Daily Dojo

Rapping On Writing - Emotional Content

Enter The Dragon

Lee: What was that? An exhibition? It needs emotional content.

The above quote is from the martial arts classic Enter The Dragon, though you won’t find it on the quote page, it’s in the film, when Bruce Lee teaches his student Lao how to properly kick.

And it’s very pertinent to what I wish to share with y’all about writing stories and screenwriting in particular.

This is a follow-up post to On Character, Ya Gotta Have Soul, in which I share my own small opinion that character matters slightly more than the other elements in screenwriting. I believe Character IS story, on some level.

Keep in mind this is only my opinion, no more, no less.

I’m sharing what I feel works, and anyone else is free to share their experiences as well. I’m sharing stuff that has come up from talking to my friends about what works and what doesn’t work FOR US.

This will be a fairly long post, and then I’ll shut up for awhile, heh-heh.

So the question today is:

What makes a story special?

My answer?


Let me be clear.

Usually when folks hear the words EMOTIONAL CONTENT, often they misunderstand that to mean one of two things:

One: I (the reader / viewer) like the characters.

Two: There’s lots of crying / shouting / emotional outbursts in the story.

And to my eye, that’s not really what EMOTIONAL CONTENT means, in terms of story.

What I believe it means is thus:


They are emotionally connected to what they do. That’s going to be the theme of this post, and so it’s gonna be repeated, but for good reason.

Too often, when I read a script that has a good idea to it, and good writing, I see that the characters aren’t emotionally invested in their actions.

By that, I mean the things that they do in a story (save a cat, drink a beer, smack a guy) aren’t powered by emotional logic, and so it feels more like a construct (this is where my hero does this action) rather than something not only would that person CHOOSE to do, but that person HAS to do.

And that’s the dirty secret not only of storytelling, but of life itself.

We are creatures of emotion.

Even the most intellectual of us make decisions based on emotional reasons.

We make choices based on avoiding pain and satisfying our emotional needs.

We take actions based on emotional choices.

Even when we detach ourselves emotionally, from something we don’t wish to think about, that in itself is AN EMOTIONAL CHOICE.

Here’s a personal example.

My friends would tell you that, on the street, if I witnessed a man harassing a woman on the street, it would be HARD if not nearly IMPOSSIBLE for me not to intervene. I’ve have intervened several times, the last as recently as last summer.

This is probably at times possibly dangerous and maybe a wee bit stupid. But I do it anyway.

This is due to my past, experiences in my life that formed an emotional belief system, a logic that makes sense to me.

*Stephen King writes in his book ON WRITING that of all the fiction characters he’s killed in all the stories and books he’s written, the one that outraged people the most, generating loads of hate-filled letters and anger, was the murder of a farm dog in the beginning of his book THE DEAD ZONE, killed by the bad guy, Greg Stilson. King got LOADS of hate mail for brutally killing that dog. King would write them back and point out, A) He didn’t kill a dog, Greg did, Greg’s a bad guy, and his killing a dog just for kicks is evidence of that and more importantly B) the story is fictional, therefore the dog is fictional, and no dogs were killed by anyone, anywhere, exception in the imagination. Didn’t matter. People were outraged that a horror writer killed a dog in one of his books.

**On a side note, I find it interesting that most people wouldn’t stand for someone beating the crap out of a dog, but watching a parent beat the daylights out of their kid on the street, that’s considered okay. Not everywhere, but in far too many places (I’m looking at you, Texas) it’s considered reasonable to beat a child but not a dog. I’m not saying anything. I’m just saying.

We all have that.

For instance, it’d be hard if not impossible for anyone here to stand by and do nothing if they saw someone beating a *dog terribly.

We’d call the cops, throw bricks at the guy, we’d do something.

The majority of us just wouldn’t stand there and do nothing as a dog gets beaten.

We’d take action.

We’d have to, because we don’t want to be the kind of people who just watch a man do something terrible to a dog** without doing something about it.

We won’t FEEL GOOD about ourselves if we didn’t do something. We’d hate ourselves.

There are those things.

