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How To Add Emotional Depth To Your Dialogue

By Marilyn Horowitz

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I have been studying yoga for 10 years, and at a recent seminar, I met a colleague who teaches in Florida. He has been working on a script for 3 years and is struggling with his characters’ dialogue.

In yoga, there is the concept that we have seven virtual energy centers, or Chakras located at various points in the physical body that relate to our relationships to the world, and to ourselves. Two of these chakras are the Fourth or Heart Chakra which relates to our ability  to feel and express love, and the Fifth or Throat Chakra which  relates to how we express ourselves on an intellectual level.   I suggested that he try to decide from which of these two energy centers the characters were speaking from. He went home and the next day came in and said he had a breakthrough in his work! I was pleased, of course, and asked him what had happened. He said, “Some characters speak from the heart, some from the head. As soon as I understood that my main character is up in her brain, and that my obstacle or villain is heart-based, that is, emotional, I was able to understand their conflict. But the real insight came when I realized that like real folks, imaginary characters have both aspects.”

I really appreciated his comment, and thought I would share it with you. In movie terms, if we use the classic film, Casablanca, as an example, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is “in his head” – that is, he is cynical and bitter and denies his true emotions. Ilsa, on the other hand is emotional and appeals to Rick to help her out of love.  His denial is couched in terms of practical matters, but we learn that he was wounded by her betrayal and is in fact (and here’s the key) acting from his emotions. Ilsa(Ingrid Bergman), on the other hand, seems to be emotional, but in fact deserted Rick because she felt a higher calling to help save the world – certainly a mental approach.

The emotional depth you will garner in your dialogue is earned by knowing that both characters lead with one aspect, but in fact, can be acting from the other! So true to life! This is not to say that all characters are like this, but by using the heart/head decision a basic approach, which is in opposite contrast to the other characters, your dialogue will become richer and more layered.

Here’s the exercise:

Step 1: Select a scene you want to write.

Step 2: Set a timer for 15 minutes.

Step 3: Make a choice for each character in the scene : Which one is emotion based, and which one is intellectually focused. Take a moment to determine how you yourself are and how you would act if you were the main character. Think of a time when you had a similar conflict and whether you felt or reasoned your way first.

Step 4: Now write the scene and see if it isn’t very emotionally deep for a first try.

Good luck, and happy writing.

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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