3 Tips for Writing Heavy Emotional Scenes

by Jami Gold on June 26, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Girl sobbing with text

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?

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43 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Riley June 26, 2012 at 6:42 am

Great post, Jami!

When I do emotional scenes I like to attack it from both the H/heroine’s POV. Thinking about it I guess I convey their emotions through actions spotted. By that I mean the hero may see the heroine’s shoulders slump, her lip quiver or back straighten. Sometimes having the hero (who the reader knows without a doubt loves the heroine)suffer just because she is in pain. It isn’t necessarily the direct emotions that reader connects with, but they do connect with the concept regardless of the cause.

I love it! Great insights. :)
Riley

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Jami Gold June 26, 2012 at 10:05 am

Hi Riley,

“Sometimes having the hero (who the reader knows without a doubt loves the heroine)suffer just because she is in pain.”

Ooo, yes, that’s good. And the reader’s connection to both of those characters will create a sympathetic emotional reaction in them. As long as the reader connects with the concept, as you said, like to the whole scene or situation, they’ll experience an emotional reaction. Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee June 26, 2012 at 6:43 am

Reader Emotions and Character Emotions Don’t Have to Match

This is so true! And as an author, you can take advantage of that so the character emotions in a scene trigger an entirely different set of emotions in the reader.

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Jami Gold June 26, 2012 at 10:09 am

Hi Carradee,

“the character emotions in a scene trigger an entirely different set of emotions in the reader”

Yes! I mean, think about those thrillers with some scenes written in the POV of the villain. The villain is eager to do their bad deeds and the reader experiences dread. Completely different, right? :)

But it works because a reader experiencing emotions–oftentimes, any emotion other than disgust/disappointment at the story itself will work–is invested in the story. Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda Collins June 26, 2012 at 7:16 am

Thank you for sharing and talking about Sally’s post, Jami! You know I’m not too shy with heavy emotional scenes. There are few where I knew I was gonna have to dig DEEP and so I had a box of tissues ready and set…and I really did use them. I even revised one last night, and it was more of a deep love-type emotion scene, one where two people came to terms and admitted their feelings. And I balled almost the entire time. Between being in the MC’s head and the music I had playing, I think I pretty much got the emotion across, but not ‘too’ much to disconnect the reader.
I haven’t tried pulling back a little in some scenes yet, though. And I’m not sure, but how do you think that would work in 1st POV? Part of me thinks it would work the same as what JKR did with Harry, but then another part of me thinks the reader might be disappointed to not go through that thought process with the MC. Hmmm….guess that’s why we have Beta Readers, huh? ;)
One tip I try to remember is to just put it all out there. Write every emotional scene, no matter if you don’t think it’s needed or not, then go back during revisions, or after receiving comments from Betas and pull back or delete certain scenes if needed. OR, I sometimes write the scenes off to the side and use slivers of it in a current scene, and if a Beta Reader says, “I want to know more about how this went down,” I’ll add in the entire scene itself in a not-so-obvious way. Hope that makes sense. :)

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Jami Gold June 26, 2012 at 10:15 am

Hi Melinda,

Oh yes, as an author, I cry when writing those scenes. And that’s a good sign. :) A crying author might very well equal a crying reader. LOL! But that’s different than a crying character. I skimmed that Harry Potter chapter again last night as I was writing this post and starting tearing up all over again. :)

That’s a great question about 1st person POV. I think it mostly comes down to not being explicit with the character’s thoughts the whole time. If you look at the Harry Potter chapter, he bemoans his fate a bit when he first learns of Dumbledore’s plans for him, but by the time he’s walking into the forest, he’s numb. That’s realistic–and it gives the reader breathing room.

So it’s not that the character never explores those thoughts, but when things get too heavy, go for the “numb” reaction. Does that make sense? :)

And that’s a great point about not worrying about this during drafting. We might skip these scenes or we might “put it all out there” as you said. There’s no wrong way to draft. :) And then we fix it in revisions. Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda Collins June 26, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Hmmm….. yup, that makes total sense and helps me figure out exactly what I’m going to do in revisions when I get towards the end of my WIP. ;)

Thanks again, Jami! You rock!

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Jami Gold June 26, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Hi Melinda,

Happy to help! :)

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Chihuahua Zero June 26, 2012 at 8:39 am

What interesting tips. I guess it’s better to give some distance when characters are having strong emotions.