Those choices we make based on our own emotional logic, that makes us who we are.

I’ve written about it before, but the way to profile a character is based on how Federal Investigators do it, which is WHAT PLUS WHY EQUALS WHO.

In other words, WHAT you do and WHY you do it makes you who you are.

And the WHY is always, always an emotional choice.

Even when you couch it in logic, the logic is employed to make you feel RIGHT about your choice.

Does that make sense?

We all have our own emotional logic, a sensibility based on our emotional experiences.

I have a good friend who, in his youth, attended Catholic school. And, for reasons best not gone into, hated it.

And to this day, whenever given advice or directions, even if he asked for the advice himself, he won’t follow it exactly. He’ll always quietly do it his way, he’ll always quietly rebel, and he knows he’s doing it, he admits it, but in a way he can’t help himself, it’s his reaction to the harsh do-what-I-say discipline of Catholic school, which turned him into a permanent rebel.

That’s not the sum total of his character, but it’s an interesting truth to why he does what he does. We’re all loaded with them, all of us.

And the key to writing great characters is finding those truths.

Think about the great movies you’ve seen, and the great characters within them.

Why do they do what they do?


Think about SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, a great, great film - that specific question is answered by Clarice, forced out of her by Lector, and explains why she’s in the FBI and why she’s so determined to save the girl at all costs.

Because of an emotional experience she had when she was young that altered her forever.

She made a choice with her life, an emotional choice, and it’s part and parcel of all the choices she makes. She not only chooses to do it, she HAS to.

She’s now defined by it, and will put herself in jeopardy to fulfill the need to silence the lambs.

We’ll put ourselves through great pain to satisfy our emotional needs. We’ll go to great lengths to avoid anxiety and that which we fear. We rationalize it, of course, but those rationalizations are done to satisfy our emotional needs.

When you’re creating a story, you need to know WHY your characters are doing WHAT they do.

They don’t need to know it, nor does it need to be spelled out for the audience, but as author, YOU need to.

I want to repeat. It doesn’t need to be explained for the audience, it only needs to feel emotionally real.

Bud White

In L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, we know that Bud White (Russell Crowe) hates wife-beaters. We know it because we see him beat one up and rescue the victimized wife.

We don’t know why he does that. Nor do we really need to, for the film to work.

In the book, it’s explained what happened to him as a youngster, it’s explained that he suffered through something terrible that makes him extremely unforgiving to abusive men, but it doesn’t matter that we don’t know it in the film.

Because Bud’s actions are connected to his emotional choices and it’s clear, he just hates them and has to do what he does.


We all know Indiana Jones hates snakes right?

He’s totally terrified by them.

And we don’t even find out WHY he fears them until the third film.

Does it matter? No.

It only needs to be BELIEVABLE, emotionally. The reasons matter to the people constructing the character, but in the end, it only needs to be emotionally connected and emotionally believable.

As an actor, it’s often called FINDING MOTIVATION. It’s what actors do when deconstructing a scene, they ask questions to figure things out, such as, Am I avoiding a fight here, am I trying to get laid, what am I trying to do? What do “I” want?

Even selfless actions are, at their core, self-motivated (see Clarice, above) and one way of feeling good about yourself. You give to charity or to the Katrina fund because of how it makes you feel.

This is an important point, so I’m gonna repeat it. People are SELF-MOTIVATED.

Sometimes they’re selfish, sometimes they’re not selfish, but they’re always self-motivated.

In other words, the actions people choose serve their needs and serves the idea they have of who they are.

And because our emotional makeup as people is vast and complex, and because it also sometimes changes (key word, sometimes, not always, people fight change) you get contradictions within that emotional framework as differing actions are chosen for differing needs within the same psyche’.

For example, a surgeon who saves lives every day, who’s dedicated his life toward helping others, treats people terribly (HOUSE) and is incredibly egotistical and selfish.

A HERO named Indiana Jones who’s courageous when it comes to jumping on trucks or fighting Nazis, nerves of steel, but put a snake in front of him and he turns to jello.

