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Breaking & Entering: Sensational Storytelling – We Want to Feel It!

Barri Evins unmasks terrifyingly potent secrets to creating sensational storytelling that will resurrect your script from the dead and make it come alive!

Picture this:

It's a warm and sunny day in LA. What we call "January." I’m enjoying the peace and quiet of being home alone.

The doors and windows are wide open to an idyllic backyard, walled in for privacy, and key code protected. There’s a lovely breeze.

I’m writing about Suspense and Tension for my ScriptMag column, and watching clips of classic horror movies to reference as examples. I find myself fixated on one clip. A sensationally scary scene with the protagonist trapped and the monster closing in.

I’m mesmerized by the artistry of the scare. The intricate interplay of tension and suspense. The escalation of conflict and pace. The unexpected twists and reversals!

I set out to take it apart, to illustrate my point for readers, but I am completely drawn into the moment. Captivated, I play it over and over.

From mere feet away, a man’s voice calls out “Hello!”

I jump out of my skin!

       My heart is still pounding...

              when I finally figure out...

                     that it’s The Handyman!

Terrifying in the moment, but…

I have to admit, I loved it!

Because when it comes to story, I want to feel it.

Sensational Storytelling

I believe one of the reasons we love story is its capacity to make us feel. Whether it’s to laugh or cry, cringe or contemplate, strong storytelling evokes our emotions. We want to feel it.

These tips, tools, and techniques for creating “sensational" stories – ones that produce a startling effect, evoke a strong reaction, and gain intense interest – can give your story new life.

Hereditary – We’re Haunted by Our Ancestors

The movie scene had my mind and body primed for danger. That big scare set off a near instantaneous chain reaction, pushing me into full fight-or-flight mode. This is the legacy of our earliest ancestors whose survival left them with two options – to stay and fight or to run as fast as they could. Those who were good at predicting the outcomes survived and passed this genetic trait down to us.

Faced with this situation – real or imaginary – the brain mobilizes the body’s resources. It sends a rush of adrenaline and other hormones coursing through the body. Our pupils dilate to see better. Our heart pounds and our breath quickens to rush blood and oxygen to our muscles. We might turn pale as blood is directed away from the skin to power the muscles and fuel the brain. We might tremble or shake as our muscles tense, primed to take action. You might even get goosebumps, as tiny muscles flex in the skin, causing hairs to stand up. All triggered by the brain’s prime directive: survival.

When I realized that the danger wasn’t real, I was left with the dopamine rush – the “feel good” hormone released in the process.

While I adore a good scare, not everyone enjoys the thrills of a haunted house, a wild roller coaster ride, or a spooky story. Neuroscientists believe that may be because our brains have different sensitivities to the dopamine rush.

At an anniversary screening of Halloween many years ago – a rare chance to see this classic on the big screen – one of our young interns, now a successful manager and producer, sat beside me. She squirmed throughout, grabbing my arm and practically crawling into my seat in the scariest scenes. “Jamie Lee Curtis is alive and well and sitting two rows ahead of us,” I hissed. It didn’t matter. For her, the dopamine rush was too intense.


When I’m teaching, I do a little experiment to prove the power of words to activate our emotions. I have the students close their eyes and just listen as I read:

“He tries to catch his breath but can’t get words out.”


Jaws by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb

Jaws, Universal Pictures

Jaws by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel by Peter Benchley

Jaws offers sensational storytelling

Jaws. Courtesy Universal Pictures.

“He looks under the bed for the missing toy.”


Poltergeist, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Poltergeist, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Poltergeist by Steven Spielberg & Michael Grais & Mark Victor

Poltergeist, Sensational Storytelling

Poltergeist. Courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

“She screams and falls to the floor.”


Scream, Dimension Films

Scream, Dimension Films

Scream by Kevin Williamson

Scream is Sensational Storytelling

Scream. Courtesy Dimension Films.

Afterward, I ask the students if they felt the difference. I’m confident that each time, the second version sparked a physical sensation in the listeners because the charged language triggered their own emotions.

I suggest they pause and observe how they feel. They might notice they are a bit on edge. It might even have induced a stress reaction in you, dear reader, causing your heart to beat a bit faster and your breath to quicken.

Scares provide great examples of the powerful and immediate effect stories can have on us. I choose “fear” because is it such a powerful, primal emotion that provokes a big reaction. Visceral stories deal with primal needs, such as survival, lust, love, greed, revenge, power, connection, and acceptance. They speak to us on a subconscious level. Audiences relate to them, as they are fundamental to the human experience.

Stories in any genre can engage us emotionally and activate the delicious dopamine rush. The one that keeps you up late at night, binging a series, rereading a beloved book, or watching your favorite film again and again.

A mind-blowing twist, a stunning reveal, a moment that makes us laugh out loud, tear up, or feel uplifted and hopeful about humanity, gives your story an impact that affects us on a visceral level. We literally feel it. No matter what your genre, readers want to feel the emotions of the characters and be drawn into the story.

I just watched a viral video of an adorable little girl of about three or four, who was watching an animated story about a dragon who needed help. She was so empathetic that tears rolled down her rosy cheeks and she called out advice and support to the character. That is exactly how I want to feel – even if I’m too grown up to shout at the screen. Striving for that level of emotional engagement with your readers should be your goal.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – The Chemistry of Storytelling

I've always maintained that story was “my drug of choice.” I thought I was being flippant in declaring my preference for the intoxicating, swept away feeling I got from good storytelling. I didn't realize how much scientific fact there was to the statement.

