exploration of unknown worlds and lands (Europa, Avatar); Juxtaposition, irony, contrast (Jurassic Park, Breaking Bad); Unpredictable, conflict-ridden dilemmas (Sophie's Choice).

John Truby and Karl Iglesias both agree that what's even more important than writing what you know is writing what excites you. As Truby says, write something that will change your life. The concept is the start of a potentially life-changing process so take your time and ensure that the concept itself is unique, strangely attractive, universally human, promises conflict, and will continue to excite you even through the inevitable dark night of the soul found in most every writing project.


Concept Exercises

Identifying Strange Attractors

Make a list of the movies and stories that you enjoy. Write out their concepts and try to identify what about the concept makes it strangely attractive through juxtaposition, promises of awe and wonder, or promises of conflict. Being able to identify the strange attractor in other concepts will help you identify the uniqueness in yours.

Market Testing

At the end of the day, there's no better way to know if you're onto something with a concept than to test it. Carson Reeves of Scriptshadow Secrets suggests taking your concept or logline and mixing it up with nine others. These other concepts "can be recently sold specs, dummy loglines, friends’ loglines. But make sure they’re all solid story ideas." Then go out and ask your friends or even strangers, without identifying which concept is yours, to rank the list from best to worst. You'll want to ask a lot of people to rule out outliers but if you find that your concept is consistently ranking among the top tier or among the bottom, you know where it stands as is.


The Dramatic Question

If a concept properly implies conflict, it also implies a dramatic question--namely, how will the conflict be resolved? Over every story, there hangs a central story question--"one central dramatic question that takes the whole script to answer." Iglesias notes, "In fact, what makes a compelling plot is the kind of questions a reader will follow a story to the end to get answers for."

First of all, it's important to understand the importance of a "dramatic question." It's the central "story engine" in that it provides fuel to the narrative to keep the audience interested. And it's actually simpler than the fancy name may imply. A dramatic question is raised when there's an intentionally withheld piece of information that the reader wants to know. That last bit is important. The audience has to actually want to know the answer. In order to create a dramatic question that will serve to drive the narrative, it's not enough to simply leave out information.


The Components of a Dramatic Question

It's not enough just to raise a mystery. Thinking otherwise is an easy trap to fall into. We might think, "Let's just hide something from the audience and they'll want to know the answer." But that's not necessarily enough because even in those cases where the mere absence of information can pique our interest in the moment, that fact alone may not be enough to sustain the reader's engagement throughout the course of the story. And remember, if we lose the reader's interest, we lose the story.

The reason that lack of information alone is often insufficient has to do with empathy and the fact that the reader must actually care about the effects on the characters of the story.

First of all, what kind of information may be missing in order to form a dramatic question? Missing information can regard:

  • Outcome ("Will it happen?" / "Will the opponent overcome the protagonist?")

  • Many dramatic questions at the global story level stem from a question of whether the protagonist's desire will be met. "Will the hero reach their goal?"

  • Process / How ("How will this man be kill?")

  • Like in American Beauty, we might know that someone will die but now we're curious about how.

  • Identity / Who / What ("Who is behind this?" / "What is Rosebud?")

  • Location / Where ("Where is the opponent hiding on the ship?")

  • Time / When ("When did the murder occur?")

  • Motive / Why ("Why was he murdered?")

So what do we need to create a driving dramatic question that keeps the audience invested from the moment the question is raised to the moment an answer is given? Clarity, Concern, Uncertainty, and Urgency.



This one's quite obvious, but for the dramatic question to actually generate interest, the reader must understand what the dramatic question actually is. In other words, the reader must understand which piece of information is missing. Are we supposed to be wondering about outcome, identity, location, time, motive, or something else? Too many pieces of missing information creates a murky, ambiguous dramatic question (which is not optimal for creating narrative drive). Lack of clarity results in a lack of suspense and a lack of curiosity because the reader isn't even sure what they're supposed to be wondering. Clarity is fairly easy to get right, but detrimental when it's missing.

Since most dramatic questions are a question of whether something will or won't occur, most clarity is achieved from a clarity of the protagonist's desire.

