Just as emotion is the invisible thread that connects an audience to characters up on the screen, emotional flow is the invisible thread that connects the individual scenes.
Each scene in a screenplay is separate, distinct. By definition, a new scene occurs when the camera changes time or place (not placement within a scene):
EXT. LIGHTHOUSE—NIGHT INT. LIGHTHOUSE—NIGHT EXT. BEACH—DAY
And so forth. The story leaps from one scene to another, blessedly leaving the boring stuff out (Kosher is a superb example of this art of subtraction, leaping effortlessly from moment to moment, hitting scenes late and getting out early.) We see the pieces of the story that matter, that make a difference, that create—or process—emotion in the characters. And we're able to stay connected to the story—in spite of the leaps—because we follow the emotional flow.
It's analogous to the persistence of vision:
If, while one is looking at an object, it suddenly disappears, the image of it will remain on the retina of the eye for a brief space of time (approximately one tenth of a second) and during that time one will continue to "see" the object although it is no longer before the eye.3
I like to call it the persistence of emotion:
If, while one is looking at an emotion (the boy reacting to his mother being killed by the bus in Central Station, for example) it suddenly disappears because the story leaps to a new scene, the emotion remains on our mind (heart? both?) and we continue to "feel" this emotion during the leap although it is no longer before our eyes.
We—and the character—carry this emotion forward. It flows to the next scene when we see him—hunched over, heartbroken. If he were laughing and singing, we'd say, Huh? The emotional flow wouldn't work. His happy emotions wouldn't feel earned (unless we learned he was in deep denial).
When we watch a film, we're connecting the emotional dots and connecting to the characters as we do. The story—leaps and all—moves forward in what seems to be a seamless emotional flow. And we move forward with it. Even in the wacky mockumentary world of "Killer Kite," which cuts back and forth between the story of the film and the story of the documentary about the making of the film, we are able to follow the emotional flow in each story because the screenwriter provided the dots that we need to connect.
Still, as I said, not all scenes contain a moment of change. The opening scenes of Slow Dancin' and "Killer Kite" establish mood. The opening scene of Cool Breeze and Buzz establishes Paula's character and her world and her relationship to it. But all moments of change are contained in scenes. Pearls in oysters. And sometimes the richest, most resonant scenes have more than one pearl. Which brings me to Charlie Chaplin
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