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Creating Emotional Impact

Cheryl's Musings: Creating Emotional Impact

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


Creating Emotional Impact

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.

**Spoiler Alert***

What scenes sparked the greatest audience reactions? I teared up…

  • When Marugi wins over the kids, makes friends with them, dances with them
  • kamauWhen 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?

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At March 3, 2011 at 7:02 AM , Blogger Jill Kemerer said...

You know when you read a post just when you need it most? Yeah. I needed this. I've been thinking about what resonates with the reader, and you verified what I've decided. It's not so much how much the character has to overcome as showing them overcoming it.

At March 3, 2011 at 11:10 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Jill--thanks for making my morning :). I think you're right. When we experience an obstacle with a character--when we show them overcoming it--that's when the story really hits home. I think about this quite a bit when I write for young people, because the "minor problems" a child faces in school or relationships aren't minor from their perspective. The key is empathizing with the characters and showing their experience.

At March 3, 2011 at 2:14 PM , Blogger Aron White said...

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At March 3, 2011 at 2:15 PM , Blogger Aron White said...

Those type of moments from the First Grader are so true. We tend to get caught up in the "noise" of life, but it's really the quieter moments that have the biggest impact on us, whether it's someone holding the door open for you while coming to work, or even a cheerful hello from the cashier at the local grocery store. It's those little tidbits that can be so uplifting when you least expect it :)

At March 3, 2011 at 7:15 PM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Hi Aron--Maybe the small things hit harder because they are closer to our own experience. The greater personal connection I have to a scene, the easier it is to lose myself in it.


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