PODCAST – The Craft of Writing: Externalizing the Internal, Part 2

The Craft of Writing: Externalizing the Internal, Part 2

By Jessica Hinds


In Part 1 of this podcast, we used There Will Be Blood as a model for understanding the vital craft of externalizing the internal in a screenplay.  But how do you go about using this technique in early drafts of your own screenplay, before you’ve got that perfect image in your head?

Today we’ve invited Jessica Hinds, who teaches our Weekend-Long Craft Intensive Nov 7-8th, to give you a sneak preview of some of the core concepts she’ll be covering, and speak about some practical things you can do right now to externalize the internal in your writing and reap the benefits in your career.

Thank you Jacob Krueger for your fabulous, inspirational, macro introduction last week that allows me to go into the micro and get really specific.

The idea of externalizing the internal is great, but what the heck happens when you sit down and you’re actually working on a scene and suddenly you write something like, ‘John is sad.’

It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing a character’s emotion rather than their action into your script, because emotion is so vital for us to understand our character’s journey. We have to know what they’re feeling. The audience has to be able to see that.

But sometimes we get so trapped in writing the emotion of a character to the extent that we lose track of what the character is actually doing, and how to capture that in a visually compelling way.

Instead of writing “Her eyes go wide” and facial expressions or emotions, we want to find the actions a character takes that reveals those emotions.

What do we mean by actions?

Action is defined differently for screenwriting than you might define it in everyday life. In a screenplay, action is the movement that your character makes when they are pursuing a want. It has an intention behind it that drives the structure of your story.

There are a few different things that I attack in my Craft Intensive that helps us to be able to reveal these internal states and emotions in a really simple way. For today, I’ve taken the four or five things that I find for myself and for a lot of the writers that I work with that are internal things that you run into on a daily basis with your script. I’m going to give you guys a few examples so you can really feel it, you can see it, and you’ll be able to hear it.

I have some really great examples that we’re going to go over right now that get into the very specific detail when you have a character who has something going on inside with an emotion that we normally do as a facial expression. Emotions and facial expressions are two things that will absolutely kill your screenplay. Everyone once in a while they’re alright. But when I’m reading a script and I read “She is happy,” I don’t know what that looks like and neither does your actor. The actor you have playing that is going to be doing a really bad job because they’re going to start emoting. And if you’ve ever seen an actor play ‘sad;’ they look like a sad clown painting.

So let’s look at a bad example of facial expression first.


Leigh struts away. She laughs. Bubba looks brokenhearted.

“Bubba looks brokenhearted.” That’s boring. So we are going to make that better and we’re going to use a wonderful tool called: follow the want. So if we follow the want of Bubba we’re going to find an externalization of an internal emotion and it’s going to make the scene much better.

Let’s see what happens when we follow the want to create this internal emotion into an action.


Leigh struts away. She laughs.

Bubba takes a deep breath, follows after her. He clutches her skirt.



So what does he want? He wants her to stay. We take action when we have wants. If we don’t have a want we don’t take action. There’s no need to take action. If you see your character and you know that he’s feeling something and you allow him to take action based on that want, suddenly your audience goes “Oh he’s heartbroken.”

We have this wonderful moment where we just go to the action. He feels heartbroken but his want is to get her back and so he takes this action.

As I discuss in my classes, there’s a simple equation that captures what action should always do, and how action in screenplays works when it works best:

1 + 1 = ______.

Leigh struts away, she laughs
Bubba takes a deep breath, follows after her. He clutches her skirt.

= _______.

And the audience puts it together and goes, “Oh he’s heartbroken.”

audienceLet me explain. You don’t need to give your audience information. You don’t need to tell them everything. You don’t need to explain everything to them. You need to give them an opportunity to get actively involved in the storytelling, and put together the pieces for themselves.

This is also how you do a little bit of subtext. It’s the exact same concept, except using dialogue, to allow the audience to put together what is really being said, rather than spoon feeding them the emotions on the surface.

The equation that you want to remember is 1 + 1 = _____ and you allow the audience say “TWO!” on their own! Because then they’re an active part of your storytelling. When someone is an active part of your storytelling, how much more are they going to pay attention and participate and watch?