The truth is, our brains are on drugs all the time. Master this knowledge and, as a storyteller, you can literally turn us on.

Without delving into too much neuroscience – the study of how the brain works – the frontal cortex (put your palm on your forehead, spread your fingers and put them on the top of your head) – the area of your brain responsible for experiencing emotions, is activated by what is unique and stimulating. When that happens, dopamine, a chemical released in the brain associated with its reward and pleasure centers, is increased.

Dopamine is both arousing and addictive. This natural neurochemical made by our brains is such a turn-on that people get hooked. All addictive drugs, including alcohol, opioids, nicotine, and cocaine, amplify the yummy effects of dopamine – but only for a while, making us crave more.

However, dopamine can be stimulated naturally by things like caffeine, chocolate, and… stories.

That’s why learning a bit of neuroscience is important for screenwriters.

Hocus Pocus – Harnessing the Magic

Strong storytelling engages us, draws us in, pulls us into the world, and straps us into the shoes of the character. We feel what they feel. Instead of merely observing, we are participating. We are in the moment. Caught up in the spell you’ve woven with your words.

Our brains experience engaging stories as if they were actually happening to us.

Invasion of The Body Snatchers – Keep The Audience Awake

The brain can’t possibly pay attention to everything. In fact, it selectively filters out some things, like tuning out background noise so you can focus on a conversation in a crowded restaurant. The brain wants to keep learning new things in case they are useful, so it “tunes out” things that are familiar. It doesn’t bother paying attention.

Delicious dopamine cannot be activated with the overly familiar. Our brains have come to ignore phrases that once made storytelling awesome, but have been overused:

          Tired as a dog.

          Between a rock and a hard place.

          Upset the applecart.

Clichés fail to activate our brains. Switching them up with something inventive yet understandable grabs our attention. It delivers more emotional impact and will resonate with your reader.

          Too tired to close my eyes.

          Stuck like gum on the bottom of a shoe.

          Shaken like a snow globe.

To keep that dopamine flowing, the words and the elements of your story must be fresh and distinctive. When a writer I’m working with in the honing phase of a rewrite keeps falling back on the same words and phrases to describe characters’ reactions, expressions, behavior, and body language, I metaphorically slap them on the wrist. If that doesn’t work, I threaten to charge them five bucks each time it shows up in the next draft.

This is the reason why:

If you use the same expression again and again, such as “She forces a smile,” to convey an emotion, not only will your character seem less dimensional, but we will grow numb to the phrase. You’re putting us to sleep! I urge writers to seek out the moment in the script where it is truly significant, essential to the scene and reveals the character. By removing the repetition you save the impact for when it counts.

Think back to the earlier excerpts from Jaws, Poltergeist, and Scream. Each of these scenes addresses the well-worn horror trope of the unexpected scare and the resulting scream, but each does so using specifics unique to the setting, the conflict, and the character. This strong storytelling is what makes them exceptionally effective on the page and in the theatre.

Practical Magic – Putting Neuroscience to Work in Your Writing

In my Screenwriting Elevated Online Seminar, I devote an entire session to subtext because it is an essential skill to develop and hone in order to take your work to the next level.

Subtext is the secret to engaging readers by activating their emotions when you externalize characters’ inner thoughts and feelings by showing – far more impactful than telling. It has the potential to draw us into your story and its world, and connect us to your characters as powerfully as little Carol Anne is sucked in and swallowed up by her bedroom closet in suburban Cuesta Verde.


Poltergeist. Courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

It’s the difference between:

He walks.


   He stomps.

 He strolls.

    He trudges.

  He strides.

  He prowls.

The change of a single word from the familiar, general, and neutral to the novel, specific, and emotionally charged evokes an entirely different meaning reflecting the character and the context. A few additional letters paint a vivid and visceral image. It wakes us up, makes us pay attention, and speaks volumes.

That’s the power of the word choices you make in description that are intended to convey what we see on the screen that is rich in meaning. A little neuroscience enables you to cast the trickiest spell of them all – enchanting us.

Discover more ways to up the subtext and enrich your script here.

Paranormal Activity – Don’t Go At It Alone

When we jaded readers discover a script that is truly cinematic – visual and visceral – so rich in subtext that we are moved by words on a page, we know we are in the presence of a skilled and confident writer. One who possesses one of the essential qualities we look for in identifying outstanding writing – what we refer to as “a writer with a voice.” To us, that is powerfully delicious.

I guarantee you that when we read a script of this caliber, we sit up and pay attention. Execs will talk about your work and champion it to others. The industry will consider you to be a writer to know. This is how careers are launched.

Read more about how subtext advances careers here.

Trick ‘r Treat – Always Check Your Candy

The very definition of “sensational” is producing or designed to produce a startling effect, strong reaction, and intense interest. Use the tricks I’ve unmasked in this article to resurrect your script from the dead and make it come alive.

Young Frankenstein "It's alive!"

"It's Alive!" 

If you haven’t already guessed, find out here which movie I was watching that – even though it was very familiar to me – made my heart pound. Plus there’s a link, so watch it if you dare, and are up for the scare.


‘Tis the season for horror flicks and haunted houses. It's Halloween. I guess everyone's entitled to one good scare. Happy Halloween to all those who celebrate, as well as to those who prefer to get their treats from stories of all natures and descriptions.

Learn more about the craft and business of screenwriting from our Script University courses!

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