Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Emotion Delivery Engineer: Part One

The more I read, the more I watch, the more I write, the more I understand that storytelling, in any genre, is about the delivery of emotions. When you pick up a book or go to a movie, see a play, listen to your grandma, you are doing so with the expectation of feeling something. You want an emotional ride.

You ask the storyteller to throw you into misery to make you laugh, into confusion help you make sense, into terror to let you feel relief, into the lives of the alienated so that you might feel connected. If these expectations aren't fulfilled you feel unsatisfied. Comedy's gotta make you laugh and horror's gotta make you feel scared or you feel cheated.

For writers and performers it can make for difficult times especially when you decide to bend or blend genres, or shift tone within a piece.

The first time I remember this happening to me was while I was a teenager watching Jimmy Stewart in No Time for Comedy on some CBC afternoon movie or something. The first half of the movie played like a Frank Kapra comedy, fun and quirky... then at the halfway point of the movie, it became a drama. And it kinda makes sense the screenwriter was one of the writers on Casablanca... and Arsenic and Old Lace. Two great films... one weird mash up.

The experience was interesting... but I wouldn't call it enjoyable.

I find I'm learning a lot about craft by looking at the reasons I look forward to or enjoy particular books or movies. Why do I keep going back to the same writers, the same directors, the same books, the same movies again and again.

I suggest we're looking for the creation or repetition of a feeling... a satisfying emotional experience. I think this is why certain authors and filmmakers become brands. You know what you're going to get if you pick up a Charles Dickens, Margaret Atwood, Bernard Cornwell, Nick Hornby; see a film by Kapra, Kurasawa or the Coen brothers; just as sure as you know what you're going to get if you watch The Simpsons, Deadwood, Frasier, or Felicity (okay, I don't know about Felicity but I bet the people that liked it... liked it.)

I'm saying there's something more than style. There's a feeling you want to have when you experience a story that has nothing to do with special effects or movie stars but has to do with fulfilling the emotional need of the audience.

The writer's job is, through story, to deliver it.


Hamish MacDonald said...

I keep thinking back to your description of Tolstoy's ideal for stories: "Not plot and characters -- transitions!" I'm still wondering if I got it. Or is that "transitions" not in terms of, well, set changes, but changes, transformations? Because that I think it always compelling in a story: a sense of progress, of the bit we've been shown mattering.

I think that's the ultimate payoff for the audience. But is it pandering to them to always give it?

Dave said...

I was thinking the same thing Hamish. I'm not sure if our translation of "Transitions" means the same as Tolstoy intended but...
At first when I heard Stephen Gaghan quoting it he seemed to me to mean in a cinematic way. Transitions as "juxapositions". The image, idea, feeling being carried from one scene into another.

Another way I've been thinking about Transitions is that Tolstoy is speaking about structure, and "changes in fortune" or "how things change".

I think these are both speaking of craft and the way an story-teller can provide an emotional journey for the viewer/reader.

Where pandering comes into it, I think, is in the actions of "the hack". A story-teller who exploits transitions and reversals, etc. for the sake of easy, clich├ęd, hackneyed, emotional journeys.

These are sometimes called summer blockbusters, and beach-books.