So, this next one is another example of how to follow the want. An example where the choice the character makes in one scene leads to a different want that’s born in the next.


Leigh struts away, she laughs.

Bubba pulls out his cell phone. He plugs it into the Jumbotron hard drive. He pulls something up on his phone. He goes to press a button, hesitates. He looks back at Leigh.

She skips into the arm of a Handsome Football Player. Bubba presses the button.

A naked selfie of Leigh appears on the 20 foot Jumbotron screen. The crowd stops and stares. Leigh shrieks.

maxresdefaultSo, it’s the same idea. Follow the want.

What does he want now? After he gets his heart broken, what does he want? He wants revenge! But here’s the thing. What makes us know this? What’s the one small action that let’s us know that he’s heartbroken and not just an asshole? He hesitates.

You give them one plus one. Heartbroken + Hesitate, you think, “Oh, he’s heartbroken.” Because if I didn’t add that hesitate in there, you might have thought “He’s just a jerk. He’s just a guy that would do that.”

But no, we get that hesitate in there. So, we have an emotion that is completely clear without ever having to state the emotion because we’re just doing straight up action and we’re following the character’s want. And action is just a character going after their want. The emotions take care of themselves.

Externalizing Inner Motivations and Intentions

Do you ever have this problem when you’re writing: How do I let the audience know what the character is actually intending? But you can’t really see the intention, so you can’t write the intention. So we have to come up with ways to externalize this internal thought.

Let me give you another bad example:


JENNY sits at the table. She places her jacket on the back of the chair across from her to make it look like she is with someone so that she doesn’t get hit on.

The intention here is that she’s trying to make it look like she is eating with someone so that she doesn’t get hit on. But how would we know that? What does that actually look like? How do you write that in a way that we understand that just by seeing things visually on the screen?

So this is the way that I would improve upon that:


Delicate hands wrap around the handle of a sharp knife. The knife cuts into a thick steak. JENNY shovel a fork full of steak into her mouth. She looks across the table at the cream spinach in front of an empty chair. A black jacket hangs around the back of the seat. Across the room LEERING MAN winks. He slicks back his greasy hair. Jenny looks at the chair. She looks back at the man, smiles politely. Leering Man looks away. Jenny takes a breath. Smiles.

120405085733-solo-diner-story-topGranted, this is a bit longer, but it will take you a bit longer because now everything is an action driven by a very strong want; the want of the leering man. The first time there was no obstacle in her way, it was all intention, but by putting an obstacle in her way that the character must over come the intentions become much more defined.

So the next you find yourself trying to write what your character is internally thinking about put someone or something in his or her way that wants the exact opposite so that we as an audience can see that internal process dramatized. When we think of two different characters who have opposing wants we are externalizing, through physical characterization, the internal debate of the very issue we’re writing on.

Symbolic Externalization

So, here’s another example, which is something I actually like to do usually at the end of a sequence. But this is also something that indie films do a bit more than Hollywood films, which is to use a symbol:


Leigh struts away, she laughs.

The wind blows a leaf onto Bubba’s boot. He picks up the leaf. It’s shaped like a heart. He crushes the leaf in his hand. Pieces of crushed leaf fall to the ground.

Does anyone have any doubt how he is feeling right now? He’s heartbroken. But you never have to say he’s heartbroken. It’s a total symbol. Yes, if you use this constantly it can get a bit nauseating, but sparingly it works really well.red-heart-shape-leaf-wallpaper

To recap there is two main ways to externalize internal wants, emotions, intentions, and to keep yourself from writing facial expressions constantly. The first is Follow The Want. Make sure you know what your character wants and allow them to go after it. We only take action because we want something, and we only want something because there is an emotion going on inside us. The other option besides following that want is to do it symbolically.

I hope you feel like you know have a few new tools for your writing. If you’d like to learn more tools and skills to really boost your writing muscles we invite you to check our Craft Intensive. There you’ll learn how to turn your script from a simple written story to one that jumps off the page and can be visualized by producers, actors, and your fellow writers.




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