However, what’s your advice on handling scenes where the protagonist is in depression. The problem with depression that it’s hard to make interesting, regardless of distance. Would you say to just not put it in the spotlight and contain to one scene if possible?

Also, what about characters that are traumatized throughout the story and therefore are going through a lot of emotions?

I have plans for one of my narrators later in the series, but I want people to feel his breakdown in a way, without people being turned off. Maybe I can put some focus on the facade he forms to hide that he’s emotionally dying inside?

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Carradee June 26, 2012 at 6:15 pm

The vast majority of my MCs are some form of “not right in the head,” and I usually write in a “close” POV. The key seems to be to make sure their strong emotions are well-founded—

But putting a character’s strong emotions in “close” POV also doesn’t affect the reader the same way as it does the narrator. In my experience, the closer you are in POV while the MC experiences strong emotion, the less the reader will feel those same feelings.

For the narrator of A Fistful of Fire, I had to figure out how to keep her from sounding whiny and irritating in her paranoia. I did so by toning down her paranoia; it’s pervasive and very much a problem, but she doesn’t dwell on it, quite so much. The sequel (not yet released) has another narrator, but that one actually…well. That book contains an emotional roller coaster + depression + mental breakdown—all in the narrator.

But the reader reaction is “Aw, poor her,” not sharing the selfsame emotions—and I didn’t want the reader to share the narrator’s emotions. Not in those scenes, anyway.

So before deciding if you should go “close” or “distant” in the POV, decide what you want the reader reaction to be. If it’s to share the MC’s emotion, go distant; if it’s to understand the MC’s emotion, go close. (It’s the sympathy/empathy distinction.)

Just make sure to give your characters grounds for their emotionss. To ensure you don’t overdo it, try to follow the rule of two (unless you have an extremely good reason for breaking it).

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Jami Gold June 26, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Hi Carradee,

“That book contains an emotional roller coaster + depression + mental breakdown—all in the narrator.”

Holy cow! I respect you so much for even attempting that. :)

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Carradee June 27, 2012 at 4:35 am

Yeah. The funny thing was, when I started the book, I thought the narrator (who’s a side character in the first book) was a perfectly levelheaded common-sense person. I was even looking forward to writing her, since I so often write MCs that are some form of crazy. *facepalm*

My chicken eggs, all nicely counted, turned out to be goslings…

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Jami Gold June 27, 2012 at 8:13 am

Hi Carradee,

LOL! Boy, do I ever know what that’s like. My characters never turn out the way I expect them to. :) Good luck with your goslings and thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold June 26, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Hi Chihuahua Zero,

That’s a great question. There are a couple of issues with writing about a character with depression. As you said, it can be hard to make interesting. Also it can be hard to make the character likable–or at least relatable–and not too “woe is me.” The other issue, and maybe this is an underlying problem, is that in real life, depressed people often don’t have concrete goals they’re working toward because they’re too depressed to see a point to anything.

So my advice would be to ensure that the character has strong goals they’re working toward and then layer touches of the depression here and there. As you said, spotlighting it for one scene might be okay, especially if a story goal comes out of that scene, but beyond that, no more than three mentions or references. If three references to a foreshadowing plot point are enough to make readers remember, then three references to an emotional state should be more than enough to make readers remember how the character feels without rehashing the same thoughts all the time.

As for the emotional breakdown issue, I think you came up with a great idea to focus on the facade. If readers know or suspect the truth of his mental state, then the facade draws attention to that truth in an indirect way. I hope that helps. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc June 26, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Wow…wow, and, WOW.
This is a post to bookmark, share and read over and over.
Jami, I’m always floored by your wisdom, but sometimes, you knock it out of the universe instead of the park.
I loved Sally’s quote about the disconnect she felt with the heroine after she lost her mother. I feel her pain.
I’ve read a few novels here and there that have done the same thing. I put the book down because I was so dissapointed by a particular turn of events. But the ones that upset me the most are the stories that close the door on emotion.
I’m sure when you speak of emotion, you’re referring to sadness, happiness, anger, etc. So, in leu of this serious post, forgive me for bringing this up, but I enjoy getting some of the emotion I crave from a good sex scene. I like it spelled out, word for word, what the hero/heroine feels, what they say, what they do. I don’t care for erotica, but I do like a steamy love scene (minus purple prose) I do not, however, like when the sex is merely implied. I feel cheated. Like the author didn’t quite know how to write it, or felt uncomfortable writing it, so they backed off.
One of my favorite romance authors is Lynn Kurland. I LOVE her writing. I love her stories, characters, voice. But…she closes the door on sex, and in the process I feel cheated.
I know she has a huge fan base and there are loads of people that prefer a closed door, but I want the emotion I feel in a sex scene. Whether it’s soft and sweet or urgent and animal, I want it written out on the page.
So, even though, for the moment, I can’t think of another example to offer other than my preference for a visual sex scene, I do know what your talking about. And I agree with Sally completley.
Excellent post, Jami.
And I can’t wait to read Sally’s full post as well.
Thank you for your wisdom!!
Tamara

