Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "The Body" - how to write a crying scene, part I

After yesterday's post, I decided it would be a good idea to pick another scene featuring a character dealing with high emotions. Because I like punishing myself, I chose one of the most depressing and intense episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "The Body." This is the season five episode that deals with the death of Buffy's mother, Joyce. I picked it in part because it's available via Netflix Instant Viewing, so many of you should be able to get it. It's on Disc 5 of season 5 and was written and directed by Joss Whedon.

The episode opens as Buffy comes home and finds her mother dead on the couch. Her first reaction is to become very agitated, bordering on hysterical as she shakes her mother, saying "Mom? Mom!" A call to 911 offers little help beyond walking her through CPR and when it has no effect other than the Slayer's strength breaking her mother's breastbone, the dispatcher advises Buffy that the paramedics are on their way. Clearly in shock at this point, she calls Giles and asks him to come immediately.

And again, Buffy's still not crying at this point. Just numb shock.

Then, despite a truly evil tease showing a fantasy where Joyce Summers is miraculously revived (Screw you, Joss), the paramedics can't do anything for her. "I'm sorry," the paramedic says, "But I have to tell you that your mother's dead." (Yes, I know this is completely not the way it would go in real life. Paramedics don't stop until an MD takes over for them.) Worse, they get a call that pulls them away, leaving Buffy alone with her mother. Their last words to her are "Try not to disturb the body."

Through all of this, Buffy doesn't yet cry. This actually has the effect of making the scene even more agonizing for the audience because they - and Buffy - are denied that emotional release. Gellar's portrayal of Buffy in shock is truly unsettling to watch. Buffy wanders down the hall, then drops to her knees and vomits. The ambient sound of wind chimes outside is disturbingly loud, making the whole scene feel eerie.

And still she doesn't cry.

Giles comes in and finds Buffy in shock, muttering about how she should go to school to tell Dawn - her sister - what happened. Unable to make sense of this, Giles casts an eye to the living room and spots Buffy's mother, "Oh my god, Joyce!" He moves to help her as Buffy says, "No, it's too late.... We're not supposed to move the body!" Her voice at last breaks with emotion, and Gellar again proves that she was robbed of at least one Emmy as we see Buffy process how she just referred to her mother.

Now it hits her, and just as it hits us, Giles is across the room in a shot, taking the Slayer in a hug. Eyes wide, Buffy sobs - no tears - and we go into commercial.

That is how you construct an emotional release. That's how you handle a crying scene. Show the character fighting the emotion, denying the emotion, unable to feel the emotion - then really kick them in the gut and go out on that release.

Don't make a scene of someone crying - make a scene of someone about to cry, or trying not to cry.

Tomorrow - another act of "The Body" features a different technique.


  1. It's always more interesting to watch the process of getting there than the actual act itself. Right? :)

  2. I'm tearing up again just reading this. :(

  3. ... Gellar again proves that she was robbed of at least one Emmy


  4. For me, the scene that made that particular episode is when Anya is openly sifting through what the most appropriate reaction for her is supposed to be. Her confusion as to what is the right mortal response leading up to her tears breaks my heart each and every time.

  5. I have to say I disagree with the following from the article...

    "Then, despite a truly evil tease showing a fantasy where Joyce Summers is miraculously revived (Screw you, Joss), the paramedics can't do anything for her. "I'm sorry," the paramedic says, "But I have to tell you that your mother's dead." (Yes, I know this is completely not the way it would go in real life. Paramedics don't stop until an MD takes over for them.)"

    First of all, an MD isn't there at the scene where the body is... so, that notion kind of falls by the wayside here. Secondly, even if that is the typical protocol, couldn't the paramedics just in this situation be making a professional mistake or no-no in telling her that her mom's indeed passed away? Protocol or rules aren't always followed in real life so why should fiction always do it?

    ... Just sayin'.

    Side Note: Sarah Michelle Gellar (as well as quite a few other cast members from both "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" as well as its spin-off "Angel") was robbed more than once of an Emmy for her work on the show (or, for that matter, of a Golden Globe or any other perceived-"prestigious" kudos statue).

  6. This is the only time you will see me say this, but I agree with you. This was the one episode that SMG's acting was beyond compare. The episode as a whole deserved a slew of awards, but it wouldn't get them because lets face it, no one wants to award something that close to realistic (as close Buffy could come that is).

