Emotional Contrast

The more I read and watch and experience art, the more I realize that the scenes I really love are the ones that make you feel two different, contradictory emotions at once. The Glee scene I talked about last week is a great example: the scene is happy and sad at once; a mother and daughter are singing together for the first time and the last time. This emotional contrast lends the story a lot of depth and texture that it wouldn’t have if the two emotions were split up over different scenes.

Another great example is from another musical, one of my favorites: Gypsy, the story of a driven stage mother who forces her daughter into a life of theater. She’s very obsessed and hard to live with, and at the end of the first act the daughter runs away and the act falls apart. This is devastating, but the mother grits her teeth and determines to build a new act with her other daughter, singing a joyful and triumphant song about how the future’s even brighter, and the new act will be better than the old one. It’s all very thrilling and triumphant, until you realize that the other daughter doesn’t want to act–she thought this was her chance to leave the theater and live a normal life, but instead she sees her mother’s obsession now focused on her. The scene becomes wrenching and heartbreaking–and yet thrilling and triumphant at the same time. One character is bravely rebuilding a horrible life that the other character doesn’t want. The powerful mix of contradictory emotions make it one of my favorites scenes of any play or movie.

Another good blend is the death of Eponine in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (book or musical; it happens similarly in both if I remember correctly). Eponine has been in love with Marius for years, but he doesn’t love her back. During the violence of the French Revolution she attempts to win him back by helping carry a message through the war-torn city, and ends up getting shot just outside of his barricade. He pulls her to safety and tries to save her, but the wound is too grave and she dies in his arms–thoroughly convinced by circumstance that Marius has finally come to love her. We get the happiness of love and the sadness of death, all in one scene, PLUS the added dimension of knowing that the thing making her happy is completely false, PLUS the mix of responsibility and guilt from Marius. He doesn’t want to lie to her, but she’s dying and he doesn’t want to disillusion her either, and we feel horrible that she’s dying and horrible that’s she’s misunderstanding the situation, but we feel glad that at least she’s dying happy, and the whole scene starts folding back on itself in a self-consuming paradox where we can’t decide how to feel. We’re good and bad and joyful and tragic all at once. It’s incredible.

This is one of the things I’ve tried to do with the John Cleaver books, building scenes that make you feel happy and sad at the same time, or thrilled and disgusted, or laughing and scared. I won’t mention any by name, both for spoiler reasons and because I’d feel stupid if I thought a scene worked in one way and it turns out it doesn’t actually work that way at all. We artists are very self-conscious that way. What i would like to hear, though, are other examples of the same thing that you’ve come across in other books and movies and such. Are there any great ones we should be aware of?

18 Responses to “Emotional Contrast”

  1. Shaunna says:

    This week’s Drop Dead Diva ended with that kind of scene. Happy and sad in the same moment…there is a pain in moving on but yet the only way to happiness is sometime letting go.

    Thanks for making me more aware of these kinds of situations.

  2. when i was a kid i loved all things scary..but the 50’s scary was fast becoming passe…then the movies of the 60’s were pretty good..now ? i won’t watch any scary movies..i like movies that make me feel good when it’s over..but then dexter and deadwood are 2 of my favorite tv shows..and saving grace.

  3. Sean says:

    The climax of Last of the Mohicans (the movie) is very much like that. The scene has the most beautiful music, the most beautiful setting, thrilling action, demonstrations of powerful love, honorable sacrifices, and horribly tragic events, all at the same time, all rolled into five minutes of screen time. You want to cheer, laugh, and cry all at the same time. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it, and it’s worth watching again if you already have. It is one of my favorite movie scenes.

    In a more classical example, we have Hektor’s speech to his son Astyanax. Hektor is on his way out to fight Achilles and everyone knows that Hektor will die. He goes to kiss his wife and son goodbye, but his son is frightened by his helmet. He takes it off and kisses his child, then prays to the gods that his son might grow up to be powerful, to be chief after him. It is a very moving scene and speech, but tragic also, because most everyone who saw the play when it was written knew that Hektor’s son was thrown from the walls of Troy after the city was taken. It is a powerful mix of love and tragedy.

