In my last post I wrote about how one of the most common script notes given to writers is that their main character isn’t engaging or believable, and how using approaches from personality psychology (which I call “Deep Characterisation”) can help solve this problem for you. Once you’ve created your character, working out their emotional journey in your narrative is also hugely important in order to engage your audience. It’s likely that you’re already using the six basic universal emotions (as found by psychologist Paul Ekman) in your screenplays – anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise. But it’s less likely that you’re aware of the full potential of the emotion awe, and the powerful impact it can have on your audience.
Think back to the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the opening scene of Blade Runner or its sequel, the final chase in Last of the Mohicans, or this exhilarating sequence from Into the Wild and you’ll be reminded why awe is defined as “a reverential respect mixed with awe and wonder”. Awe has this power because it forces us to step back from our everyday lives and contemplate its greater meaning – or indeed whether there is any. So whilst joy, sadness, anger and disgust all have the power to consume our feelings, awe transcends these personal experiences and reminds us of life’s biggest questions. What are we doing here? What can we do better? Is there a meaning to life? If those are the kinds of ideas that interest you as a writer or filmmaker, then awe is an emotion that you’ll need to understand.
It’s also an emotion that is perfectly aligned to the cinematic experience. Not only is awe induced in viewers by watching scenes that depict the vastness, or power of the natural – or unnatural – world, certain musical tracks also invoke these profound feelings. When films combine these awe-inducing elements in the context of powerful character journey, it’s hardly surprising that we walk away from some films feeling “blown away”.
Awe is an emotion that psychologists describe as being a “mixed affect”. On the one hand it fills us with positive feelings of wonder and elation about the sheer magnificence of this universe. But at the same time, awe also reminds us of our own imperfections – as well as those of the human race. It’s probably for just these reasons that we often seek out cinematic experiences in all their forms.
Awe is also one of the very few emotions that inspires action. So if you want your films to have real impact, or even just get audiences talking, here’s another reason why you may want to consider taking your main character out into the natural world, or place them in scenes with vast landscapes. Powerful oratory can also inspire similar experiences. If you’ve seen any of the UN’s VR films created over the last few years, you’ll know that awe is an essential component of their call to action. It’s also highly successful.
I’ll be talking more about awe and plotting your character’s emotional journey in my Deep Characterisation workshop on 30th June. Come along – I’d love to see you there!