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Carradee June 26, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Just to point out, some folks have actual moral or religious objections to writing/reading sex scenes, so the lack of such a scene doesn’t necessarily mean the writer copped out.

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Jami Gold June 26, 2012 at 11:02 pm

Hi Carradee,

I agree that the lack of sex scenes doesn’t mean the author copped out. As I replied to Tamara, the only time I’ve ever really felt “cheated” in that regard was when a couple got together in the middle of the book (i.e. their emotional journey wasn’t complete yet) and the scene was “closed door.”

The main reason I felt cheated then is because I can’t imagine that a couple wouldn’t experience emotional growth or insights during that situation. I’d totally respect an author who went non-explicit with the scene and just focused on the emotions, but a mid-story scene that’s missing altogether excludes the reader from the emotions too.

And yes, I’ve read a story like that. My reaction wasn’t to assume that they had nice sex behind that closed door, but to assume that it must not have been very good since it made no emotional impression on them. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the reaction the author was aiming for. ;)

In other words, I’m not advocating for explicit sex scenes by any means–every author has to follow their own comfort level–but that the emotions should be addressed in some way. Thanks for the comment!

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Laura W-A July 30, 2014 at 12:53 am

I know this is an old post, but you have a really good point here. I tend to think that some things are better left to the imagination (plus I cannot imagine my mother reading a sex scene I wrote) (or my nieces and nephews, or…), but I do have a scene where the heroine has not known one of the male leads very long and ends up in bed with him. He has known her for five years (time travel), but she is meeting him for the first time. I should probably at least have a scene where she realizes that there was no way he could have “known her” as well as he did. :-) My brain just did not want to go there.

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Jami Gold July 30, 2014 at 10:00 am

Hi Laura,

Interesting premise! Good luck with your story, and I hope this helped. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold June 26, 2012 at 10:41 pm

Hi Tamara,

*blush* Thanks!

I respect all authors for their choice about whether or not to write sex scenes, but I understand what you mean about how “closed door” scenes can cause problems. Some of my stories are very spicy and some have only a kiss, as I write whatever fits the characters and the story. But some stories seem like they need a sex scene of some kind and they don’t have it.

For many–perhaps most–stories where the couple gets together before the ending, I have a hard time believing that when they finally have sex, they have no emotional growth, enlightenment, or turning points. Those are all things that point to a touchstone in the emotional journey of the story, and if that exists, there should be a scene.

That doesn’t mean that the scene has to be explicit. One of the authors I beta read for goes all out with the emotions in a sex scene, but as far as the physical mechanics, all she writes is along the lines of “and the two became one.” :) And that’s okay. The point of the scene isn’t the tab-A-slot-B stuff, but the emotional aspect.

So maybe the advice with sex scenes would be to determine if the couple getting together is part of the emotional journey of the story. (Some stories end after just the first kiss and that’s okay too. I’m thinking more about when the couple gets together before the end of the story.) And if them getting together affects them emotionally in some way, I’d suggest that authors find a way to include a scene that touches on those emotions while staying within the explicit/non-explicit comfort zone for themselves and their target audience. Great comment–thanks!

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Samuel June 26, 2012 at 7:37 pm

I am going to save this one. Great post. Thank you. Really needed it

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Jami Gold June 26, 2012 at 10:51 pm

Hi Samuel,

You’re welcome. :) I hope it helps. Thanks for the comment!

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Tammy J. Palmer June 26, 2012 at 10:36 pm

I knew some of this, instinctively I guess, but you did a great job of explaining it.

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Jami Gold June 26, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Hi Tammy,

Honestly, I knew a lot of this instinctively too, but it wasn’t until I started writing this blog post that I consciously recognized it. My subconscious muse often takes over my blog writing, and I learn right along with all of you. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Laurie Evans June 27, 2012 at 10:03 am

Great article! I’m reading a book right now where the author SKIPPED over what could have been a very powerful, emotional scene. I was thinking, wait, did I miss something?! It won’t make me put the book down, as I like the rest of it so far, but…She left me hanging there a little bit.