Another piece of a clear dramatic question is that the situation surrounding the question is contextually believable. In other words: Does it ring true? Does it make sense? Is it sincere? Lack of believability results in frustration, annoyance, and a feeling of betrayal. For instance, our dramatic question might be "Will the family escape the haunted hotel with blood pouring out of the walls?" Well, our natural response might be, "Why don't they just leave?" There must be a valid, believable reason.



This element of a dramatic question is the main reason why it's not sufficient to merely withhold information. In order for a reader to be truly invested in finding out the answer to a dramatic question, the reader must care what happens to the characters involved in the question. And what makes a reader concerned about characters? Empathy.



A short working definition of empathy is the ability to put yourself in the mind of another or the ability to identify with the feelings or circumstances of another. And in order for a reader to care about a character, the reader must develop empathy for the character.

Iglesias provides four categories of protagonists, where each protagonist evokes a different type of empathy from the reader.


  • The hero protagonist produces admiration. The hero gives the reader something to look up to and fantasize about. This admiration and fantasizing is a form of empathy.

Average Joe

  • The protagonist is essentially equal to the reader which results in sympathy from the reader due to identifying with similar circumstances, desires, and needs.


  • The protagonist is inferior to the reader, resulting in compassion after witnessing a lack of abilities, resources, or luck. The reader fundamentally questions whether someone so unfortunate can beat the odds and succeed.

Lost Soul

  • The protagonist is the opposite of the reader. This is the "anti-hero." This protagonist evokes fascination in the reader due to an inability to predict the anti-hero's acts and a "guilty admiration" of a dark side.


Karl Iglesias goes on to list three different ways that we connect with characters:

  • Recognition (Understanding and empathy).

    • We're drawn to those who are like us.

  • Fascination (Interest).

    • We're drawn to fascinating, awe-inspiring people (which is why anti-heroes draw us in).

  • Mystery (Curiosity, anticipation, and tension).

    • We're drawn to people with secrets and mystery (although this can't sustain us in and of itself).

Once empathy has been established (and continually re-iterated), the suspense and curiosity in a dramatic question becomes far more gripping and engaging because the reader actually cares about the characters involved in the outcome.



We can care about characters but if there are no real consequences to a negative outcome then we have no real reason to care what the answer to the dramatic question is. Iglesias defines stakes as "the consequences of a character reaching, or failing to reach, his objective." He continues to say "Most scripts are rejected because the stakes are not compelling enough."


Stakes Are Relative

Stakes are an interesting subject because they're all relative. Let's say our protagonist is sitting around a campfire and wants the last s'more. The dramatic question: Will he get the s'more? We might be thinking, "Well what's at stake here? The loss of a s'more. That's not the end of the world." But, how much does a character want the s'more? Because it may not be the mere loss of a s'more that's on the line here. Perhaps the loss of this very s'more would trigger a psychological collapse, ending in a spiritual and moral death. Perhaps this is the most important thing the character has in his life right now--it's a representation of everything he's struggled for throughout his failing career. All of a sudden the s'more is not just a dessert, it's a symbol of self-worth and dignity. Now that's a lot at stake.

This example helps to demonstrate why it's often so important to clearly establish the stakes. Sometimes things are not what they seem.


Stakes Are Personal and Emotional

You'll often hear something along the lines of, "the bigger the stakes, the better." But perhaps a more accurate piece of advice is, "the more personal the stakes, the better." What are the biggest stakes in our world as we know it? The future of the world! The protagonist must save the world; the future of humanity is in her hands! But what's the real reason that the future of the world matters here? It matters because the hero's grandmother is at stake. It matters because the hero's love interest is at stake. More heart-wrench is felt when the hero's dad dies in a collision than when a stranger is hit by a bus--it's just part of our psychology. Stakes must ultimately be personal. From there, the bigger and closer the some sort of death (whether physically, metaphorically, spiritually, etc.), the better.

It's important to clearly establish stakes. The more that's at stake in the dramatic question, the more we care about the answer. If there's nothing to lose, the outcome doesn't matter.



Suspense vs. Curiosity

We mentioned that the missing piece of information in the dramatic question can consist of outcome, identity, location, time, and motive. If outcome is the missing element in the dramatic question, we feel suspense. We wonder, "Will it happen or won't it?" If, on the other hand, the missing piece of information in the dramatic question is identity, location, time, or motive, then we feel curiosity (not suspense).