    The next scene you should do is the one with either Anya, Xander, Tara, and Willow in Tara and Willow's dorm room imo Anya in that was phenomenal

  7. How I always saw the moment with the paramedics (or later, with the doctor) is that Buffy isn't really hearing what they're actually saying. She's hearing the words through her shock, so her brain hears everything as emotionless when that may not be exactly how they worded it. You know what I mean? In fact, in the scene with the doctor, doesn't he start speaking, and then it switches to a surreal take of him basically saying, "I'm saying this because I don't know what else to say to you and there's nothing I can do"?

    I find it fascinating. The whole episode is an astounding take on all the crazy, surreal emotions a person goes through during great loss. It's remarkably effective. You've made an excellent choice with highlighting this episode.

  8. I'm a writer, so this is a GREAT help to me! Thank you :)

  9. First, welcome to all the new readers. I usually get about 500-600 views a day. I just checked and I got 2,424 views in just 11 hours! Such is the power of being linked to by Whedonesqe.com. I hope a lot of you like what you read and check out the archives.

    A couple quick notes first - the deal with the paramedics is that once they start resusitation they don't have the authority to declare death. At that point, they have to keep working until they get to an MD, who can declare Joyce dead. I totally get why Joss made the dramatic decision to have things play out as they do, so I'm not going to nitpick the inaccuracy, but it's a pretty big one. (Most fans have surmised that in a town with as high a mortality rate as Sunnydale, overworked paramedics might have different policies. I'm willing to go with that for the sake of the show.)

    Sinkwriter - you're correct in that that the moment with the doctor is meant to be surreal and somewhat in Buffy's head. I don't think the paramedics lines are similarly altered though.

    Okay, the big one - the Anya scene. I had every intention of including it. I was even a good portion of the way writing the entry and... it just wasn't working. I agree that the speech all of you are referring to is one of the two big gut-punches of the episode. (The other one being Buffy's "We're not supposed to move the body!")

    Here's the deal as I see it - it's fairly easy for a non-Buffy viewer to read the entry today and put themselves in Buffy's shoes. We can all imagine the horror of coming home to find a parent dead. The Anya/Willow/Tara/Xander scene has a number of great bits in it (Willow compulsively changing clothes, Tara being quietly supportive, Xander trying to play the role they all expect him to play and keep on a brave face, and Anya asking typically blunt questions.) The issue is that so much of this is dependant on really knowing who the characters are in order to appreciate it.

    Anya's speech is powerful because we're used to seeing her as the blunt ex-demon without tact, and she uses that lack of tact as a weapon. In this case, she truly doesn't understand what's going on, doesn't know how to process it and NOBODY in the room is getting that. And yes, she has a wonderful speech that Emma Caulfield hits out of the park. It's a great synthesis of Joss's words, Emma's performance, and our accumulated history with Anya.

    The problem is that the wider audience who hasn't seen the show before isn't going to get those last two pieces. And if you just take Joss's words... well... it sounds like something a child might ask. Anya is essentially "Big Bird" there, not understanding death. Now, that's a type worth exploring on this writing blog at some point, but the theme this week was "how to write a crying scene" and I really didn't see a good way to cover that Anya moment without weighing down the post with a lot of explanation about Anya. Then, once you strip all that away, there's nothing else I could really teach with that scene that isn't covered in today's or tomorrow's post.

    So that was my ultimate reasoning. No disrespect to Joss or Emma. That's just the way things shook out. Glad you all seem to like this post, though.

  10. I'm one of the people who followed the link from Whedonesque and read this out of curiosity. I'm not a writer. I am, however, a coroner. As a result there are some things I can't help commenting on.

    First of all, the paramedics. I can only speak to the practice in British Columbia but it is likely similar in other jurisdictions. What happens here is that if the paramedics are ceasing resuscitation attempts they will phone a local hospital and have a physician declare death over the phone. If death is obvious and there is no attempt at resuscitation they don't even do that. Interestingly there is actually no legal requirement regarding who can pronounce death here, although that is likely different elsewhere. One thing that was odd to me was that the paramedics left before any police arrived. The way it should work is that the paramedics call police and remain on scene until police arrive. The police then call the coroner/ME's office. I too am willing to go with the "Sunnydale is a busy place for paramedics" theory on this one.

    Ther are some other, more important, observations that stand out to me. One is that Joyce's "dead" body lying on the couch was perfect. The later scenes of her in the morgue she looks too white. TV shows and movies always get that wrong - dead people are very pale, not powder white. But the death scene in the home looked like many that I have attended. Buffy's reaction, in addition to being well written and well acted, was just plain realistic. There are a lot of different reactions that people have but hers is very common. Not so much the vomiting but definitely the shock and the inability to take anything in. When I'm at a scene explaining to people what will be happening I always try to keep it very straightforward and I repeat things multiple times throughout my conversation with them. In spite of this I usually have to go over it all again with them on the phone later because most people (understandably) just aren't able to process things in that sort of situation.

