When it comes to storytelling, the emotional connection is everything. No matter the genre, if the audience doesn’t know what emotion to feel, then the story will struggle to be successful in both entertaining the audience and pushing any meaningful theme.
Buzz words like tone and mood are often thrown around, and the importance of these cannot be stressed enough in crafting a well-written story. There are countless examples of serious, heart wrenching scenes that are cut short by a weak attempt at underhanded comedy, ruining the scene and the audience’s investment.
However, while tone and mood are important to crafting the emotional ambiance that pushes a scene, they aren’t the only things. Relatability to characters, buildup and foreshadowing are important as well since they are what help us empathize with others and make a scene stick out in their importance to the narrative.
But do these things truly make a scene sad?
While the cliche answer would be to say that a combination of all of these factors and more are the actual keys to a sad scene, saying that doesn’t help with writing a sad scene or explaining one’s emotion when watching it. In turn, I’d argue that a scene’s emotional weight depends on how these factors interact with the reactions of the characters.
It often isn’t enough for something tragic to happen for a scene to be sad. For example, we’d all be able to argue that death is sad even though it isn’t something we can’t relate to, but those scenes where a camera pans across a battlefield covered in dead bodies doesn’t seem to have an emotional impact.
However, what if we were to put a main character in that scene? He’s walking through the bodies and looking around with a frown. It still doesn’t feel that powerful. The reaction to such atrocities doesn’t seem to have much emotional weight.
Now, what if the character stopped, dropped to his knees and started crying? There’s a noticeable difference. His reaction is filled with defeat and sadness, and in the context of being surrounded by dead bodies, the reaction merits sadness within the audience.
At the same time, some reactions don’t cut it. The best example of this is tears. When overused, crying loses its impact on the audience. After all, crying is mostly effective when a character who is built up as strong, confident or cheerful is reduced to shedding a tear.
This idea of breaking expectations is an important aspect of the reaction. Take stories that follow a couple where one of them won’t be alive at the story's end. We watch the couple fall in love, support each other, and become a perfect match; however, the two are ripped from each other because fate is cruel.
These shows often end in one of two ways. One, the main characters predictably bawl their eyes out when the death occurs. Two, the effect of the deceased character is shown on the main characters after the fact. And in my experience, the latter always chokes me up.
We expect the waterworks from our characters, but oftentimes the most emotional scene is the one where a letter from the deceased is read or a memento is discovered. Especially when this scene has a minor twist, the emotional impact can be massive because the reaction of the living is often one of fleeting happiness as they remember the story’s events. In turn, even in their most uplifting moment, these types of shows are able to bring on the feels.
As a result, it isn’t enough for a story to have a tragic ending. A scene’s emotional weight can’t be weighed by the amount of tears or longing stares; rather, it’s when a character is physically and mentally broken by the injustice that the waterfall crashes down.