The One Essential Ingredient of Every Successful Screenplay

About a Boy
What is the emotional glue that binds us to a story?

With over twenty-five years of professional story development and screenwriting experience, and nearly two decades of teaching screenwriting at the MFA level, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate on hundreds of screenplays and films. 

During my extensive career, hands down the most common problem I see in screenplays and films is that they lack an emotional core, or what I call: Heart. 

I define “Heart” as what the audience gets out of your screenplay or film. It’s the emotional takeaway that moves them. 

Think of Heart as what the story is really about. Not the plot. But the universal experience that all people can relate to. One that moves the reader or audience on an emotional level.

Take losing a loved-one, for example. Go to any country in the world, from the biggest city to the smallest village, and people there will relate to the experience of losing a loved one. It is a shared human experience. 

Great writers and directors know that human beings instinctively connect to emotion, rather than to a sequence of events, which is plot.

As humans, in one form or another, we’ve all experienced losing someone we love. It’s part of our collective conscience. It’s an emotion that transcends cultural barriers. And that universality touches on the larger human experience. That’s why it’s so relatable.

Research has shown that people, consciously and unconsciously, go to movies to feel something. That’s what makes screenplays and films so powerful—their ability to move an audience. Whether it’s to laugh, or cry, or be afraid, they want…the experience of emotion. 

Great writers and directors know that human beings instinctively connect to emotion, rather than to a sequence of events, which is plot. And that’s the effect that Heart has on story. It’s what makes the audience relate and feel. It’s what the audiences gets out of your story. It’s their emotional takeaway.

Research has shown that people, consciously and unconsciously, go to movies to feel something.

Think about the film About a Boy with Hugh Grant. The plot of the film is: a thirty-eight-year-old wealthy slacker passes himself off as a single father as a way to date single moms so he can fulfill his sexual needs. 

That’s the plot of the movie: the external ride that the audience goes on.  

But the Heart of the story, the emotional core of the film is: a selfish, immature man is taught how to act like a grown-up by a little boy. Over the course of the film, the boy helps Hugh Grant’s character realize that other people are necessary in his life, and that caring about them gives his life genuine meaning.  

That’s what the audience internalized from the ride they went on

It’s what they can relate to and feel. It’s the emotional glue that binds them to the plot, and what made the film so successful.  So, as you develop your screenplay, always remember: Heart is the emotional glue that will bind audiences to your story.     

Tim Long is a screenwriter who has sold, optioned, and pitched feature film projects at the studio level, and has had original screenplays in development with Academy Award® winning and nominated producers. He’s also a nationally recognized screenplay consultant and taught screenwriting for nearly two decades at the MFA level in a top ranked University film program. He’s currently Founder of PARABLE, a game-changing screenplay development process. Follow him on Twitter.

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10 Comments

This advice/analysis is too pat to be of much use. It's like saying that the main character needs to change throughout the film, be confronted with his weakness and either succeed or fail to overcome it... no shit. Maybe I'm just jaded from one screenwriting tip too many, but this feels vague and useless.

When I think of kinetic films such as Kill Bill or The Matrix, or thought provoking films such as 2001 or Primer, or atmospheric mood-pieces like It Follows or Memories of Murder, or hyper-verbal soapboxes like Network or A Few Good Men - None of them owe their success to some basic emotional nugget of truth embedded in the story, even if you can dig one up for each one of them.

My (unsolicited and unwarranted) advice is to find and study the particular thing that makes a particular script work, rather than the common thing that makes all of them work. Your problem as a screenwriter is not going to be to retell the hero's journey - it's going to be everything else.

May 20, 2016 at 9:52AM

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I agree with you, and I think this thought can only be achieved after we had known everything thus figuring it out by ourselves.

May 20, 2016 at 9:27PM

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Dinda
74

I think some of your examples of exceptions are not exceptions at all. Eg, Kill Bill, The Bride lost her child, her life, everything. That right there puts you emotionally on her side. 2001, who hasn't wondered at our place in the universe? Network, A Few Good Men; the desire for and pursuit of truth. You don't have to dig for these, they are relatable human feelings and notions right there on the surface.

June 17, 2016 at 12:31PM

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Some would argue that this is common sense and yet i see so many screenplays and films that don't seem to know this.

Without an emotional core for the audience to connect to, films like the Matrix, Heat and Ghostbusters wouldn't have the impact on people that they did....

May 20, 2016 at 10:05AM

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James Couche
Independent Filmmaker
175

Thanks for bringing this small but important point to our attention once again. Ninety percent of screenwriters and Hollywood studios just don't get it. Without it, Rocky would have just been another boxing movie.

May 21, 2016 at 9:50AM

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William Scherer
Writer/Director/Producer/Fine Art Aerial Photography
259

I agree with this 100%. There are so many films/screenplays that forget this. Emotional connection with the characters of the story is more important than any plot. Because if we care about the characters then the we will care about the plot, whatever that is. If a story lacks "heart" it's not a good story.

May 22, 2016 at 6:30AM

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Terrell Lamont
Director, Director of Photography
401

I do not come close to having the writer's credentials, but
over the last 40 years I've read dozens of screenplays,
novels and stage plays. The one single, most important
element... IMHO ... is empaphy. If you, as director/writer/
actor, fail to estabalish that fragile connection with your
audience your message will be lost.

May 22, 2016 at 2:29PM

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Bingo. You need to like, or at the very least, root for a character.

May 23, 2016 at 10:22PM, Edited May 23, 10:22PM

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Charlie K
1366

I concur... heart is everything. They last two movies I watched on the big screen were Deadpool and Batman v Superman. One had immense, palpable heart and one was almost completely devoid of heart or feeling. Which was which? While Deadpool was one of the most technically perfect comic book film I've seen, the real hook was the love story - it was so intense and heartwarming and so real that I almost teared up at times. Heart is everything.

May 23, 2016 at 11:41PM

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Lance Bachelder
Writer/Director/Editor
302

The heart of About a Boy, is for a depressed boy to say in the future, ' Oh what a day, what a lovely day', from the steering wheel of a speeding vehicle, in the desert. And that Mc Donalds ain't so bad. Two lessons I could learn. Nothing from the article.

May 25, 2016 at 7:56PM, Edited May 25, 8:00PM

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Daniel
154