Working the Nostalgia Thing – Pushing Buttons & Tugging Strings

by Diana Black

Screenwriting 101 classes all across the country stipulate, “For the suits to buy your script (the product), it must be brilliantly crafted. They (not just you) must perceive it to be a highly marketable concept entailing a great story with astonishing characters.”

In order to receive such high praise from these folk, who are renowned to have a serious, ‘hard core’ exterior, we need to emotionally ‘move’ them. As in blubbing like babies. After all, we may be highly sensitive and committed artists, but this is a business – for us and the suits. Everyone’s ass is on the line. But if every aspiring writer delivers what we know the suits want, all that does is keep us in the pack, not ahead of it.

So let’s explore possible ways to get ahead with the objective being to generate deep, almost imperceptible emotional responses to our masterpiece. A knowledge and understanding of how to generate nostalgia in subtle and profound ways may be a useful skill component in one’s kit-bag.

Pushing nostalgia-generating buttons

Pushing ‘buttons’ to invoke an emotional response within the audience in order to sell a ‘product’ has been the mainstay of every salesperson since that particular life-form evolved.

I assume you know and understand what a sense of nostalgia is? But just in case, let’s define… like ‘energy’, nostalgia is indefinable as a thing in itself. Having energy enables us to do things – run, sing, manipulate objects etc. Equally, having a sense of nostalgia or becoming nostalgic over something, is a powerful generator of emotion – giving rise to joy and/or memories that allude to happy or happier times etc. Often it’s associated with the emotionally vulnerable childhood and teenage years.

The ‘button’ may be an object, a symbol, a color, a song, a fragrance, an event, a place, a certain look even…whatever – ensure its mentioned within the big print of the scene. True, we’re not set-designers, but if it’s something that will resonate strongly, make it an integral component of the action. For example… she picked up the blue and white striped jug and … (could be straight out of any Grandmother’s kitchen). It’s key to unlocking precious, delightful memories, or even painful wistful ones associated with longing. For either, it may enable the Reader/Viewer to go back in time to that place – a respite from our current cares and concerns. Back then, we were blissfully unaware and happy – with few to no responsibilities.

Loading your script with ‘nostalgia-generating buttons’ is fine, but if you’re the only one that finds whatever it is, endearing/emotionally moving, then you’re back to square one – back in the pack. You need to know what’s likely to subtly manipulate your potential demographic – the gatekeepers,
and if lucky enough to have the project green-lit, the audience. What if you knew that your potential gatekeeper, was say, Italian-born and your script just happened to be set in the golden light of rural Italy back in time when you know the gatekeeper was young… so do your homework.

Do we see evidence of it in TV Land – of course we do. The latest is the return of THE MUPPETS (ABC, 2015 – ). We grew up with these guys. As well as MAD MEN PBS, 2007 – 2015), a window into our cultural past, and THE BIG BANG THEORY(CBS, 2007 – ). Sure none of us really had roomies like these… but we miss ‘em anyway.

Seeking a sense of nostalgia can be an overall viewing choice. How many of us have been comforted with a hot cup of whatever and an Oreo cookie (or two), while watching MeTV? It’s safe to assume that nostalgia-generating buttons are everywhere. Are they in your creation?


Tugging the heart strings

Another use of nostalgia is less benign. I’m talking about subtly but deliberately manipulating the suits and the viewers in a way that potentially causes pain. The suits especially are unlikely to be grateful for the experience, but if you’ve written skillfully, they the viewers they can provide you will engage with your work and be compelled to continue reading or watching because it’s a safe bet that even if they haven’t had a particular personal experience they have a friend who’s been through a version of the hell you’ve devised.

In relation to either – nostalgia or pain, you’d be right in thinking that everyone’s different and at the mercy of different emotional triggers – lovely or diabolical. However, we’re also very much alike – the fond remembrance of someone dear, being homesick, grieving the loss of a loved one, unable to
escape a sense of failure etc. What’s more, it’s cross-cultural – empathy is involved and our job as writers is to generate that empathy – not for us poor, starving sods, but for the characters. As social animals, even as violent and cruel as we can be, we’re also capable of love and compassion… strange
beasties indeed.

‘Strings’ may take the form of an emotionally distressing event or, a scrap of cutting dialogue and how the essence of either plays out within a scene or across a narrative arc. Examples include: – the messy divorce proceedings, the cruel insults long remembered, the fucked-up relationship/s, dealing
with infidelity.

All of the aforementioned abound in the comedy, CASUAL(Hulu, 2015 – ) and under the gloss of the rom-com SEX AND THE CITY – Carrie and Big’s relationship (HBO, 1998 – 2004). Then there’s the loss of a significant other as in the crime drama, RIVER (BBC1, 2015 – ) and MR. ROBOT (Amazon Prime, 2015). And what about the nature of failure? It’s explored in GAME OF THRONES (HBO, 2011 -) and THE VENTURE BROTHERS (CN’s Adult Swim, 2003 -)… the list is long.

The emotions generated via watching these shows may be for some, difficult to shove back down into the subconscious and the pain associated with the memories that have surfaced may ‘stick’ for days or months. As viewers, we’re compelled and grimly prepared to uncover an old wound because we’re still fucking angry or ravaged or having never really ‘got over’ whatever it was that saw us ‘bruised’ and on the losing side – with respect, perhaps ego plays a role here. As Dustin Hoffman says, “Life is too painful” yet we’re drawn, like moths to a flame, to explore it.

This brings us to another point…

While manipulating the emotional state of both gatekeepers and viewers may be a powerful skill to develop and have in our kit-bag –it can back-fire if in our delivery, we’ve used all the ‘subtlety’ of a brick. Let me be clear, we’re not talking about nasty, graphic violence here – we’re not wielding a mallet. If it’s all doom and gloom, strapping them in and brutally forcing them on a roller-coaster ride of emotional pain could be dire – for ratings. The Writer and TV network may lose the the audience altogether ‘coz it’s just too damn painful.

Develop the skill to push and pull as a gift – the gentle, subtle ‘kiss’ of remembrance; exquisitely painful as it might be. As Artists, we’re expected to dig the knife deep and twist it for good measure, but that doesn’t mean we can’t wield the stiletto with care.

Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer currently taking Larry Brody’s Master Class.