Even if the dramatic question is something like "Where is the opponent hiding on the ship?", we don't actually feel suspense from the act that we don't know the answer to that question--though we may be curious about it. We do, however, feel suspense in the thought, "I don't know where he is. What if he pops out and kills the protagonist? Will that happen?"

Karl Iglesias explains, "Curiosity is our desire to find the goal, while suspense (and tension) can only exist if we know the goal. Once you know the goal, curiosity disappears and suspense takes over."


Suspense vs. Tension

The terms suspense and tension are often used interchangeably but Iglesias provides simple, useful definitions for both. Suspense is raised when there is uncertainty of outcome. Tension is increased when anticipation of an outcome is prolonged. It's easy to see why the terms are often mistaken or interchanged.

The dramatic question, then, is fundamentally about suspense. There's an unknown outcome that is missing, resulting in suspense. But suspense cannot be established if the answer is predictable or expected. This is why "uncertainty" is a critical element of a good dramatic question. There have to be real doubts in the reader's mind about the outcome of the scenario. The question must be non-trivial. The task at hand (in most cases the protagonist's desire) cannot be easily accomplished.

A corollary to the element of uncertainty is that there must be an element of danger (i.e. the possibility of suffering harm, injury, or loss, whether physically, spiritually, professionally, socially, romantically, etc.) In essence, there must be some element of mortality or death. As a general, the more likely the danger/threat is to occur, the more tension we feel and the more uncertainty we have.



Where uncertainty is all about suspense, urgency is all about tension. Urgency is the core of your story engine--it's the fuel that provides the narrative drive. Urgency is the reason why the dramatic question must be answered now rather than later.

Karl Iglesias points out a William Goldman quote, “Make ’em laugh. Make ’em cry. But most of all, make ’em wait.” Making them wait doesn't matter, though, unless the reader knows that time is not on the character's side. If there is pressing, urgent danger and uncertainty of outcome in a situation where the reader's favorite character has their entire future at stake, then waiting is magnificent from a storyteller's perspective. Waiting builds tension. Anticipation builds to a boiling point. But the danger must be urgent. There must be a reason why the danger must be dealt with now rather than later. There must be a reason why the outcome of the dramatic question must be resolved now rather than later. This is where advice about ticking time bombs usually comes in.

The reason for urgency becomes quite clear when we think about our own lives. Most likely, you will die (hey, we've still got science on our side). But in most cases, your death is sufficiently far in the future so as to not really affect what you choose to do today. And that's the same with our characters. If danger exists but can be brushed aside or is sufficiently far in the future, then the reader doesn't need an answer to the question at this very moment--they can wait with no pressing anticipation. This results in lack of tension, lack of anticipation, and no narrative drive.

The longer the dramatic question is left unanswered and uncertain, and assuming the reader is actively anticipating the answer sooner rather than later (as determined by clarity, concern, and urgency), the more tension will build, which should result in a bigger payoff at the moment of the dramatic answer (assuming the answer itself is unexpectedly satisfying). Urgency provides the narrative drive for the character to face the danger implicit in the dramatic question.

Without referencing the concept of John Yorke's fractal theory or the idea of stories within stories, Iglesias suggests that a dramatic question should be established for every level of story (the global story, act, sequence, scene, and even beat). This is advice that can't be overstated. Raising a central dramatic question at the start of a story isn't enough to last for 90 minutes. We, as readers, live in the here and now. This very moment must feel suspenseful. Little dramatic questions must be raised along the way in order to keep the reader hooked. And they all require the components of a good dramatic question.


Cause and Effect

Iglesias rightfully points out that events linked by cause and effect "gives us emotional satisfaction and interest. Thus, a clear plot where we understand how each event causes the next will hold more interest than one whose events are episodic and random." Our brains are wired to find patterns and overlay narrative onto otherwise disparate events.



Peripeteia is a sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances. Karl Iglesias explores this idea briefly by discussing the balance between frustration and reward. He offers as an example those cliché horror film moments when the heroine is trying to escape the monster (reward) but he's getting closer (frustration). She finally gets to her car (reward) but can't find her keys (frustration). She finally finds the keys (reward) but drops them in all of her haste (frustration), etc. The idea, of course, is a sort of zig-zag between fortune and misfortune. A key insight is that this zig-zagging should be done at every fractal of story, not just on the beat level.



