February 7, 2018


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How to get a strong audience reaction from your characters

Let’s have a chat about emotions.

Emotion in visual stories is the ultimate goal of the storyteller. To invoke in a viewer the feeling that the story’s creator intended is among the highest feats in art– in any discipline. It’s also one of the most difficult things to pull off.

The way we measure and/or plan where emotion fits into a story is by “beats.” These emotional beats mark the revelation of some kind of information that has a severe emotional impact on a character. The storyteller must find a way to visually depict this emotional state for the audience while also keeping the content of the story on track.

We also use emotional beats when we construct the plot of the story. If the plot serves as the foundation, walls, ceiling, and doors of a building, “emotional beats” are its hum and tone, the color of its walls, the lighting, and the items placed.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Emotion just comes from details, right?

If I come up with the right string of details, this will move my viewers emotionally, right?

Well, possibly.

But what you have to remember is that emotion is stronger than logic. Bringing out the emotion from your characters is a matter of their own experiences in that story, but it also has to ring as something true to the human experience.

A pure, raw emotion is a clean slate for the audience to overlay their own experiences onto the character.

As Sergio Paez explains in Professional Storyboarding: Rules Of Thumb:

Emotion always trumps logic. When we talk about screen direction and technical issues of filmmaking, keep in mind that emotion is the important goal in the scene.

The audience wants to suspend their disbelief and be scared, sad, frightened, etc. So, if you come across technical issues with character placement and screen direction, don’t get too caught up in technicalities and forget about resolving the underlying emotional beat.

If you disregard logic in a way that doesn’t talk down to the audience, you can get away with having some holes. As a storyboard artist, your power of visual manipulation without calling attention to it makes a huge difference in the outcome of the story. Make the audience feel an emotion without them sensing that they are being manipulated.

Enough with the “What are emotional beats” stuff! How do we create this in our own work?

Well, like I said in the beginning, this is a tough feat to pull off. You need to have a clear vision of the journey you want your main character (i.e. your audience) to take. You need to have the peaks and valleys of their emotional voyage mapped out and following in sync with your plot.

But don’t fret, there are many tools to help you in this.

Your viewers are smart and their minds are on the hunt, ready to shoot down any cliché at a moment’s sight, but they are susceptible to many techniques from the visual story tool box.

While your audience must, and often does, relate to your main character(s), the audience is not the guiding force of their fate– you are. A character’s choices are what defines them to the audience. The situation a character finds themselves in can have both a physical and emotional impact on the viewers.

Just as Sergio writes in his book:

True character is revealed through the choices they make. The harder the choices, the more depth we see in the character.

By designing these choices for your character, you set up the viewer for an emotional reaction to the outcome. But remember, this must ring true to the human experience.

You should have known the choice and result yourself, or had a similar reaction to that situation when you first heard it yourself.

Next is what you do with your perspectives and with your “camera.” Even the way you compose your shots can have an emotional response from your audience.

More from Sergio on juxtaposition of shots:

Is it really that difficult to solicit emotions for your audience? If you hold on an image long enough, this will evoke an emotional response with anyone. Remember that the audience wants to experience emotions. If you hold on an image of a flag waving in the wind, the audience will conjure feelings of patriotism, nationalism, or nostalgia, depending on their personal experience. If you immediately cut to a shot of someone’s face, the audience will project those feelings they have in their mind onto the character in the shot.

An easy solution to show someone sad is to see them cry. A more sophisticated solution to show sadness would be to juxtapose a man’s burning house with a shot of his expression looking at the house.

No dialogue is necessary, or even acting.

The audience will apply the emotions they feel in the moment to the character they see on screen. In this way, emotion can be spelled out visually, and this is the power that a storyboard artist has in manipulating the script.

There may be no dialogue to describe how a character is feeling, but by juxtaposing certain images relating to the character, you can create deep meaning and emotion in the scene. This is the greatest weapon a storyboard artist has in developing a scene. Even with poorly written dialogue, a storyboard artist can emphasize emotion with the shots and turn the scene into a sophisticated and rich visual experience.

In this case, the camera is a window into the life of your character.

You must be unafraid to show the audience the happiest or most painful times in the life of your character.

It’s the window into the soul of your story, and perhaps a mirror into the lives of your viewers.

Board on!


PS: What are your favorite emotional story moments? Leave a comment below to share.

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