Fiction writers face a tricky balance with emotional scenes. We want the reader to feel the story as deeply as the characters do, but 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 and every emotion will feel intense and real for the reader.
The old writing cliche of show, don’t tell holds true for portraying emotions — with a few caveats. You’ll need more than the usual racing hearts and flip-flopping stomachs to bring your readers deep into the heart of the scene. The best emotional scenes demonstrate masterful control over detail, backstory, and pacing.
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?
When you rush an emotional scene, you keep readers’ minds too busy following the action to savor the experience. You keep them from feeling as deeply as you need them to. For the big, emotional scenes that define your book, slow the pace way down. Let your readers absorb every detail and see deep inside your characters’ hearts.
Show what’s happening in your character’s head
Ask my critique group, one of my most frequent margin notes is some variation of, “This is huge!!! Why aren’t we seeing [POV character]’s reaction!?!?” Imagine breaking heavy news to a close friend and having them say nothing about it before moving the conversation forward. Unsettling, right?
We put so much emphasis on show, don’t tell, it’s easy to forget to tell the reader a critical piece of information: what does the point-of-view character think about what just happened? Showing internal states like tension in the shoulders or a sinking feeling in the stomach is a good start. However, these physical reactions can spring from a wide range of complex emotions. Give readers a peek at your narrator’s internal monologue, too.
When you show a point-of-view character’s internal monologue, you provide the level of detail necessary for readers to really know that character. Suddenly, the narrator becomes a believable, three-dimensional character. They feel like a person the reader could encounter in real life.
For example, in my novel Driving Forces, the narrator, Karen, has just discovered her 17-year-old daughter is missing. We follow her as she frantically searches for the girl, playing out a scene in her mind of an accident on the highway ahead. She imagines emergency vehicles blocking the road and her daughter standing beside her mangled car, waiting for Mom. She agonizes over when to call her husband, who is on a business trip. These details are all the more excruciating because we know Karen has already lost one of her teenage daughters to a car accident.
The specific fears and anxieties that play out in Karen’s mind during this awful time tell us a lot about her character. Experiencing them with her has far more impact than simply reading about Karen driving around town looking for her daughter as her heart races faster and faster.
Avoid generic emotions
In the example above, we know Karen is terrified. We can see the grief of losing her first daughter is ripped wide open when the second girl runs away from home. But the word terrified never appears on the page. It doesn’t need to.
This winter, my five-year-old son’s best friend moved 400 miles away. 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.
Bring it all together for spot-on emotional scenes
When a scene carries a lot of emotional weight in your story, lean into it. Slow the action down with specific details that reveal or build on important facets of your character’s identity. Avoid blanket terms like “sad,” “afraid,” or “hopeful” by showing the point-of-view character’s inner thoughts. Readers won’t know how your characters really feel unless you tell them. Most of all, don’t be afraid of an intense or uncomfortable scene. You’ve worked hard to set the stage for these scenes. Give them the airtime they deserve.