I have my own contradiction. As a former bouncer, I’m pretty comfortable with physical confrontation. But emotional confrontations I prefer to avoid, I had to fire an actor from a play a few years back, the actor just wasn’t doing the job, was hurting the whole show and had to be let go. I fired the actor, but before I did, I threw up in the bathroom.

Pretty crazy, right? I’ve tackled muggers on the street (though I’m probably getting too old for that these days) without thought or pause, but got screaming butterflies in my stomach before having to tell an actor it wasn’t working out.

Logically it doesn’t make sense that any of the characters above (including me) would BE that way, but emotionally it totally does. That’s their emotional logic.

Think about that, think about the people you know, especially the fascinating ones, and think about each person’s individual emotional logic. I’m telling you, they’re as distinct as fingerprints.


Think about BUTCH from Pulp Fiction.

He gets away with ripping off a mobster for a lot of money, all he has to do is hide out until it’s time to take the train out of town.

But his girlfriend forgets his father’s watch back at their apartment. And Butch decides to go back for it.

Now we know it makes NO SENSE for him to risk his life for a watch. We know they’re probably waiting for him there, and he knows it, too.

But he goes back anyway. Because of the emotional attachment to the watch, and to his father, and to who he is.

Now if it had been written some other way, let’s say Butch says, “Oops, I forgot my watch. I better go back for it so I don’t have to buy another one,” it wouldn’t work for us. We wouldn’t buy it. It seems like it’s only a setup for a confrontation, because in that scenario, Butch doesn’t HAVE to go back, he’s just sort of randomly doing it for no emotional reason other than laziness and stupidity.

But in the film version, we know the reason he chooses to go back, and we also know he HAS to.

That makes the confrontations that follow not only more satisfying but believable. Because Butch knows WHY and makes us buy it completely.

What they do and why they do it, most important. And it has to have, like the side kicks Master Lee teaches, EMOTIONAL CONTENT. (For a bit more on that, check out The Last Gasp.)

So when constructing your characters, ask yourself why they do what they do. And what makes them unique.

Better yet, ask why YOU do what you do.

Seriously, think about one day in your life. Why do you eat that for breakfast? Why do you read the paper? Why watch that show? Why do you do this job, if you hate it?

Think about the EMOTIONAL ANSWERS to those questions.

Some choices you make you’re less attached to than others. You eat this breakfast because it’s the simplest. You read the Daily News because the Post pisses you off and the Times is too much trouble to unfold. You watch LOST because, when you think about it when you’re alone, it makes you tear up. You do this job because it allows you the time to do the thing you love in the downtime, and THAT is more important than anything else.

Take it further. What if you were faced with an extraordinary situation. A monster tearing up New York. A mobster waiting for you in your bathroom. You suddenly develop spider powers.

Now. What emotional choices would you make?

Get how it works?

Anything any character does in your script, at some point there was an emotional reason for it, large or small. Even if it’s “I don’t want to deal with this right now” to “That guy looks like the jerk who dumped me” or “you threaten my kids again and I’ll kill you”.

All moments. Every one of them. I love how Mr. Pink in RESERVOIR DOGS refuses to tip. He’s pissed off about it, too. It’s a small thing, but it’s something that everyone remembers.

For your stories, especially for your protagonists, it’s important to see them make choices, that goes without saying, right? If I’m telling you to have them emotionally connected to their choices, it makes no sense if the characters aren’t choosing their actions and reactions.

Important story events should hinge on such choices. And the emotional content should reflect that it’s a choice the character feels they HAVE to make.

Moss in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN takes a jug of water back for a killed bandit. He doesn’t have to do it, he could just stay home, but . . . in a way, HE HAS TO. He can’t let a man die of thirst. He can let a man die in other ways, but not that one. Interesting, ain’t it?

Get me? And that choice nearly gets him killed, and sparks the whole action of the film.

For the important choices in your script, make them choices that your protagonist HAS to make, on an pure emotional level, and then you’re onto something.

Just remember. Anything folks choose is based on a personal emotional logic, and it’s that pastiche’ of emotions, that quilt patched together from all the differing people in your story, that’s the thing that makes you watch a movie again and again, even if it’s flawed. That’s what moves us, and it doesn’t always make sense why, but we know it does.

