The Importance of Emotional Connection with your Audience
On the subject of acting, Charlie Chaplin once said, “Anyone can make them cry. It takes a genius to make them laugh.” Chaplin was referring to the audience’s reaction to what was happening on the screen. Though he was a brilliant and gifted dramatic actor, director and writer, Charlie Chaplin is most remembered for his comedies. Why is that?
Chaplin also once said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!” This sentiment is most famously echoed in his song, “Smile.”
Chaplin’s entire point as his Little Tramp character was to be able to take the pain and social upheaval of the Great Depression era and channel it into a light-hearted look at itself; the Tramp wears ill-fitting clothes, is (mostly) a vagrant, and is always at odds with the law. Through his films, Chaplin was able to emotionally connect with a nation going through one of its darkest hours and allow the audience to forget how desperate their existence had become, if only for the length of the film.
So just how does one connect with an audience on an emotional level?
Broken familial relationships are often one of the easiest ways to connect with an audience; no one comes from a perfect family and we can all be touched by onscreen examples of this. Take, for example, these scenes of parental sacrifice and acceptance, respectively.
(The relevant action begins at 8:10)
In both scenes, we have parents who accept their children for who they are and make huge gestures to show them that they love them. In the first clip, Cameron Diaz, to show her daughter that she is not a freak and is in fact beautiful, shaves her head in a show of solidarity (and that is a REAL head-shaving scene, to boot!). When I saw this in the theater, there were audible sobs from the audience. Nothing else in the movie got that reaction; not the daughter losing her first love to cancer, not her illness; it was an act of unconditional love and acceptance that got the waterworks flowing.
Likewise, in The Greatest Game Ever Played, Shia LeBeouf’s character and his father, (played with cranky perfection by Elias Koteas,) are at odds with each other the majority of the film; at one point, the two men have an argument on the porch and Koteas tells LeBeouf that after the tournament, he wants him out of the house. It’s a very emotionally charged moment for the two, as a father utterly rejects everything his son is passionate about. In the end of the film, then, when LeBeouf has won the tournament and is hoisted on the shoulders of the crowd, he sees one face in the crowd he never expected to: his own father, face streaked with soot from where he left work in the middle of the day to watch his son play golf, tears of pride and joy streaking down his face. This one really got to me; my own relationship with my father is shot and when I saw this the first time I wondered who in the hell was cutting all the onions.
For the flip side of the coin, let’s look at a son’s desperate need for acceptance and pride from his father gone to unhealthy places… and since I’m a nerd, I’ll use a sci-fi movie to illustrate the point:
CLU is arguably Kevin Flynn’s son; Flynn created him to help him reach the perfect system. All CLU ever wanted to do was to build the perfect system and live up to his destiny. Sadly, people change, and Flynn’s idea of perfection was radically changed by the birth of his son, Sam. CLU, unable to handle Flynn’s seeming 180° turn from his original plan, actually destroyed all of the ISOs (original life within the world of the Grid) as they represented everything he hated about Flynn: the promise of new life, individuality and freedom… all of which were never programmed into CLU when he was created, as Flynn himself wasn’t in that mindset when he created CLU. When CLU asks Flynn “Why?!” Flynn answers, with tears in his eyes, “He’s my son,” knowing how this statement will hurt CLU, but unable to tell that truth without hurting him. CLU, in rage and frustration over still playing second-best to Flynn’s other son, cries out and buries the disk in the ground, inches from Flynn’s face. Even in his rage, he cannot bring himself to truly hurt Flynn… so he’ll hurt him a different way, by killing Sam.
It took a few viewings for me to pick up on that subtext, but it’s a powerful one; it speaks to every son who’s ever had to compete for the affections of his father and who cannot live up to his father’s expectations.
Ultimately, most conflicts in film and fiction go back to a broken or nonexistent relationship with an authority figure in the main character’s life; where would Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, or that Girl with that Dragon Tattoo be if they had normal relationships with their parents? The concept of bad/absent parenting is one of the strongest character development elements in all of fiction, as is its counterpart, the idea of parental sacrifice (here we go back to Harry Potter again). In fact, these tropes have even deeper roots; the religious tenet of belief in God becoming human and dying for the world is the ultimate parent figure sacrificing himself for his children. Is it any wonder, then, that these basic themes pop up in fiction again and again?
Whether you’re trying to connect on an intimate level with your audience or simply go in for an emotional sucker punch, writing about parental love, shattered families or bad parents is a great place to start; begin with the concept of a broken family and ask yourself, “How can I make a story out of this?” Are the characters actual family? In what way do the characters fit together? How do the authority figure and the protagonist interact? Imagine if Obi-Wan Kenobi (arguably Luke’s own father figure after the death of his uncle,) had been straight with Luke from the beginning? Why did Obi-Wan lie to Luke? Was it to manipulate him, turn him into a laser-guided weapon against Darth Vader, or was it to spare Luke the agony of knowing how his father actually died? What did this ultimately do to his and Luke’s relationship? Do you think Luke still looked at Obi-Wan the same way after he learned the truth? How can you take these basic ideas and apply them to your own writing?
Broken families. Bad fathers and mothers. Parents and children reconciling.
That’s all you really need.