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How Filmmakers Connect With Audiences

By Stanley D. Williams

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Audience identification with the characters in a story is fundamental to successful filmmaking. Successful stories subliminally invite audience members to participate mentally with the movie's main characters. In the darkness of the theater 95% of our sensory receptions are tuned into the movie's visuals and sound. We find ourselves "in the story" and helping the characters make decisions—rooting for them when they make the right decision and cringing when they don't. We get emotionally involved, we identify, and like Mia Farrow's character in Woody Allen's THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, we want to get up on the screen, be in the story, and rub shoulders and barbs with Jeff Daniel's character. There are three ways filmmakers get audiences to connect with the story. In one word filmmakers SUTURE the audience into the movie. But they use three different techniques.

1. Physical Suturing

This consists of employing camera and sound techniques to put the audience "physically" in the movie.

  1. We see things the protagonist sees with POV (Point of View) shots, or over the shoulder shots.
  2. There are long wide takes to simulate us being in the room and watching from a distance.
  3. Long extreme close-ups (ECU) of a character allow us to ponders a situation or decision along with the character.
  4. In some movies we hear what the character hears like Mel Gibson's character in WHAT WOMEN WANT or Jim Carey's character in BRUCE ALMIGHTY.
  5. There are also visual and narrative gaps that the audience automatically fill in, as when a character drives across town, but we only see him get into and out of his car. While these techniques help connect audiences in an explicit or visual way, they do not get at the heart of why audiences are emotionally engaged.

2. Emotional Suturing

This sounds like what we're looking for. But it's a misnomer, as you'll soon see. We might say this is a subset of No. 3 below. Filmmakers emotionally suture the audience into the story by creating characters and situations that generate sympathy, jeopardy, and relatability. Audiences are drawn to characters who are "attractive" — characters that are funny, powerful, skilled, beautiful, charming, and hospitable. When we create characters with such attributes, our audience wants to be close to and identify with them. It is a purely emotional reaction based on the character's outward appearance and behavior. While Nos.1 & 2 are techniques always employed, they are both derivatives of No. 3. So, get No. 3 right and Nos. 1 and 2 will follow.

3. Moral Suturing

At the heart of every successful movie is a conflict of values that was universally chosen to be understood by the audience. It is this conflict of values that describes what the movie is "really" about. The value conflict engages audiences at a value or heart level by allowing the audience to identify with the various characters and helping them decide what moral choices to make. Thus, moral suturing, is not a passive experience, but an active decision making and rooting experience.

Successful moral suturing occurs easiest with a writing and story structuring technique called "The Moral Premise," which describe the core values around which the story produces conflict. This is because all physical action and conflict begins as psychological decisions derived from the character's moral values.

Thus, the Moral Premise Statement (MPS) is a single sentence, or statement, that describes the natural consequences of a character choosing a virtue vs. a vice as motivation for pursuit of a goal. For instance many good movies pit the selfishness of the antagonist against the selflessness of a protagonist. Or, perhaps the conflict of values is greed vs. generosity, or prejudice vs. respect.

Here is the generic form of the MPS and a couple of examples from movies you'll recognize:

[a psychological vice] leads to [physical detriment] but
[a psychological virtue] leads to [physical betterment].

Compromise of liberty leads to tyranny; but
Being willing to die for liberty leads to freedom.

—BRAVEHEART (F, 1995, Mel Gibson)

or

Battling adversity alone leads to weakness and defeat; but

Battling adversity as a family leads to strength and victory.

—THE INCREDIBLES (F, 2004, Brad Bird)

While moral premise theory is fairly simple, it's application, to be successful requires diligence and creativity to ensure that every character arc, every setting, the art direction, the music, every scene, every dialogue exchange, complies to true moral premise statement (MPS). It also means that in a redemptive film the protagonist starts out applying the vice side of the MPS (the first clause) is his pursuit of the goal; but at the mid point of the film (the Moment of Grace) catches a whiff of the transcendence that could change his life. Then in the second half the protagonist learns how to live by the positive side of the moral premise. For example in LIAR! LIAR! (1997, Tom Shadyac) the MPS is:

A deceptive heart leads to rejection; but
A truthful heart leads to acceptance.

Before his Moment of Grace, Jim Carey's character believes that lying is the way to get ahead in his professional, personal, and family life. But he learns that lying leads to rejection. After his "Moment of Grace" where he realizes (I've been a bad father") he learns (slowly) to live without telling a lie. And when he succeeds we have a redemptive ending.

Now the MPS can't be just any juxtaposition of values and consequences. The few rules include: (1) The values must be polar opposites. (2) Every main character must be challenged by the same MPS in the various aspects of their lives. (3) The MPS must be absolutely true in the everyday experience of the audience you're trying to reach.

To the extent that every scene and character embodies the subliminal truth of the MPS, the movie has a chance at success, because the filmmakers have emotionally, visually, and morally connected what the movie is really about with the true emotional experiences of the audience.

In summary, connecting with audiences requires the screenwriter and then the actual filmmakers to suture the audience into the visual, emotional and moral elements of the story. While the visual camera techniques can do that physically, and while the character traits can pull audiences in emotionally, only a strong, true and consistently applied moral premise statement can do both in a grand and satisfying way.

About Stanley D. Williams

Dr. Stan Williams is a story consultant, screenwriter, and director living in Michigan. He travels frequently to Los Angeles as a story consultant and workshop leader. The full explanation of the moral premise is found in his book The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success. Learn more by visiting: www.MoralPremise.com

Screenwriting Article by Stanley D. Williams

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