Premise and plot might be what hook a prospective viewer of a film—or in our case as writers, a gatekeeping reader—but it is character and emotion that resonates long after a screening or read is concluded.
In this week’s episode of Rated Q, my son Quentin and I discuss Pixar’s ONWARD and I take a moment to highlight my favorite scene of the film, one in which our heroes Ian and Barley—brothers who are on a quest to find a rare gemstone that can power a magical staff and complete a half-cast spell that would allow them to hang with their long-dead dad for a day—are accosted by police who just so happen to know them because their mom’s dating a centaur constable called Officer Bronco. In order to evade the fuzz, Ian uses the staff to cast a disguise spell, creating the illusion that he is in fact Bronco so that he can order the lower ranking beat cops away and continue on with their quest. But, as with all good spells, there’s a catch: he can only answer questions truthfully, or the spell begins to falter. We see this play out as he fibs only to find Bronco’s equestrian ear morphing back into Ian’s elfish own, threatening to blow the ruse and end their quest. A couple more half-truths and near misses before magic nerd-if-not-practitioner Barley realizes what’s going on and informs his spellcasting brother of the rules to the spell—until one of the cops puts Ian in a pickle when she throws Barley under the bus by insinuating he’s a screw-up and a loser, forcing Ian (as Bronco) to defend Barley aaaaaaand pop!—there goes a hoof, proving that Ian does in fact agree that Barley’s incompetent.
It’s a moment that stings. These are animated characters, but the pain on Barley’s digitally rendered face, and in Chris Pratt’s voice, is palpable. The writers expertly took what could have been on its own a fun, suspenseful set piece and infused it with emotion. This is what great scenes do. They don’t just keep us on our toes or get our adrenaline pumping—they deepen our connection with a story’s characters and peel back yet another layer of the emotional onion, which all serves to ratchet up the stakes. The more we care about or are invested in a character, the higher the emotional stakes will be… even in very small stories in which the external stakes seemingly aren’t sky high.
Make it a point to try to do this with every scene, even if it’s just a minor brushstroke. That way when your brilliant logline ropes a read, that read better resonate with the reader—increasing your script’s chances of making it to the silver screen and someday casting the same spell on an actual audience.