How to Let Characters Reveal Their Feelings

21 Jan
Philadelphia was released in 1993, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, and was one of the first mainstream films about HIV/AIDS. It won two Academy Awards and nominated for two others, including best screenplay.

Philadelphia, released in 1993 and starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, was one of the first mainstream films about HIV/AIDS. It won two Academy Awards and was nominated for three others, including best screenplay.

Some of the most powerful moments in any story come when a character unexpectedly reveals his or her innermost feelings. In film, these are often the scenes that become famous: Jack Nicholson shouting, “You can’t handle the truth,” in A Few Good Men; in The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland standing beside a pig pen and singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” So, as a writer, how do you capture such intension emotion?

The 1993 film Philadelphia contains one such scene. Tom Hanks’ character, Andrew, has been fired from his law firm because he has AIDS, and so he sues the firm. The moment comes when Andrew is conferring with his attorney, Joe, played by Denzel Washington. He turns on the stereo, plays an aria sung by Maria Callas, and translates it, ending with the words “I am love.” The result is a scene that likely was the reason that Hanks won that year’s Oscar for Best Actor.

You can read the script by Ron Nyswaner here (just search for the word aria) or watch the scene (which is slightly different than the screenplay) here.

How the Story Works

As readers and viewers, we crave those moments when characters let down their guard. To the audience, those moments often feel as though they’ve come out of nowhere. We’re stunned when they happen. But, of course, that isn’t the case. It’s important—but not easy—to get the character into a state of mind that allows such statements. In A Few Good Men, Nicholson’s character is trapped by the prosecuting attorney and badgered until he breaks. In The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s Dorothy falls into a pig pen and, after being rescued by the farmhands, is alone in black-and-white rural Kansas. It’s no wonder she dreams of escaping.

In both examples, a confrontation leads to the moment when the character reveals his or her truest thoughts. The confrontation can be between people (prosecutor vs defendant) or with a representative of a problem (the pigs are a representative of drab, boring Kansas).

In Philadelphia, the screenwriter Ron Nyswaner sets up a different sort of confrontation. Tom Hanks’ character, Andrew, has just come home from a party. He’s laughing and talking with his attorney, who was at the same party but less comfortable because of his preconceptions about gay people. The attorney begins asking Andrew questions as practice for his testimony at court, but Andrew is distracted. The film has juxtaposed (for Andrew, in a way he cannot ignore) the extremes of his life: his high-spirited social life and the lawsuit that stems from his AIDS diagnosis. He says, “There’s a possibility I won’t be around for the end of this trial.” Then, he asks his attorney if he likes opera, if he wants to hear Andrew’s favorite aria, which Andrew proceeds to play, translating the lyrics. Here’s how the aria and translation end:

"It was during that sorrow that love came to me!

A voice filled with harmony
That said...
Live still, I am Life!"

"I am the god that descends
From the heavens to the earth
To make of the earth
A heaven!"

The camera shifts to the attorney, who looks uncomfortable. Andrew continues translating:

"I am Oblivion!
I am Glory!
I am Love, Love, Love!"

Andrew has essentially said that he doesn’t want to die, that he loves being alive, that he loves the feeling of being in love. It’s as direct and intense a statement as a person can make, and the scene works because the film has given Andrew the ability to speak in this way. Without the setup, the same statement would ring false.

In any story, it’s important to present a character with challenges that force him or her to act, but it’s just as important to give the character a moment to reflect on what is happening. This is what Ron Nyswaner did in the screenplay for Philadelphia.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set the stage to allow a character to reveal his/her innermost feelings, using Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay for Philadelphia as a model:

  1. Identify the extremes of the character’s dilemma. In Philadelphia, the extremes are life and death. In A Few Good Men, the juxtaposition is between honor/duty and justice. The Wizard of Oz juxtaposes the drab familiar with the beautiful unknown. Every story, whether in film or literature, captures this sort of juxtaposition. In short stories, Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” pits sex and death. In Andre Dubus’ “A Father’s Story,” the conflict is between duty to God/law and love for one’s children. What are the sides in your story’s conflict?
  2. Write a back-to-back scenes, each dedicated to one side of the conflict. In Philadelphia, the costume party is followed by practice for the trial. The scenes can be fairly long or short and quick-hitting. The important thing is to  make your character aware of the juxtaposition. For each scene, think about a dramatic action that illustrates each side of the conflict. Don’t be literal (if one of your sides is death, don’t put your character at a funeral). If possible, make the scenes take place outside of the conflict (in other words, in the character’s life). Ask yourself, “Where does the character experience Side X at home, at work, or with family, etc?” Then, ask yourself, “Where does the character experience Side Y at home, at work, or with family, etc?” Let this second dramatic experience impinge on the first. In Philadelphia, Andrew is still basking in his enjoyment of the party when his attorney begins peppering him with questions.
  3. Let the character realize the juxtaposition. In short, let the character think about the conflict. In early drafts, we almost always do this. Our characters talk about what the conflict means to them. The problem is often that they’re talking about it in ways that are too obvious. The key is to ground the conflict in the tangible experiences and actions of the character’s world. The result is that the character is reacting against those tangible things. There’s a huge difference in a character saying, “I am Love, Love, Love,” totally out of the blue and saying it after coming home late from a party. Context is everything, and it is what these scenes aim to provide.

Good luck and have fun.

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