Fiction writers face a tricky balance with emotional scenes. We want the reader to feel the story as deeply as the characters do. However, it’s easy to over- or undershoot that mark. Too much and we end up with eyeroll-inducing melodrama. Too little and readers don’t care about our big scene. Get it just right you’ll take the reader on an emotional journey every bit as intense as your protagonist’s.
The old writing cliche of show, don’t tell trips a lot of writers up in the emotional department. Racing hearts and flip-flopping stomachs won’t necessarily evoke feelings you want for your reader. The best emotional scenes demonstrate masterful control over detail, backstory, and pacing. For that you need a balance of showing and telling.
Try these tips to give your high-intensity scenes more impact.
Slow down for intense moments
Have you ever coped with an intense time in your life by keeping yourself busy? How does that compare to a time when you’ve paused and let yourself feel the full force of your emotions?
Rushing an emotional scene will keep readers’ minds too busy following the action to savor the experience. For the big moments that define your book, slow the pace way down. Let your readers linger and absorb the full force of the scene.
This doesn’t necessarily mean describing a lot of emotion in a dramatic scene — more on that later — but do include plenty of evocative detail. Don’t let your readers skim.
Look past the obvious
When your protagonist experiences a strong emotion, avoid naming the big one directly. Readers don’t need you to state the obvious. Instead, dig deeper and find an unexpected feeling below the surface.
For example, maybe you have a teenage character going through a breakup. As she gets the dreaded Breakup Speech she feels stunned and devastated. Heartbroken, even. But what else does she feel? Think of other things that might be going through her head (while avoiding the word heartbroken at all costs):
- Resentment/shame — when her mother warned her that high school loves rarely last, she insisted this was different. Now Mom is right. She hates that he’s making her look like just another girl who got dumped.
- Dread — Grandmom is totally going to ask about him at Thanksgiving dinner next week.
- Insecurity — she’s eaten lunch with him and his friends since school started this year. Where will she sit tomorrow? Will everyone look at her and think she’s pathetic?
The list goes on. Probe into the unexpected emotions your character is feeling and choose one to explore. Talking about that dread and insecurity will evoke heartbreak more than the word ever could.
Evoke feelings with specific details
In addition to exploring unexpected tangential feelings, evoke your primary emotions through small moments when your protagonist feels them most acutely.
A couple years ago my son’s best friend moved 400 miles away. He was five at the time. I didn’t feel the full force of his heartbreak because he said, “I’m sad she’s gone” or “I really miss her.” I felt it when I picked him up from school one day and he started sobbing. The reason? I didn’t have an extra car seat in the backseat for this friend to come over for a playdate.
This was a unique and specific moment when her absence became real. He began to comprehend the meaning of forever in the context of saying goodbye to someone he loved. The empty spot next to him in the car mirrored the anguish in his heart.
To evoke the strongest emotions in your readers, write moments like this in exquisite detail. Don’t be afraid to tell the reader what’s going through a character’s mind.
Play up smaller moments
In the example above, I talked about an everyday moment. I didn’t mention the day my son’s friend actually moved away or the conversation where I first told him she’d be moving. Don’t skip moments like this in your story, but don’t overplay them either.
Readers know these are big moments. They don’t need you to tell them exactly how it feels because they can imagine themselves in the same situation. What they won’t necessarily imagine are all the tiny ways this moment will affect your protagonist as they move through the world.
Keep the high-impact plot points simple. Let the moment speak for itself. Go deep on the unexpected emotional scenes — like the one where my son notices the empty seat beside him in the car.