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June 26, 2012

3 Tips for Writing Heavy Emotional Scenes

Girl sobbing with text "The Emotions Are Too Much!"

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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66 Comments on "3 Tips for Writing Heavy Emotional Scenes"

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Riley

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

Amanda Fairchild

This is great advice, thank you!

Carradee

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.

Melinda Collins
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… Read more »
Chihuahua Zero

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?

Carradee
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… Read more »
Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc
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… Read more »
Carradee

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.

Amina
Amina

So true. I have a religious objection and I can’t read sex scenes. And I prefer authors who skip them because sex scenes are valuable and drive the plot too. So I would hate to skip and miss the emotional bonding the characters experienced. But it can be done in a way that sex is involved and written a bit but the detail is skipped.
A little line that tells us its happening but we’re not actually reading it.

Samuel

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

Tammy J. Palmer

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

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Laurie Evans

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.

Susan Sipal

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!

J.M. Dow

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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[…] Those deviling details are at it again. Roger Colby lists 5 ways to work with stubborn writing; Janice Hardy helps you choose your point of view; and Jami Gold gives tips for writing heavy emotional scenes. […]

Jan
Jan

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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[…] https://jamigold.com/2012/06/3-tips-for-writing-heavy-emotional-scenes/ – Jami Gold offers 4 tips for writing emotional scenes […]

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[…] analyzed the Spiderman reboot for subtext. I’ve written about how to revise for subtext, how to use subtext in emotional scenes, and how character development happens in subtext. Yeah, I’m a tad obsessed with […]

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[…] 3 Tips for Writing Heavy Emotional Scenes […]

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[…] touched on this “leaving readers room” concept when discussing how to handle intense emotional scenes. The same idea applies to many other aspects of writing as […]

Megan Wilson
Megan Wilson

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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[…] of my most popular posts shares tips for writing heavy emotional scenes. I think that post is popular because we often struggle with including emotions in our stories, […]

Glenn

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.

Allison
Allison
This is a great post! (Also gosh this is old why am I even commenting.) I especially agree with Sally’s comment. I remember a similar book, only it wasn’t a death it distanced itself from, but just an emotional conflict. It built up this great issue between a few characters. Then, the author just sort of got confused as to whether another character should be sympathetic or not, kept on switching between portraying her as depressed and lonely and reacting to this naturally, or just being cruel to the other characters for the fun of it. Then it sort of just weakly tied in with another part of the plot and went absolutely nowhere. Anyways, I’m writing a book, and at the end of the first act, the veiwpoint character’s younger son ends up being killed by bandits, because the father’s important and yeah I’m not going to go into a whole paragraph about the reasons. Regardless, the second part begins after a two-and-a-half year timeskip, as well as starting with a completely unrelated viewpoint character. There’s two chapters before this, one of the older son being in shock directly after, and the father trying to justify his choice of telling the bandits to spare the older son instead of the other one, but I don’t know if it’s enough. There’s what I can mention from the two viewpoint characters in the second arc talking to the father, but that’s about it. Help? And sorry for the unreasonably lengthy paragraph.
Lost-chan
Lost-chan

Can you cite romantic examples? I always find myself blushing or bashing my head when I try to write romantic scenes — even the ‘light’ ones where they touch hands or eye each other, haha! Makes me wonder how erotica authors do it…

Thanks!

Pey
Pey

Wow! This is a post to bookmark.
This is also a really old post…
Anyway, I love the advice you give here. I’m still working on plotting this out, but there is a scene in the book I’m writing where MC #1 dies. MC #2 was not only best friends with #1, but was deeply in love with her… #1, however, thought of #2 as only a friend. I don’t write heavy emotional scenes very much, so the task of writing that and #2’s feelings afterward kind of scares me. I’m so attached to both of those characters, so I think that I’m going to need some tissues. Hopefully the reader will too. And hopefully, as a fairly new writer, I can use these tips and do this…
I think I’m going to subscribe to your blog now.

ryein
ryein

I wrote this 5 chapter short story and as I was writing it…the lines especially, I can’t help but cry…so I lost some momentum and hard to go back on writing. Didn’t finish it yet… This one I could use…

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ACSutliff

Hi Jami Gold,

I love this article here. Thank you for sharing your tips.

I have a question about the stages of grief. Denial is a real stage in the grieving process and can lead characters to act strange after they experience a loss. As writers, how can we show a character going through denial without losing the readers’ empathy along the way?

Thanks!
AC

ACSutliff

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question, Jami! Your response really does help, and I’m glad now that I asked the question. Man, I need more reliable beta readers! 😀

Jessica richards
Jessica richards

Thanks a lot for the tips. I’m a young writer, and sometimes it’s hard for me to write those overly emotional parts. I don’t like putting to much in, because it can get boring really quickly. You have to let the reader think for themselves. What’s the fun if reading if you tell them every single thought that is going through the characters mind? As avid reader, I enjoy imagining how the character is thinking in a deeper level. This helps me sympathize with them.
I also have trouble getting that emotion down. It’s hard for me to show that feeling in a way that the reader understands. I don’t like telling them that teh person is sad. I need them to exspirence the sorrow and pain for themselves. Instead if saying ‘she/he felt deep pain inside her head.’ I like to show it and say ‘It struck her/him so deep that she/he staggered back in pain, her/his head spinning.’ I would like to think that the second one sounds better. Is this a good idea? Or should I change it up?

Chris
Chris

Hi Jami

I ma writing at short story and have almost completed it – last two paragraphs wrapping it all up is all that remains. Grief and denial (to a certain extent) are the main themes of the story (in third person – though I have not wrote from the main character’s point of view – the reader will not know his thoughts as I have tried to use his behaviour to describe his journey.

My problem, having read this article, is that I now think I may be laying it on too thick in the closing paragraphs. I have been using a lot of ‘show’ (rather than ‘tell’) in the story and, although I am still technically ‘showing’ the emotional reaction (the man finally succumbs to his grief at the end of the story – the preceding paragraphs allow for events to help bring the man to the point of accepting his loss) through a description of the man in the physical throes of grief, I now feel that this might not be the best idea (as outlined in some points made in your article). I did initially think that the man surrendering to his grief needed to be shown because the narrative up to then is quite restrained.

Any ideas, Jami?

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