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The Art of Screenwriting: Emerald Fennell

Venturing into the world of writing can be a daunting journey for aspiring writers, as crafting a compelling script requires high skill and dedication. Developing an engaging storyline, often with unpredictable outcomes, demands significant time and effort. Fortunately, there are numerous luminaries to study and draw inspiration, with Emerald Fennell standing out as a pioneer in the field.

Fennell’s illustrious career includes accolades such as an Academy Award, two British Academy Film Awards, and more. Now, with her acclaimed 2020 directorial debut Promising Young Woman (2020) and 2023 follow-up Saltburn (2023), Emerald Fennell offers a lot writing-wise to analyze. So, let’s dive into what makes her such an exceptional writer and filmmaker.

Photo credit: Mark Jones

Character and Plot Points

If you've watched Promising Young Woman or Saltburn, you know Fennell fearlessly delves into dark and uncomfortable themes. The film encapsulates rage in a profound way that defies conventional plot points in this sense depicted on screen thus far.

Allow your characters to embody powerful emotions like rage—or any other essence that serves your narrative—and shape a story around that core. In these films, the character is not just a part of the story; they are the story, creating a deep connection with the audience.

Fennell has gone on record stating how she was contemplating how rage and anger manifest, especially in women who, contrary to what most revenge movies portray, often don’t resort to violence. It’s about examining the diverse ways women act on these emotions.

Furthermore, Saltburn is a masterclass in tone. You can seamlessly shift a scene from deeply connected, profound drama to absurd and uncomfortable comedy and every tone in between.

This demonstrates that tone is purely a matter of execution, a product of craft. At its core, all writing originates from drama. It begins with a character driven by a desire, employing a unique approach to achieve it, and encountering formidable obstacles that highlight their distinctiveness.

Evoking Feeling

Fennell’s films have garnered critical acclaim, yet they have stirred strong reactions about their story, ending, subject matter, and plot. Take Promising Young Woman. This film is intensely provocative for many women, but remember it’s okay to deliver a gut punch to your audience at times.

They may leave the theater feeling angry but never indifferent or disengaged. Love it or hate it, this movie elicits strong emotions. This is the power of effective screenwriting: to challenge and motivate the audience, to make them feel something real.

Understanding the importance of C.A.S.E. (Character, Authenticity, Setting, Emotion) is crucial for engaging audiences, mainly through the authenticity of emotions experienced by your characters. How can you achieve this? Here are ten effective methods:

1. Observation from life: Draw from real-life experiences and observations to portray genuine emotions.

2. Emotion memory: Tap into personal memories of emotions to imbue authenticity into your characters' feelings.

3. The body: Describe physical reactions and gestures that reflect emotional states.

4. The whole message: Convey emotions throughout your narrative, including dialogue, setting, and actions.

5. Emotional leakage: Show subtle cues and involuntary expressions that reveal underlying emotions.

6. Idioms: Utilize culturally specific expressions and idioms to evoke emotional depth.

7. Imagery: Utilize definitive descriptions and sensory details to evoke emotional responses in audiences.

8. Form: Experiment with narrative structure and style to mirror the emotional landscape of your characters.

9. Emotion encyclopedias: Research and utilize comprehensive guides or references on emotions to depict nuanced feelings accurately.

10. The objective correlative: Establish symbolic objects, actions, or events that represent and intensify the emotions experienced by your characters.

By employing these techniques thoughtfully, you can effectively convey authentic emotions in your writing, enhancing audience engagement and empathy toward your characters' experiences.

Forcing Discomfort

Emerald Fennell masterfully forces discomfort in her storytelling, creating narratives that evoke strong emotional responses. The audience's anger and unease stem from the realization that these films reflect harsh realities rather than being trivialized as jokes or seduction tactics. Fennell’s writing confronts such truths head-on, provoking strong reactions, particularly when addressing serious issues often portrayed humorously.

When watching a story unfold in a Fennell film, viewers naturally become emotionally invested in the characters. They absorb the characters' struggles and choices, immersing themselves in a cinematic reality that stirs deep emotions, even if they do not personally live through the depicted situations.

Fennell understands that as dark as a story gets, pain is intrinsic to the human condition, making it a fundamental storytelling element. Pain is the origin of our most poignant metaphors and refined prose. Her characters endure suffering because it resonates with our own experiences.

In Fennell’s skilled writing, physical pain often mirrors emotional turmoil. It intensifies the drama, amplifies the stakes, and presents another obstacle for the protagonist to overcome on their path to triumph. This nuanced approach to discomfort and pain is a hallmark of Emerald Fennell’s compelling and provocative storytelling.

Utilizing Genre Blending

Emerald Fennell is one of the best at genre blending. Thriller, mystery, comedy, you name it. There’s a bit of everything in a Fennell script. It's crucial to understand the essence of each genre and how it aligns with your story and its intended message.

Consider how your chosen genres will resonate with your target audience and what expectations they might bring. Ultimately, film genres revolve around the audience. Regardless of craft and conventions, meeting audience expectations is paramount in genre screenwriting.

As a screenwriter, your task is to establish and fulfill these expectations, as each genre has its own set of rules. The challenge with adhering strictly to genre trends is the risk of producing a formulaic screenplay. Hollywood is saturated with conventional scripts, so screenwriters often explore innovative approaches by blending genres:

●      Horror-comedies

●      Dramedies

●      Sci-fi thrillers

●      Crime dramas

●      Fantasy comedies

These hybrid genres allow writers to distinguish themselves from the sea of generic Hollywood spec scripts. Rather than reinventing storytelling from scratch, they combine unexpected elements to create fresh narratives. Like adding caramel to chocolate chip cookies, these blends offer audiences a new flavor while retaining the familiar comfort they enjoy.

In reality, Hollywood thrives on profitability. While entertainment is vital, the industry is not confined to repeating the same formula. It embraces new trends because they have the potential to generate substantial revenue.


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