The emotional core of a story is the foundation on which a compelling storyline is built. This is connected to the plot, theme, and characters in many ways, but it stands alone as being one of the most powerful aspects of your story if done right.
Audiences may enjoy the ride in any action film, but if you’re looking for something that makes them care about the outcome besides simple survival, this is it.
Let’s look at some strategies and examples to make the emotional core of your movie or TV series have maximum impact.
Are Theme And Emotional Heart Connected?
Yes and no.
While theme many times contains a truth so deep it’s universal and we can understand its impact on the story, it is not necessarily the emotional core of the story.
Arrival is about many things. The author, Ted Chiang, wrote The Story of Your Life when he studied linguistics and ran across a theory that stated that learning a new language changes the way you think. It was also based in the idea that Kurt Vonnegut said he could remember the future because he knew how much of the future of his friends and family turned out.
The linguistic basis extrapolates that once the aliens teach Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) character their language, she will be able to see the future and prevent a world war because the aliens experience life all at once (called teleology) not sequentially. Thematically, this is about free will vs fate. If you know the future can you change it?
But, as compelling intellectually as all that is, it’s Louise Banks’ terrible knowledge of her daughter’s death that shatters our hearts. Knowing the future cuts both ways. Yes, it gives you tremendous power and insight, but also yes, you then live daily with this terrible knowledge.
Louise knows her baby, who isn’t even conceived yet at the time the aliens arrive, will only live to be so many years old before dying in an accident.
This is the ending of the script (undated draft):
EXT. LAKE HOUSE BALCONY – NIGHT
Louise steps onto the balcony to see the sunset.
Ian joins her. Takes her hand.
In some ways this choice saves the
world, but I’m not thinking about
that, Hannah. I never am.
Ian smiles down at her.
She smiles up at him.
This is the same scene as the first. Shot for shot.
Every flashback we’ve seen hasn’t been from her past.
They’ve been from her future.
The new element: Now we get to see it’s Ian on the deck with
her. His thumb traces her knuckles.
Louise… Do you… want to make a baby?
Beat. The twinkle in her eye, the thoughtful moment…
It all breathes here.
I’m just thinking about you.
And now we stay here a moment longer than the opening scene,
and see that while Louise is smiling, a tear slips down her
cheek. She is both the happiest and the saddest right now.
Because she knows what happens next.
I gotta say that if I knew my child would die young without getting a chance to experience a full life, I’d cry every day I saw her beautiful face, but would I then not want to have her in my life at all?
That’s the emotional core of Arrival.
Once Louise says, “Yes,” we are as trapped as she is with the terrible knowledge that her daughter will give her many years of joy, but also years of pain and sadness.
An Impossible Task
In the always compelling British series MI-5 (also called “Spooks”) a character, Danny Hunter (David Oyelowo), is asked to do something we assume is de rigueur for spies – assassination. He is a hard-as-titanium, well-accomplished, top agent. He’s been on dozens of missions and has had to kill people when threatened. But, as he points out, he’s never had to cold-bloodedly murder anyone, and on this mission in Season 3, he’s tasked with that after it’s discovered that a scientist has already made a deal for a deadly bio-agent with the bad guys.
Danny is given no choice. His superior, Adam (Rupert Penry-Jones), tells him how he’ll feel afterwards but even before, Danny is tormented by the task.
Here’s the exchange between Danny and Adam. Without the script, I’ll have to paraphrase Adam’s dialogue.
You’ll feel it the next day. First, you’ll get weak in the knees
and just collapse. Then, you’ll puke and cry.
After that, once you can get up if you can look at yourself
in the mirror you’ll probably be okay.
Danny listens. After the assassination, once home again, he goes into the bathroom and does exactly what Adam stated; and then he looks himself in the eyes. There’s a haunted, wounded man staring back at him, but we know he’ll be okay. Sort of.
The assumption regarding spies is that if you can justify the actions you do – the lying, the betrayal, even the self-defensive murders, you’ll figure out a way to deal with it because you’re justified. This episode of MI-5 puts us straight.
More than that, the pressure Danny’s superiors had to put on him was unbelievable. It was wholly uncomfortable and at times painful. It felt like Danny was caught in a trap and had no choices. They kept battering him with his responsibilities, his duty, that he would be saving millions by murdering this one rogue scientist who was about to commit crimes against humanity.
The episode shakes you, makes you think about the emotions Danny was feeling, and Adam who had also had to do the same thing in the past, but also drives home what was unique about MI-5 – the cost of being an agent from an emotional standpoint.
James Bond was MI-6 which is similar but somewhat different missions; however I never felt the depth of emotion as I did in MI-5 watching Bond shoots baddies.
There’s a very powerful and enduring resonance in this show and especially this episode. The emotional core of the story and the effect it had on Danny, makes this episode as memorable as anything I’ve ever seen.
The writers of MI-5 always looked below the surface of what we know about spies and tried to show us the human toll on both the agents, their lives, and their friends.
This is key to anything you write in order to get maximum responses from your audience.
