How to write a crying scene - part I
Picking up from where we left off yesterday, Act II of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "The Body" picks up with Buffy's sister Dawn crying in the girls room at school, saying she can't believe it. In characteristic Whedon misdirection, we quickly discern that Dawn is actually crying about some petty teenage crisis and still hasn't learned of her mother's death.
Hitchcock used to say that it was much more effective to show an audience that there was a ticking bomb under the table that the lead characters were seated at, rather than merely shock the audience by setting the bomb off without any warning. Basically, his reasoning was that the anticipation of the bang was worse than the bang itself. In the case of this script, that "bang" is the moment where 15 year-old Dawn learns that her mother is dead. It hangs over every single beat in this act, which is filled with a mix of typical teenage drama and a few nods to how Dawn is regarded by her peers.
It takes nearly four minutes until Buffy walks into Dawn's class and says she needs to speak to her. Buffy is wearing a face that really tells the whole story. If your sister interrupted your class looking like this - especially if your mother had been recently treated for a brain tumor - you'd know what was up. And on some level, it's pretty clear that Dawn intuits what Buffy is there to tell her.
Dawn says she's in the middle of class and asks if it can wait. They walk into the hall and Dawn demands to know what's going on. Buffy will only say, "It's bad" and tries to usher Dawn away. Students in the halls stare at them and the classroom Dawn just left has a large glass window that's looking right out on the two of them in the hallway. The whole class watches as Dawn's voice breaks and she asks, "Where's Mom?"
Buffy tries to explain that something happened while Dawn keeps insisting, "But she's okay, right? It's serious, but she's okay?" Buffy interrupts, "Dawn...."
And at this point our perspective shifts to inside the classroom looking out on Buffy and Dawn. Buffy's back is to us, but Dawn is facing in our direction. We don't hear what's said, but we see Dawn's face crumble, then sob. After screaming "No!" a few times (which we only faintly hear through the glass) she falls to her knees, and this act ends.
So here we don't actually hear the moment, or even much of Dawn's anguish, but we see it. We're a witness too it much as we would be if we were there in real life, voyeurs to their private grief. Somehow that makes it more real and more agonizing.
To be fair, this isn't the first time this technique has been done. Heck, it's not even the first time Whedon used it. A similar staging was used in Season Two's "Passion" with Angelus watching through an outside window while Buffy and Willow got a call informing them Angelus killed their teacher and friend Ms. Calendar.
The first time I saw this sort of direction was in a season one episode of ER called "Love's Labor Lost." Dr. Greene spends the entire episode dealing with a pregnant woman whose labor has gone horribly awry. At one point he delivers the child and then sends the father to go be with the baby, promising he'll take care of the mother.
He doesn't. She dies on the table and Dr. Greene has to go upstairs to a nursery room to inform the now-widowed husband that the baby will grow up without a mother. The camera stops outside the room as Greene enters. Through the glass pane of the door, we see the father rocking his new son while sitting in a rocking chair. Green enters and takes a seat across from him. Like Buffy, his back is to us. We don't see his mouth move or hear the dialogue. We just sit and wait. When the moment comes, Bradley Whitford - playing the father - doesn't over do it. He reels back, casting his head up, eyes to the sky.
Restraint can be a lot more powerful for the audience. And as much as writers are told not to direct in the script - this is the sort of staging that a writer can get away with.