We watch movies to be moved, as I mentioned before, and sometimes we’re moved by ideas and sometimes we’re not, but it’s truly the characters who move us. If eyes are the windows to the soul, characters are the window to the soul of story.

We’ll watch a film that’s nuts and unbelievable in terms of events, we’ll watch it if the characters are emotionally believable. It’s why we watch STAR WARS. It’s not only because of the special effects, but because of Luke’s quest to find out his destiny and how important it is for him.

We sometimes watch a film without a bad guy, without a concept, without a hook, as long as the characters within are interesting and emotionally involved.

BEFORE SUNRISE is about two people talking the night away, not really fighting, only getting to know each other, and it works very well.

There doesn’t seem to be too much conflict there. But they’re both invested in what’s happening emotionally, they’re both making choices. Watch it again, watch the shifts, when one makes a decision to do or say something. It’s fascinating.

***Here’s an interesting experiment for you, just to test your eye for emotional reality. Watch the Mike Leigh film Naked (1993). Leigh, as some of you may know, puts his actors together and through series of improvisations he builds the stories and characters.

Now there’s some great acting in here, but there’s one bad actor in the bunch. You’ll know who he is.

You can tell he made choices just to be cool, choices like “I’m rich, I’m a pig, I treat people terribly” and you never know why he’s there or why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s acting out. Compare him to David Thewlis or Katrin Cartlidge, who create real complex characters you totally buy, and you’ll see the difference between a real emotional logic and a paper mache’ one.

***They’re not acting out. They just acting and being.

That’s a good hook, now that I think about it. Sometimes when someone’s just shouting to shout without being connected in acting class, we’d call that acting out (like a kid). It’s never as satisfying as starting inward.

Write in instead of out. Start inward.

Know the difference?

Remember you’re crafting an emotional poem, in a sense, and the choices your people make should add up to the right steps on a journey.

I don’t want to give you the impression that ideas are bad, intellect is bad - far from it. What I’m saying is they they are not divorced from our emotions. Ideas are emotional (Democracy is an idea, right? Civil rights began as an idea, right?) and since we’re never separate from our emotions, neither should our stories. That’s the difference between a term paper and story.

One is only facts, the other a human journey of emotion.

Will Hunting in GOOD WILL HUNTING makes choices that land him in jail, land him a custodial job at Harvard, lead him to solve a problem on the board no one else could, cause him to ask Skylar out and to alienate anyone and everyone who tries to help him.

At any point, he could just say, “Hey, I’m a genius, why don’t I take this job (or jaab, in Bawston), make some serious bank and settle down with this hot dawcta’?” He could make that choice from the get-go.

But he can’t. Because it flies in the face of his emotional logic. Solving that puzzle, the puzzle of Will Hunting’s emotional existence and the choices he makes, that’s what that film is about (and why it’s titled GOOD WILL HUNTING).

So in writing your story, remember it’s not just about one moment, but connected moments that lead you somewhere.

And we are moved by random emotional things, and if you can connect the dots correctly, it will light your readers / audiences up.

William Goldman wrote about the end of Gunga Din, how the stupid heroic death of Gunga Din moved him to weepy hysterics and still does to this day. “Stupid Bravery, or Brave Stupidity, does it for me every time,” I believe he said.

I remember in LAST OF THE MOHICHANS, when they’re captured by the Huron and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Hawkeye offers up his life for Madeline Stowe’s Cora, and tells the stuffy British Officer to translate for him.

The stuffy Brit Officer offers up his own life instead. Even though he hates Hawkeye and wants to marry Cora himself, even though he’s been a dick throughout the film, he offers up his life instead because as an Officer, he can’t allow a scout to better him in terms of sacrifice, he can’t allow Cora to see him weak, and when the Huron take him up on that deal, he says to Hawkeye, “My compliments, sir!”

Fucks me up. Every time.