    There are others floating around my brain somewhere and as they come, I might post again.

  4. Ben says:

    How about the Texas Book Depository scene from Assassins? It’s an inspiring scene about a loser finding his destiny and learning to be bigger than himself, but the whole motivational speech is for something repulsive and horrifying. The human triumph at the end leaves you feeling cold and empty.

  5. admin says:

    The final scene from Last of the Mohicans was one I almost used in my post, Sean; good call.

    And the scene from Assassins is awesome, and an excellent example. Everyone should go watch it (or listen to it, since it’s on the soundtrack) right now.

  6. Grokmeister says:

    The end scene from Gattaca.

  7. Emily M. says:

    There’s lots of these moments in the Book of Mormon. Nephi killing Laban so he can have the scriptures–if I picture him as a gangly teenage boy sassing his brothers and following the voice of God to kill an elder, then getting the brass plates, so he’s approved of God only by killing, it’s very moving to me. Also when the Ammonites are massacred–from Ammon’s point of view. We see him as this fabulous missionary, and he was, except that thousands of people were brutally massacred because of his mission. So all the joy of their conversion is laced with pain.

  8. John Brown says:

    The end of the Crucible with Daniel Day-Lewis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Eel02K-WPo

  9. John Brown says:

    Oh, and I don’t know if this counts, but the opening of CASINO ROYALE was a mix of wonder and suspense.

  10. Sean says:

    The movie, “The Truman Show” comes to mind, but as I try to put my finger on a particular scene, it is escaping me. I think the whole movie applies, actually, since the ongoing deceit throughout the film leads to conflicting emotions of humor, tragedy, and farce.

    A good example comes from Meryl, Truman’s wife, when she has her emotional breakdown. The idea of an actor stepping out of character and breaking the fourth wall so badly makes it funny, especially when Meryl sobs into Noah’s shoulder and directly addresses the audience, saying “How can you expect me to work under these conditions?! It’s unprofessional!” Anyone who has done acting or been involved in a stage production has to laugh.

    However, the fact that she is shredding Truman’s life makes it horribly tragic too. And again, this is but one example from the film. After Truman and Meryl break up, the producers of the show introduce a “new love interest” at Truman’s work place, an attractive woman who acts very interested in Truman. As a viewer, when we see this, we can’t help but wonder, where could this go? This is how it works in stories, right? The good guy gets a beautiful girl. We almost want Truman to start a romance just because the setup is so perfect, but then we remember that it’s all false and that Truman is being manipulated. The perfectness of the situation makes the deceit that much more vile.

    Without the backdrop of farce/humor, “The Truman Show” would be just another humdrum drama, but because the film puts horribly tragic actions in humorous situations, the film is much more powerful. When you do laugh, you almost feel like you should be crying.

  11. Avi says:

    Oh my gosh yes. Homestuck, webcomic by Andrew Hussie. I wanted to laugh out loud at the comedy/absurdity of Jade’s birthday present to John and simultaneously cry at the tragedy of what it took for the present to be delivered. Powerful conflicting emotions.

    And then dread and fear, when the villian confronts to John, to try to steal the present. (I won’t give spoilers here, because even though the action in Homestuck takes place in one day, the story has been going for a year.) The same villian, Jack Noir, who was introduced as a protagonist – twice! In order to characterize him. First as a high ranking bureaucrat in the enemy kingdom, and then in an Intermission, we see an alternate version of him, Spades Slick, live an alternate life on an alien planet. He was a protagonist in order to characterize him – as a vengeful, vicious gangster. But we root for Spades to destroy the opposing gang because they’re rather monstrous. And he has a sort of dark, twisted charisma I guess. And later in the main story, Jack Noir kills the previous Big Bads and becomes the main villian and suddenly you realize you shouldn’t have been rooting for a vicious character who’s willing to break the rules because the good guys (four 13 year old kids) are in serious danger. It was a great way to raise the stakes. Oops I got off topic.