The concept of story promises is mentioned briefly. "Any time a character refers to a future event, we anticipate it, as it takes us forward to that event." A story promise is merely an implicit (and sometimes explicit) expectation that a certain event will occur at a future time or that a story element will come to be significant. According to Steven James, "Promise-making is the process of openly telling your readers what's coming or indicating clearly, by the context, what's going to be significant in the story that follows." An explicit promise is provided by Renault in Casablanca when he says, "Rick, there is going to be some excitement here tonight, we are going to make an arrest in your café." An expectation has been created and even a dramatic question: "What's going to happen with the arrest?"



Iglesias asserts that conflict comes from "the intention of a character (goal, need, want) meeting some form of resistance (obstacle)." He suggests that it's helpful to think of conflict as a triangle of goal, obstacle, and unwillingness to compromise. Iglesias also notes that you should try to avoid repeating the same type of conflict in your story. One reason for this is habituation. If a character kills every person he meets, there is little suspense and conflict in what he may do next.


The Emotion Palette

The concept behind Writing for Emotional Impact is that the writer/storyteller can proactively and intentionally direct and control emotions in the reader. Iglesias rightfully spends a good portion of the book exploring the various techniques that can be used to evoke particular emotions in the reader.


Character Emotions

Character emotions are easy enough to evoke in theory. Simply put characters in situations where the desired emotion would be contextually believable. This does require a bit of psychology study, however. You've really got to understand how and under what circumstances emotions naturally rise up.


Reader/Audience Emotions

Many reader emotions can be evoked from the structural setup and payoff inherent in a good dramatic question. Iglesias summarizes the basic emotions present in the question/answer format as follows: Curiosity ("What will happen?"), Suspense ("Will it happen or not?"), Tension ("When will it happen?"), and Hope / Worry ("Looking Forward to it happening / Not looking forward to it happening.").



Subtext is dialogue has been likened to an iceberg where the majority of the mass is hidden beneath the surface. Iglesias points out that subtext has been described as “the river of emotion that flows beneath the words.” It’s the real intention behind dialogue. So why is most dialogue subtextual? Why don’t humans just say what they mean?

Iglesias astutely notes that humans use subtext in those situations where emotional stakes are high. And because of our tribal roots where social acceptance was quite literally a life or death prospect, we perceive emotional stakes to be high most all of the time (even in situations where the effects of being social unaccepted are minimal). Consequently, we often try to sugarcoat our mask our dialogue and send out “bids” to test the waters. We can’t just say, “I think I love you.” It’s a much safer option to say, “I like your sweater.” We use subtext because we’re afraid of emotional pain and rejection.

Our dialogue patterns and our level of directness can vary, of course, depending on who’s in the conversation. Often we each wear an emotional mask depending on who we’re talking to. We might also be more or less comfortable expressing our true intentions or feelings. It’s all contextual.

Sometimes actions and words are in stark contrast. Actions and body language are always the winner when incongruent with words. This is the root of those scenarios where one party is upset and refuses to truthfully answer, “What’s wrong?” “Nothing.”

Subtext is a more accurate model of dialogue than “on-the-nose” writing where all character intention is directly made known. Not all characters need to use subtext, however, because not all characters care about emotional stakes (and not all scenarios contain emotional stakes). John Wayne’s characters, for instance, rarely use subtext.


Writing Exercise: The Two-Column Trick

Writing for Emotional Impact provides a "two-column trick" writing exercise used to ensure that you can properly demonstrate each character trait through the story. Iglesias explains, "On a sheet of paper, they draw two columns. One column is labeled “What I know about my character,” where they list all the character’s main traits. The second column is “How I’ll show it in a scene,” where they dramatize these traits. This is where the creative process takes over, as the writers come up with original character showcases." He notes, "Actions are the most common way writers show character, but it’s not the only one."

Writing For Emotional Impact turns out to be more of a reference book and a valuable supplemental tool to keep on your desk rather than a comprehensive theoretical manual. Throughout much of the book, Iglesias does provide the puzzle pieces to create a cohesive, theoretical framework, but often he fails to put those pieces together in a satisfying way. Definitely have a copy on your bookshelf but it's not necessarily a great starting framework for new storytellers.