Classic literature always worked below the surface. Shakespeare detailed the cost of being a king, queen, prince, or commoner. Romeo and Juliet tears your heart out as both characters sacrifice themselves to their deeply-felt love for each other. While we might not totally relate to being unable to live without someone to such an extent that you choose not to live at all, we resonate with the feelings; we understand how powerful the loss is because of the magnificent job Shakespeare does in showing us the deep connections these lovers share.
Film has gone deeply into passion and betrayal. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Chloe, Match Point etc. Because there is strong emotional resonance to the storyline the ending betrayals have maximum impact.
Casablanca has an ending with two emotional cores – which is really the same one: love, both romantic and friendship. Overarching all are themes of regret, loss, sacrifice and duty.
In the ending scene at the airport, the entire emotional context of the movie is masterfully illuminated:
You’re saying this only to make me go.
I’m saying it because it’s true.
Inside of us we both know you
belong with Victor. If that plane leaves
the ground and you’re not with
him, you’ll regret it.
But what about us?
We’ll always have Paris.
~~ cut ~~
Well I was right. You are a sentimentalist.
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
What you just did for Laszlo, and
that fairy tale that you invented to
send Ilsa away with him. I know a
little about women, my friend. She
went, but she knew you were lying.
~~ cut ~
(Renault) stands beside Rick. They both watch the plane take off until it disappears into the clouds.
Louis, I think this is the beginning
of a beautiful friendship.
The two walk off together into the night.
Incredible ending that summarizes and wraps everything up in a neat bow using the true nature of the characters.
Which brings us to another key element in emotional core.
The interior of characters is what we’re talking about when we work with emotional core. What really drives them?
The odd thing about an emotional core is that many times you find it stronger in villains. We can even understand and relate to most of what drives the emotional core of most villains.
The Joker: An outcast, shunned, bullied, made fun of – he can’t find a place in the world because the world continues to reject him.
Here’s a passage from the script that tells you exactly what the emotional core of the movie is about. It’s longish but really illuminating.
Have you seen what it’s like out
there, Murray? Do you ever actually
leave this studio? Everybody just
yells and screams at each other.
Nobody’s civil anymore. Nobody
thinks what it’s like to be the
other guy. You think men like
Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s
like to be a guy like me? To be
anybody but themselves.
(shaking his head, voice rising)
They don’t. They think we’ll all
just sit there and take it like good little boys.
That we won’t go wild. Well, this is for all of
you out there.
Joker “howls at the moon.” It’s fucking weird.
~~ cut ~~
How about another joke, Murray?
No, I think we’ve had enough
of your jokes—
What do you get when you
cross a mentally-ill loner
with a system that abandons
him and treats him like trash?
(pulling the gun)
I’ll tell you what you get. You get
what you f***ing deserve, –
He shoots Murray in the head.
Now, of course, we all feel this; we know that people and society can be terrible, uncaring, destructive. This comes to a head late in the film, but it’s been foreshadowed by what’s been done to The Joker and his selected responses i.e. his subway killing, his mother’s murder, and the brutal killing of his two friends. This is the Joker’s origin story about a terrible villain but the emotional core is something we can all relate to – and that’s the point.
Black Panther’s Killmonger: his father was killed by his uncle and he himself left orphaned in the mean streets. He grows up with a white hot anger to not only exact revenge on those who wronged him, but to take that revenge to the world by taking over the throne of Wakanda and waging war to free his brothers and sisters from their oppression.
I found my daddy with Panther claws
in his chest. You ain’t the son of
a King. You’re the son of a murderer!
~~ cut ~~
I lived my entire life waiting for
this moment. I trained, I lied, I
killed, just to get here.
He takes off his vest and tears at his shirt, revealing the
SCARIFICATION MARKS that go up his arm and across his entire
back. They number in the hundreds.
I killed in America, Afghanistan,
Iraq . I took life from my own
brothers and sisters right here on
the continent. And all this death,
just so I can kill you.
The story is about an evil man trying to take over the world, but at its emotional core, it’s about the pain of betrayal. Shakespeare would have been proud.
Villanelle in Killing Eve: Villanelle (Julie Comer) and Eve (Sandra Oh) have a mutually obsessive sexual attraction. Villanelle because Eve reminds her of ‘Anna’, a former lover and Eve because she’s always been fascinated with female assassins and Villanelle is one of the best.
Here’s a passage from the final scene of the final episode of Season 1:
Eve has a gun on Villanelle
What are you going to do with that?
I’m gonna kill you.
You like me too much. So what now, Eve?
I’m gonna tell you something. Sit down.
I think about you all the time. I think about what you’re
wearing and what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with.
I think about what friends you have. I think about what
you eat before you work and what shampoo you use and
what happened in your family. I think about your eyes
and your mouth and what you feel when you kill someone.
I think about what you have for breakfast. I just want to know everything.
I think about you too. I mean, I masturbate about you a lot.
Okay, uh that –
No, it’s just I wasn’t expecting that.
This scene illuminates the emotional core of the series. Both women, total opposites, somehow find themselves in lust, perhaps love with each other. Eve eventually stabs Villanelle (and immediately regrets it), but the scene shows the odd chemistry between the two and makes them at the same time very human.
It seems impossible that a psychopath like Villanelle could express that she too is obsessed with Eve but it’s wholly believable given the storyline which culminates the first season here.