Listen, there are a load of screenwriting sites which will give you quality information on formatting, on inciting incidents and on structure. And those things are important (and guys, you know I love ya, right?) and if you want to be a pro, you got to know that stuff and know it well.

But I notice they’re talking about the commonalities of good movies. That most good movies have this happen at page 15, or this kinda bad guy, or a third act like CASABLANCA.

What I want to share is what makes all enjoyable movies unique, and that comes down to character. I truly believe it’s the most important element, I do. The difference between the Jason Bourne movies and James Bond movies is, Jason Bourne and James Bond. Nemo and The Incredibles. Batman and Spiderman.

I’ve said it before. People will flock to a movie with little to no conflict, no story and badly shot (CLERKS) if they like and believe the characters within.

They’ll put up with all sorts of plot holes and incredible coincidences (THE DEPARTED) if they’re caught up in the struggle of the characters.

There are bad movies with a great concept, good structure, good actors within (I’m thinking MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND, for example). And you forget them the minute you leave the cinema, if not before.

But a movie with terrible structure, bad actors and no concept, you’ll remember if it features a great character who moves you, you’ll always remember it, (I’m thinking of BILLY JACK, as an example) and watch it more than once.

As long as people are moved by the characters, whether they transform or not, whether they succeed or not, whether they are likable or not, even whether they eat people or save them, as long as we’re moved by what they do and we’re moved if their actions and choices are filled with EMOTIONAL CONTENT.

Just like in music, emotionally invested actions move us for reasons that oftentimes we ourselves don’t understand, things people do in movies, television and novels (and let’s face it, in real life) move the hell out of us. Brings us to tears, excites and exhilarates us, makes us fear death a little bit less.

That’s all you have to do, as a story-teller, no problem, right?


So that’s my small opinion, forgive me for going on and on about it, let loose in the comments, call me names, call me old-fashioned (inside joke) call me silly or naive, have at it, do what you will and say what you want, let’s throw down!

We’re all fighting for the same thing, right?

Let the battle begin.

8 Responses to “ Rapping On Writing - Emotional Content”

  1. Ato Says:

    Well said my man. I’ve got another word for Emotional Content: Humanity. We humans need to see humans in our stories even if said humans have superpowers (Spiderman) or are not even human (Gollum). We can follow and even be moved by stories that don’t make logical sense (Being John Malkovich); but damned if we can sit through something that lacks humanity (The Hottie and the Nottie). Yes, well said indeed…

  2. Joshua James Says:

    Thanks man - I tried to remember everything we covered when we talked about this that day, but it was a lot - LOL! I know there’s more to say on this topic, yet . . .

  3. Ato Says:

    Disclaimer: I want to make it clear that I DID NOT see, pay for, or otherwise patronize the movie The Hottie and the Nottie. That said, I still reserve the right to reference it in my example of a movie lacking humanity because… well because it’s a movie called the Hottie and the Nottie and it stars Paris Hilton. ‘Nuff Said….

  4. Joshua James Says:


    Funny, too funny. I mean, the comment, not THE HOTTIE AND THE NOTTIE, which I haven’t seen and don’t want to see.

  5. Andrew Bellware Says:

    Love this article! I’m linkin’ to ya!

    The most interesting thing to see a character do in a scene is to see them make a decision (that’s a thing I learned from our buddy Mitchell.)

    What I like about what you’re saying here is that I think you show us WHY we like to see the character make decisions — it tells us more about them emotionally.

    At least that’s what I got from it! ;-)

  6. Joshua James Says:

    Thanks man.

    Seeing it is good, it’s always good to see a character make a choice/ decision, but the overall point is that there is ALWAYS a WHY to a person’s decisions.

    Sometimes the characters don’t know them (Clarice didn’t until Lector forced her to face it) and sometimes the audience doesn’t even need to know, but as authors, we need to know that there’s a WHY and it has to ring true.

  7. Mystery Man Says:

    Excellent post. Good job.

  8. Empirical Pleasures » Wrapping on Righting Says:

    […] James talks about the emotion of characters in writing. He should write a book on writing. That, and a good book on formatting would probably be all […]

Leave a Reply