Yesterday, I tweeted a link to a great post by Sally Apokedak about not cheating the reader by skipping emotional scenes. Some writers struggle with heavy scenes. They’re uncomfortable with “invading” the privacy of their characters. They worry about creating laughably cheesy scenes. Or they think a scene that’s essential to the emotional journey is unnecessary because the reader already knows what will happen.
However, those aren’t good reasons for avoiding writing certain scenes. Sure, we might struggle to write about deep emotions, but struggle is good. Often the hardest things to write are scenes that require us to dig for an emotional truth. That truth will resonate with readers, and that scene might end up as their favorite.
Reader Emotions and Character Emotions Don’t Have to Match
First, let’s talk about how people experience emotions when they’re reading, and specifically, let’s discuss the heavy kind of emotions—the ones that we, as readers, don’t necessarily want to experience. With normal emotions, authors often want readers to empathize with the main character. They want the reader to feel the same emotion as the character. That empathy creates a bond between character and reader. Empathy means the character is relatable.
However, with heavy, often dark, emotions, readers’ self-preservation instincts might kick in and make them pull back from deep empathy. Some readers don’t like overly emotional stories. Personally, I’m not a fan of overdone angst. For heavy emotions, we might maintain a better bond with readers if we “settle” for sympathy rather than empathy, if we allow readers to process the emotions their own way.
This means we shouldn’t focus on a poignant phrase here or a heartbreaking image there to create a specific emotion. Rather, a reader’s sympathy will come from the scene as a whole—the situation, the consequences, the circumstances, the actions, and the reactions.
In other words, let the emotion come from the subtext. If we, as readers, know how a situation is going to affect the character—how this will make their goals harder to achieve, how this will hurt them, how their subdued reactions hide their true pain—then we will sympathize with them. Sympathy leaves readers room to form their own reactions and can prevent them from checking out of the emotional experience.
Tip #1: Use a Less Deep Point-of-View for Uncomfortably Heavy Scenes
That sympathy concept plays into the issue of feeling like an invader in difficult scenes. One way around the problem is to create a sense of privacy when dealing with heavy emotions.
For example, in chapter 34 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry enters the forest with his ghostly parents and friends to turn himself over to Voldemort. As readers, we know what Harry’s decision means. We understand his reasons, we know this will result in his death, and we see his strength in carrying through anyway.
J.K. Rowling didn’t take the route of heavy-handed melodrama with “oh woe is me” thoughts from Harry. She kept this chapter very distant, almost numb, with lines like, “Harry understood without having to think.” That is, she didn’t state what Harry’s thoughts about this journey were. This restraint in stating the obvious gives us, as readers, the “privacy” to experience our emotions our own way.
We’ve heard that everyone experiences grief differently. This technique—where the author pulls back so the reader doesn’t have to—gives readers the ability to fully experience strong emotions like grief on their terms. The reader’s “flavor” of the emotion can be more powerful, intimate, and immediate than what they would experience if the author tried to tell them “here’s what this emotion feels like.”
Tip #2: Emotional Doesn’t Mean Melodramatic
Nobody wants melodramatic displays of characters falling to pieces. Editor/author Alicia Rasley of Edittorrent shares the rule: “When the character cries, the reader doesn’t have to.”
If we’re too explicit with emotional details, we corner the reader. A cornered reader doesn’t have any room to form their own reactions to a story. A cornered reader will pull away in a natural human instinct for self-preservation. A cornered reader will purposely try not to feel what we’re sharing with them.
The trick to making a heavy scene emotional isn’t about telling the reader what to feel or even showing the reader what the character is feeling. The cliché “a single tear tracked down her cheek” both tells and shows on some level.
Instead, as Alicia explains, we have to “inspire the reader to experience the emotion.” And we do that by using the scene as a whole, as well as subtext, to create an experience of sympathy.
Tip #3: Don’t Skip Scenes that Are Part of a Character’s Emotional Journey
Sally said it best in her post:
“We read fiction because we want to go on an emotional journey with the main character. If you cheat us out of sharing the emotional journey why should we go on reading?”
I recently read a story with two points of view: the hero and the heroine. As a reader, I knew what decision the heroine was going to make at the black moment. However, when the author chose to skip that scene—probably to avoid rehashing things—I still felt cheated.
There’s a difference between “knowing” she was going to do something and actually seeing her do it. We might even have the reaction, “Wait, you actually went through with it?”
As a writer, I would have chosen to show the scene from the hero’s point of view. That approach would still include the reader on the emotional journey of the story, and it wouldn’t have rehashed the same thoughts the same way as when we saw the heroine planning her decision. Besides, I wanted to know what the hero thought of her action. How did he react?
In other words, we can get creative with ways not to cut readers out of the journey, even if we feel the scene isn’t needed from a plotting perspective. Don’t leave the reader to make huge emotional jumps without leading them along.
Bonus Tip: Don’t Force a Disconnect between the Reader and the Story
When we talk about writing in general, we often say that we never want to pull readers out of the story. The same advice applies to heavy emotional scenes. We don’t want to force readers to pull back because the emotions are too deep to feel empathy, because melodrama wants them to feel a specific way, or because the emotional journey skips a step.
In her post, Sally talked about a problem she encountered with a book that had been shaping up to become a new favorite:
“At the end of one chapter a character I really like—the main character’s mother—is injured. … The next chapter opens . . . three months in the future. … I found the POV character and her friend discussing the DEATH of the mother as if it was old news.
I was bonded with the POV character. When her mother died, my mother died, but I wasn’t given any time to grieve. I struggled through one more chapter, then put the book down and never picked it up again. I simply couldn’t reattach myself to the heroine. She was over her mother’s death and I was still reeling from it. This created a breach between us that was too wide for me to cross.”
We don’t want our work to suffer from that disconnect. There are techniques we can use to give room for privacy, avoid the melodrama, and share the emotional journey of the story with readers.
We might avoid writing emotional scenes during our first draft. They are hard. But we can’t call our story done until we dig into the scene and find a way to let the reader experience the emotions.
Do you have trouble writing heavy emotional scenes? Have you tried any of these techniques before? How did they work for you? Do you have other tips to share? What makes you disconnect from an emotional scene?Pin It