Today I came across an article on Slate about scientists seeking video clips to elicit specific emotional responses from test subjects, "Saddest Movie Scenes of All Time". From the article:
Smithsonian.com’s Richard Chin reports that, in the late 1980s, psychology professor Robert Levenson and then-graduate student James Gross began looking for film clips that would reliably elicit emotions from test subjects…Levenson and Gross spent years researching, combing through 250 films and testing their final contenders with nearly 500 undergraduates. The key was finding clips that could stand on their own, without any context, and would evoke a single, strong emotion.
It’s that last part, "clips that could stand on their own, without any context, and would evoke a single, strong emotion," that got me thinking about what a useful tool such a catalog of clips could be to writers of fiction. I’ll concede that the visual and audio aspects of film can definitely heighten the emotional impact of a scene, and of course the performances are critical as well, but I still think writers can learn quite a bit from these masterful miniatures. A single scene that can pull the viewer in quickly and strongly enough to evoke a strong emotional response, regardless of the viewer having zero context or background on the characters or story, is a very well-written scene.
I’d encourage writers to take a look at the clips provided and listed in the article (which also includes clips for amusement, disgust, anger, fear and more) and think about them analytically. Why is the scene so powerful? What specific words or bit(s) of action moved you? In other words, what was important about the scene, in terms of inspiring the desired response in the viewer? Now imagine what those same scenes would be like with more dialogue, more action…more anything. Finally, go back to your own work and see if you might be gilding the lily to your work’s detriment in any of your scenes that are intended to have a strong impact.
Think of impact like a bullet: to be effective, it needs to be fired at high speed and on target. If it has to travel through layers of stuff en route, its power will be lessened and it’s less likely to make it to the target at all.