Going Straight for the Feels


Any good story must get a strangle hold on the audience’s emotional heartstrings and PULL. While there are many ways of going about this task, it always starts by building your reader’s empathy with a character. After all, you won’t feel for someone that you don’t first care about. Once that’s done, the most common method is to place the character and their goals in peril. However, just because it’s the most common means of going straight for the feels doesn’t mean it’s always the most effective.

I would argue that sacrifice can be even more powerful than peril. As an example, watch this clip from Pixar’s most recent movie, Inside Out.

This scene happens well into the movie, after we’ve had plenty of time to bond with Joy and Bing Bong. Their goals have been well established, as was the lethal threat of the Memory Dump. Additionally, the writers had set up the mechanism for the character’s escape, but made sure the result was uncertain enough to create a sense of tension. All good so far.

At first, I thought this was going to be a three tries to victory sort of scene. However, they did something even cleverer. Joy was ready to give up after the second try, but Bing Bong encouraged her to try once more by saying that he “got a feeling about this one.” More importantly, he looked sad while he said it. Without a single word, he communicated to the audience what he was planning.

Bing Bong and Joy

Despite the clear foreshadowing, we didn’t want to be right. We liked Bing Bong and wanted him to succeed in getting a second chance with Reilly. However when the time came, Bing Bong chose to jump off the wagon so that Joy could escape. In that scene, Bing Bong’s sacrifice meant so much more to me than Joy’s victory for four reasons.

First, he chose to sacrifice himself. Had he been forced to do so, it wouldn’t have been nearly as meaningful. Second, the sacrifice was significant. Bing Bong knew that he was condemning himself to death by staying behind. Third, the feeling was compounded by how excited and happy he was about his friend’s escape. It added a sense of nobility to the gesture and fit his character perfectly. Finally, his last line and the accompanying montage drove the knife home and twisted it mercilessly. In so doing, the writers reminded us of how much we liked Bing Bong and forced us to acknowledge exactly what his sacrifice meant for him personally.

The scene was powerful because it was set up and executed masterfully. The writers took the time to ensure that we cared about the characters, knew the stakes were high, and left the outcome uncertain enough for us to feel anxiety. All those feelings were paid off when victory came at a cost. To me, it proves that as much as audiences admire victory, we love sacrifice more.


2 Responses

  1. Susan Larsen says:

    I love your insights on an audience’s emotional connection to a story and your reflections on sacrifice are spot-on….IMO.

    I deeply enjoy stories that leave me liking a character – as if I know them personally.

    Although movies of all genres that leave me feeling as if I made a new friend are my favorites, the movies that seem to affect me the longest (and not in a good way) are the ones that terrify me. Oddly, the movies that terrify me most aren’t always billed as “horror.” “Interstellar” scared me senseless and I still feel trepidation recalling parts of that movie even though I saw it quite some time ago. I guess it’s just the concept of Earth becoming uninhabitable and the unimaginable challenge of humans finding another planetary home that frightens me. I am curious as to your thoughts on why ‘we the people’ enjoy scary tales. Why would we want to be scared? Is it just the usual culprit….an adrenaline rush?

    • Nathan Barra says:

      Thanks for your comment Mrs. Larsen! I hope you and your family are doing well. As for your question, I think the love of horror movies comes from several sources.

      1) Storytelling is a form of emotional exercise as much as jogging is a form of physical exercise. In good fiction we feel as if we are the character and therefore feel many of the same emotions that he/she does. This strengthens our own lives. Fear is… well… scary, and on some level I think people want to be prepared for that sort of situation, even if they don’t realize it consciously.
      2) There’s a fine line between pain and pleasure. Fear without immediate danger releases all the same fight/flight/freeze chemicals, but carries none of the risk. By horrifying ourselves, we get to feel that adrenaline high that you mentioned.
      3) Train wrecks are fascinating. Likewise, watching fellow humans in danger holds equal fascination. I think human beings inherently want to help one another (pack mentality), and that’s why we are fascinated by those who are in danger. Look at horror movies, how many of them involve a likable person fighting horrible odds. That’s also why we feel such a sense of relief when the “victim” survives.
      4) We like winners. When someone faces horrible hardship and wins, we admire them and want to be like them. The more horrible the odds, the more we value the victory.

      What do you think? Why do we like to scare ourselves so much?

Leave a Reply



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: