What sorts of scenes create the greatest emotional impact for your reader?
A few weeks ago, a friend invited me to the International Film Festival to see The First Grader, the story of Marugi, an 84-year-old Kenyan man who goes to first grade when the government offers free education to all. Sounds light and fun, right?
The First Grader was a phenomenal film, but light and fun—not so much. The main character’s past unfolds via flashbacks of murder and torture. The violence in Miagi’s past helps the viewer understand his character better and lends weight to the story.
And yet—these intense scenes of violence were not the scenes to draw the greatest emotional reaction from the audience. They contained elements you’d expect to trigger emotion: vivid imagery, graphic display of emotion, a sympathetic main character in gut-wrenching situations. It made me wonder why not.
What scenes sparked the greatest audience reactions? I teared up…
- When Marugi wins over the kids, makes friends with them, dances with them
- When the school children lock the superintendent out of the school grounds and bombard the “enemy” adults with missiles of shoes and plastic measuring cups
- When Marugi gives his goat to the taxi driver as fare so he can go to the city and speak for the teacher who was penalized for teaching him
- When the teacher returns at the movie’s end
At first glance, these are smaller victories than when he survived torture, imprisonment, and the loss of his family. But they’re the events that touched the audience.
The lesson for me, as a writer, is that making people care doesn’t have to do as much with violence or the magnitude of the threat, but by letting them see smaller acts of heroism unfolding in the present moment. In fact, I think sometimes violence distances the reader—if it’s too great, it can be difficult to process.
Do you find your emotional response to a scene correlates with the magnitude of the threat faced by the main character?