    Newest Star Trek movie – the opening scene gets to me. Kirk is born while his father sacrifices his life.

    Lost – Do No Harm. The entire episode. Jack is trying to do bloody surgery (on the island, not in a hospital) to save Boone’s life, while Claire is going into labor. He can’t be in two places at once.

    Lost – Jin and Sun’s final scene together in the submarine in season 6.

  12. Avi says:

    again, spoilers

    Ok that was rambliing, here’s something concise: all the action in Homestuck takes place over the course of one day, John’s birthday. Friendship is a major theme in the story, and a recurring motif is birthday gifts the four kids give each other. So I felt joy and excitement when John gets his gift after its delivery being delayed for a year, from the reader’s perspective. And the cheerful peppy attitude of Jade’s letter contrasts with pathos since she just sacrificed her life to save him, and to wake up his dream self.

    (Technically she’s alive because it was her Dream Self’s death. Their dream selves are awake while they sleep, and vice versa. Except their dream selves are asleep until they “wake up.” )

  13. Eliza says:

    I found a lot of emotionally complicated scenes in the first two Hunger Games books, and expect to see more in the third. The trip back from the arena in book one, several from book two. Collins set up some pretty intense, conflicting themes and motivations in these books, allowing for that kind of dichotomy to exist.

    Also, Nightmare Before Christmas, when Jack is gearing up to go to ChristmasTown. We know he’s acting on the wrong reasons, and setting himself up for failure, but at the same time we’re rooting for him, because he’s doing something new, exciting, following a path he truly thinks he belongs on.

  14. Scott M says:

    The example I can think of is from the end of, I think, the sixth Harry Potter book. (Spoilers, obviously.)

    Bill Weasley has been mauled by a werewolf and his face has been horribly disfigured. Mrs. Weasley says something to Fleur (Bill’s beautiful but annoying fiancee) about how she’s sorry they’ll have to cancel the engagement. And Fleur, perfectly in character, explains that she doesn’t care how Bill looks because “I am beautiful enough for ze both of us!”

    The reader is still reeling from all the awful things that have happened–Bill’s wounds being the lesser of their concerns–and this declaration delivers a perfectly timed bit of poignant hilarity. For the whole book we’ve been as annoyed by Fleur as the rest of the characters, and at this moment–even though she hasn’t changed in the slightest–we come to love her.

  15. Kalyani says:

    I am not sure if its kind of obivious, but the last scene in dark knight has the same effect on me.. We all know that batman is the actual white knight, but sacrificed everything he is to keep up the reputation of Denth.. I felt horrified & sad that now batman has to be hunted and he is no longer seen as the hero he deserves to be and at the same time we are happy that through denth’s good image the morale of the city is kept safe..

  16. Hannah says:

    The last episode of season four Doctor Who! (Spoiler alert)

    The Doctor saves earth by destroying his own peoples chance of survival (again) which is both happy and sad because on the one hand he’s saved the universe from a terrible fate, but on the other he’s all alone again. Then, he realises that th eprphecy which fortells his death hasn’t come true, and he’s glad, but he has smiled too soon, for in order to save Wilfred (the human who helped him save the universe) he must give up his life. It’s really really sad, and I’ve left out a lot of plot points.

  17. kbrebes says:

    Helpful post.

    I just wrote a double-sided emotional scene and then dropped one emotion thinking it was too much, or too distracting, or too complicated, or too confusing or unbelievable. Now I see that maybe it was a good thing–and now I understand why I’ve missed it!

    Big Thanks!

  18. Michael says:

    This is an excellent post, Dan. Your thoughts about dual-emotions working together to create a perfectly nuanced, dynamic, and powerful effect are spot on. I find the hardest part of being successful at incorporating this into my own writing rests first in the outline and character development and secondly creating the right environment and situation that makes the scene feel real and not forced. (I appreciate you mentioning that Glee episode with Rachel and her mom singing “I Dreamed a Dream.” It felt flesh and blood real and was highly rewarding, richly moving.)

Leave a Reply