    Enough rambling from me. I loved this episode before I became a coroner and I love it even more now because I can relate to it in a different way.

  11. Hi, another Whedonesque reader here, also a potential screenwriter (Get it? Potential? oy). I've heard references to this blog before, but never checked it out. An unfortunate mistake on my part as this is such a wonderful resource and forum for the kinds of discussion I WISH I could have experienced in school.

    It's great seeing the examination of and reader reaction to what, as many have stated, was and remains a treacherously undervalued and under-acknowledged masterwork (just my opinion, but could most likely write a thesis supporting it). Everyone involved really went for the jugular (oh, cheesy vampire puns are not allowed? Oops, I'll save it for a True Blood post...) and I think it's so unfortunate that no one was ever acknowledged, considering this episode of television was better than most dramatic films in the past ten or so years (and I would like to include all the acclaimed little indie and foreign darlings in that as well).

    One other scene that really struck me was when Buffy goes to inform Dawn of their mother's passing, while she's in an art class at school. The entire execution of the scene, watching their interaction through a big plate glass window, seeing Dawn collapse to the floor in silent agony, viewing everything from the perspective of the students and teacher still in the room...It takes a lot out of me when I see it, but that's because I think it cuts very deeply to an essential aspect of death: the perspective of the outsider, anyone from a stranger to a close friend. You see it all, but there are some parts you simply cannot perceive because it is not your experience. That's certainly how I felt when my best friend's father passed away: I was aware of what was happening, but couldn't break through that invisible barrier to console her or dispel her grief; I was, in my own way, helpless and trapped.

    I also wanted to reiterate what the above commenters have said regarding Emma Caulfield's scene as Anya. Another standout moment of truth and emotional catharsis for the audience. The entire thing is amazing, the way Anya expresses her conception of the mortal condition through examples such as combing one's hair, drinking fruit punch, and yawning. It is most certainly childlike, and therein lies its power. It cuts to the core of our deepest thoughts and feelings regarding death and mortal existence. Of course Anya relates her thoughts to us in this simplistic way, because for her, humanity is supposed to be simple...but what's really revealed in the course of her monologue is the truly baffling and profound nature of it all.

    The moment that always gets me is when she blurts out, "But I don't understand! I don't understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she's, there's just a body, and I don't understand why she just can't get back in it and not be dead anymore. It's stupid. It's mortal and stupid."

    I wanted to post those lines because they are so true and meaningful and elegant to me. Death is mortal, and it is mortal; it makes no sense to us. But the single line that really does it, and that causes me to lose my composure every time is the first, her admission of bewilderment. It's one of many moments on the show that reaches Joseph Campbell-level resonance for me. In one short sentence, Anya expresses an entire species' psychological and emotional response to an experience we all share. For all our philosophy, for all our science, and all our religion, it really is that simple: I don't understand

  12. Well said, Daniel, and welcome. Come back tomorrow to see me cover the Buffy/Dawn moment you cite above.

  13. Thanks for that info and/or clarification on the matter of normal paramedic procedure, Draghkar Noir. I still maintain, though that perhaps in that one particular moment the paramedics (or at least one of them) just got lost in the moment and had a lapse in judgement and did something they weren't supposed to.

  14. Also, to Daniel: Awesome to come across another aspiring scribe (among a few other things for me) who is also a big "Buffy" and/or Whedon fan! Do you happen to use Facebook or Twitter by any chance?

  15. This is good advice for actors, too. I believe it was Uta Hagan who referred to it as steam coming from a kettle as a opposed to an entire pot boiling over.

  16. I'm working my way through the entire Buffy and Angel catalog (after already watching them when they aired, natch) and recently finished Buffy Season 5.

    This was a great episode, but for me the episode in Season 5 with the most emotional PUNCH, the real "holy shit" moment was when Riley was in Xander's basement talking about how wonderful Buffy is, the most important person in his life, and it's a good speech, but it's also, we kinda know where it's going...

    And then he finishes with "...but she doesn't love me." CUT to Xander's reaction.

    I'd actually forgotten that moment from when it first aired, but watching again years later, Holy crap, it was like someone had slapped me in the face.

    That for me was the single most powerful (because emotionally truthful yet unexpected) moment of Season 5.