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Jami Gold June 27, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Hi Laurie,

Oh no! Yes, I’ve read books where I had the same reaction as you (and as Sally mentioned in her post), where I’ll flip back a page and even check page numbers to see if something was printed wrong. Not a good way to keep the reader in the story. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Susan Sipal June 27, 2012 at 1:10 pm

I’ve never thought about it like this before, Jami. Thanks for all the great tips and examples. Especially loved JKR’s and Alicia’s!

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Jami Gold June 27, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Hi Susan,

Ha! I knew you’d love the JKR example. :) Thanks for the comment!

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J.M. Dow June 27, 2012 at 4:56 pm

These were all really great tips. I knew number 1 on an emotional level, somewhat, but I’ve never actually thought about it.

On the Harry Potter moment, I know that scene is detached, but I always thought it was because Harry himself was less grief stricken–ala Bella Swan post-Edward break-up–and more numb with the truth–ala V at the end of V for Vendetta. By the way, V for Vendetta’s ending gets me every time.

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Jami Gold June 27, 2012 at 11:02 pm

Hi J.M.,

Yes, you’re right about the Harry Potter moment, but remember that, just like everything we write, that was a choice JKR made for that scene. Even if Harry was numb, JKR could have gone on about how he was numb. We could have been in close 3rd person POV with how “nothingness chased away his fear” or a similar idea.

Instead, she used Harry’s numbness to make the retreat from a close POV feel natural, and the two added together to leave a distance for the reader to witness Harry’s sacrifice. So the detachment of that scene comes from both directions, lending it an almost dream-like (or nightmare-like) quality. Interesting… Thanks for pointing that out! :)

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Jan July 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Hi Jami, When I try to put words to emotions that there are no words for, I skirt on melodrama to show it. We are told, write what you know. To know our dark sides we look to our ‘hot buttons’ that effect us emotionally. To find them, pay attention to what we accuse others of, ‘you are a liar, cheat, thief, coward, crappy driver’. These are relevant issues to us because we are closet ‘liars, cheats, thieves, cowards, and crappy drivers’. Old folk wisdom, “Watch they accuse you of”. Hot buttons that effect us emotionally are character traits we can put words to, confront, and change to move out story along, and out lives.
You do challenge our thoughts, Jami.

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Jami Gold July 2, 2012 at 7:27 am

Hi Jan,

Yes, that’s a smart approach. If we pay attention to our “hot buttons,” we’re likely to touch on things that will resonate with others too. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Megan Wilson June 15, 2014 at 11:37 pm

I’m currently working on an idea where the main character herself actually dies. It’s complicated – her death is actually a gateway to getting into another world, so it’s not permanent – but I want the scene to have some real heavy emotion, because in the end, she’s legitimately 100% dying, slowly bleeding out, and an experience like that will have a huge impact on anyone. It’s a pretty unusual scene to write but I’m hoping I can convey the right emotion without it being too cheesy. :)

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Jami Gold June 16, 2014 at 8:50 am

Hi Megan,

Ooo, interesting! I have a story with scenes like that as well (MC dying), so I understand the challenge. :) Good luck with it and thanks for the comment!

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Glenn September 15, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Deep emotional scenes, IMO, require prep, as well as decompression, and if I’m going to go through the experience of living a scene over and over again as I get it down on the page, I want it to be as effective for the reader as I can manage. The example above, with the mother dying and then the author skipping three months to avoid the clean up, or the aftermath, is a great example of what not to do to a reader.

If at all possible, depending on the scene itself of course, I use foreshadowing and implied narration well before the scene to warm up the emotional muscles of the reader. I also use leading emotionally charged words in dialog and narration which have duel meanings and color the dictation enough to develop a mood by the time the scene arrives on stage. For example, instead of describing the unemployment of the town as depressing, I may choose to describe it as cancerous — if the mother suffers from Angiosarcoma for example. I may also have an event (fight, car wreck) which applies to the plot happen in front of or near a funeral home. These could feel obvious, but done right they are barely noticed, while coloring mood.

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Jami Gold September 15, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Hi Glenn,

Great examples! Yes, those options would be far better for the reader than avoiding the emotion. :) Thanks for the comment!

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