Writing Emotional Scenes

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Writing emotional scenes is often trying for authors because they’re tricky to get right. You want what happens to your characters to matter. But you also don’t want to be melodramatic. It’s a tough balancing act. Pulling it off, however, is crucial. Readers need to have an emotional stake in your story, and to get there, you must write emotional scenes.

Don’t Skip Them

It’s tempting to skip them because as a writer, it can feel like the emotion of a scene is self-evident. A character’s beloved relative dies. Sad, right? Do you have to say it? Well, yes. Maybe not say it but show it or show the aftermath of it. Why? Because if you don’t, your readers will feel like you short-changed them. It’s the same reason they want the play-by-play on an action sequence. It’s not enough that your character defeated the enemy, we want to know how it went down.

The same applies to emotion. If someone is willing to read three- to four-hundred pages of your writing, that person is invested in the characters you created. If you’ve done your job well, your reader feels like he/she knows that person. They care about that person you invented. Let them share in the emotion too. If you don’t, your story will feel flat.

Emotion Flows from Story

Many authors fear writing emotional scenes because a.) they don’t want to be sappy, and/or b.) they don’t want to write anything “depressing.” I’m kind of like this. Generally speaking, I don’t want to read “sad” stories. To my mind, why do I want to turn to fiction to feel sad when all I have to do is turn on the news (lol…but seriously)? Many readers feel the same way, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want and expect emotion in their novels.

Emotion in your book doesn’t make it a “bummer.” Emotion is a natural human response to stimuli. This is where the emotion in your manuscript should come from: the story. Emotion doesn’t come from you, the writer, and it doesn’t well up from your character. It comes from your character interacting with her world, things that happen, circumstance that befalls her, and consequences that occur.

A novel has conflict, right? Wouldn’t it be odd if your characters had no emotional response to the conflict that they must deal with? If you don’t write about the fallout from the conflict, then the conflict never had any meaning in the first place. Readers want to see what the stakes are and how your characters will react. So let them react. But always ground that emotion as a response to story.

Emotional Response Comes from Character

Some people fall to pieces over every little thing while others maintain a stiff upper lip, no matter what. You need to know your characters well enough to figure out how they respond to emotional events. Let their personalities be your guide as to how you write emotional scenes. Never just have someone cry when they’re sad or shout when they’re angry. Make sure the response is appropriate to the story and to the character.

Emotional scenes require a lot from a writer, but they’re crucial for novelists. Unlike other mediums, books get deep into point of view. They have the “time” to show personality and character arcs. Give the readers want they want: if they laugh and cry (or feel scared, elated, in love, depressed—or any of the above), you’ve done your job.

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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