Deviating slightly from my usual fare, I’m going to out myself as a huge movie fan by using the medium of visual storytelling to make the point of this blog: why emotional beats are important.
(Note: I know some might not agree with the content of this post. That’s okay! Just my personal opinion on action movies and emotional beats. As a disclaimer, I still love action movies. ;D)
In my younger writing years, especially my early teens, I felt that my only duty was to tell the stories I wanted to read, and growing up on a steady diet of James Bond, Top Gun, The Matrix and just about any other action flick I could get my hands on, my tastes also largely consisted of action, action, and more action, with pop culture references where applicable. Back then I really believed that the only way to properly engage readers was by having action beat after action beat, preferably in battle sequences. So that’s what most of my stories were.
The more I matured and my writing matured with me, I started to develop a bad taste for the same action movies that had defined my childhood. I found myself bored with them, not because of how many times I watched them but because I knew that something was missing. Something in this smorgasbord of high-stakes action wasn’t serving my soul. At last I was able to put my finger on what it was:
Good action movies no longer appealed to me because they lacked emotional beats.
To use vintage James Bond as an example (because I would watch those movies over and over as a kid), the titular hero rarely ever felt as if he was actually coming out on bottom in any situation, no matter how dire. Whether he was tied to a chair, locked in a room, or facing an opponent who far outmatched him, most of the time Bond maintained a cool, suave aura that made it clear he wasn’t too concerned with his odds. Along with that unshakeable veneer was his love-’em-and-leave-’em attitude with women that made it impossible to truly connect with any female outside of Money Penny, since the next movie would inevitably find Bond moving on with the next romantic fling.
While this formula made for a good “Bond flick,” it also left the movies with a glaring lack of emotional depth. We’re not given much insight into what really makes Bond tick other than the job. Newer bond movies from Casino Royale onward have sought to change this, but some fans have complained that these no longer feel like “real Bond movies.” I would propose that the reason for this is that action films as a genre, by and large, don’t take time with emotional depth. Outside of an inciting indecent that might be tethered to the hero’s emotional core – losing a love interest or child, being betrayed by a best friend, etc. – these kinds of stories often devolve into a hot mess of explosions, witty one-liners and teeth-gritting duke-outs that never graze the main character’s soul as he walks away from the carnage with head high, fireworks bursting behind him.
While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this kind of action-based drama, it’s difficult to connect with these stories on any level deeper than the sheer entertainment of the action. Consequently, it’s also hard for them to leave a lasting impression beyond the “oohs” and “ahhs” of a cool explosion or a well-aimed one-liner.
There are many reasons emotional beats are important in creating an impactful story. Here are just a few examples where I believe they were done well, at least enough to bring me back to them again and again:
1) It Gives the Audience Something to Root For
If the hero is nothing more than a dispenser of one-liners and ruthless killing prowess, he’s likely to come across as shallow. Consequently, support for him will often be shallow. Have you ever rooted for a character only because you know you’re supposed to root for them? Chances are, there was nothing appealing to that character beyond their status as the “hero.” On the other hand, when writers take the time to give a character emotional depth, revealing layers to their motivations and dimensions to their personality that the audience can actually root for, this makes their journey more significant and increases the likelihood that people will come back to the story again.
Example: Steve Rogers, Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve Rogers is a likeable guy to begin with, but the movie takes plenty of time with emotional beats that heighten this, including the revelation of his orphaned heritage, him sticking up for a weeping widow in a theater, his bond with Bucky displayed in several scenes, his conversation with the doctor before his procedure, his moment with Peggy after Bucky’s “death,” etc. These moments show the mettle of Steve’s character and allow the audience to connect with him on a deep emotional level, which makes his ending sacrifice all the more gut-wrenching.
2) It Provides Necessary Pauses
Contrary to my teenage belief, it’s clear that imbibers of all kinds of media need a break from constant action beats and intensity, otherwise they’ll just grow weary of it all. A writer can capitalize on these necessary pauses by instilling emotional beats in them, drawing the audience closer to the characters while giving the plot some time to breathe. This balance can be difficult to find, but when done properly it keeps the story from feeling either too chaotic, like it’s just one fight after another, or too dry, like it’s all talking and bonding but no forward momentum of the plot.
Example: John McClane, Die Hard. While this movie is considered one of the penultimate action movies of the ’80’s, the writers really got their emotional beats down to an art, IMHO. While there’s plenty of C4, blazing guns, and plot twists to earn this movie its action badge, Die Hard also plays its pauses perfectly. There are scenes of McClane’s wife, Holly, worrying for him, and him for her. John takes time to look at pictures of his kids, reminding himself what he’s surviving for. There’s also a truly memorable moment after McClane’s injuries drive him to shelter in a bathroom, where he shares a heart-to-heart with his new friend Al and admits his mistake in separating from Holly, eventually leading to their reconciliation in the end.
3) It Makes the Character’s Actions More Relatable
While just about every story does take the time to establish the reason for it’s main character’s role in the story, there are many action-heavy, emotion-light stories that simply leave it at that. Once the character is catapulted into the plot, they become a ruthless, dedicated wounding/killing machine existing solely to raise the body count and bring the audience along through the trials and triumphs of Getting the Job Done; meanwhile,their emotional arc is never visited again. I’ll admit that this is where most action movies lose me. I’ll find myself invested in the character’s initial motivation, then grow bored when that inciting emotional incident is never mentioned again, as if it never happened or no longer matters to the character. On the other hand, when the writers revisit the source of the character’s emotional arc – what got them into this mess in the first place – the story’s internal consistency tightens, the character becomes more sympathetic, and now we can see even more clearly why they move from A to B to C, why that progression is important to them, and why it should be important to us.
Example: Martin Riggs, The Lethal Weapon Franchise. In the first movie we’re introduced to the catalyst for Riggs’ disturbed psyche – the death of his wife – and this deep emotional wound is touched on again and again throughout the subsequent movies. It profoundly effects Riggs’ life choices, future romantic involvements, and character motivations, endears him to the audience, and creates realistic scenarios of grief as he learns to navigate life beyond the loss of his first love.
4) It Elevates the Storytelling
It’s one thing to present a string of action sequences interspersed with shallow quasi-romantic scenes and pauses devoid of emotional depth (I’m looking at you again, older James Bond films). It takes a different sort of writing style entirely to weave nuances of realistic emotional charge into an equally-realistic action-packed plot. But it’s so worthwhile to learn that craft. While the balance is difficult, it can be done, and the result is a story that can withstand the test of time, bring audiences back again and again, and incite discussion beyond “Meh, it was entertaining,” while being by-and-large forgettable to the average person. It takes a keen writer to strike these notes properly, but the result is always worth the effort it takes to learn and execute it properly.
Example: Pacific Rim. While this movie had quite a fair amount of giant robots and monstrous creatures slugging it out over big cities, many were in agreement that the movie packed just as much of a punch when it came to the emotional arcs. From the struggle of a wounded man overcoming the loss of his brother, to the breaking heart of a father and adopted daughter learning to let each other go, to damaged partners finding a way to trust each other, to rivals-turned-heroes, and of course the ever-difficult subjects of grief and sacrifice, Pacific Rim balanced the action and the emotion, wove them together, and ultimately delivered a memorable, action-packed, emotionally-driven story.
There are so many more reasons why emotional beats are important in any story, from movies to novels to comic books and beyond. What’s one reason emotional beats matter to you? Got any examples where you feel they were done particularly well? Leave them in the comments below!