3 Tips for Writing Emotional Scenes

3 Tips for Writing Emotional Scenes
September 27, 2016 1 Comment For Authors, Writing Advice J.K. Allen

3We love books that tug at our emotions and take us on an emotional journey with the characters. Books that make us laugh and cry and everything in between. But these scenes can be intimidating to write. We want to avoid melodrama, one-dimensional characters, and too much telling. So how do we write strong emotional scenes while avoiding these pitfalls?

I wrote about writing strong emotional scenes here, but let’s explore these three problems a little more.

Avoid Melodrama

Nothing will make a reader eye roll faster than melodrama. It can be exhausting to read and does nothing as far as connecting your readers to your characters. We want our readers to feel what our characters are feeling or to at least feel for our characters. And nobody likes a drama queen. To add emotional depth to your characters, have them react in more subtle ways. Instead of jumping for joy, have them flash a smile so broad it can’t hide their pleasure. Instead of crying at a drop of the hat, explore their sad and anxious thoughts as they try to calm their breathing.

Here’s an example of a melodramatic scene:

Alice’s lip quivered as great big lolling tears ran down her cheeks. “You can’t do this,” she wailed, wringing her hands and stomping her foot down.

Baron threw back his head and laughed loudly, holding his stomach. “Oh but I already have,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

Her sobs turned to hiccups as she dropped to her knees, weak. “You’re a monster!” she spat out before everything went dark.

With less melodrama:

Alice bit her lip, eyes hot as she tried to process what Baron had just said. He had her friends. Not only would no one be coming to help her, but she now had to help free her friends. The situation looked bleak and Alice felt dizzy with worry. How would they get out of this mess?

“You can’t do this,” the words fell from her as her mind whirled.

Baron laughed, a glint in his eye. “I already have.”

She swallowed hard and willed her eyes to stay dry. She wouldn’t let him see her cry. “You’re a monster.” Her voice was low, but steady. Her hands balled in fists at her side.

Layer Emotions

Now we want to look at making our character responses three-dimensional. We can achieve this by layering their emotional responses. First pick a primary emotion to work with. So our character may be feeling sad, but we don’t experience emotions one at a time, so they may also feel anger, fear, and shame. These emotions add layers, but being filtered through the primary emotion, they keep the emotions focused.

For example:

Jack walked back into the apartment that no longer felt like home. Home was where she was waiting for him. It didn’t exist anymore he reminded himself, head held down. His limbs felt heavy as he closed the door. He stood unmoving for a long while, seeing nothing as he struggled to calm his breathing. She was gone.

His face flushed and he punched the door. What right did she have to do this to him? Probably every right, his mind answered. And as fast as his anger had flared up it vanished, leaving him feeling chilled.

Sweat broke out on his neck and his mouth went dry. What did he have to live for now? His stomach dropped and his chest grew heavy. I don’t deserve a future, he told himself, not after losing her.

This passage took us through several emotions, adding complexity to his sadness.

Show, Don’t Tell

Finally, how do we show, not tell emotions? We do this through dialogue and your characters’ actions. Don’t say he is angry, show his jaw clenched and fists balled at his sides. Don’t tell your reader how nervous she is, show her tugging at her hem, eyes low. Also, your descriptions should be creating the mood of each scene.

An example of telling:

She waited nervous for Andrew to appear. It felt like ages had passed before he was finally there walking towards her. Her heart soared as she watched him. He smiled at her pleased. She thought she’d never catch her breath when he took her hand in his.

Now showing:

She checked her reflection in her compact mirror for the tenth time since she had arrived. She wiped her palms on her skirt and tucked her hair behind her ears before shaking her head to free her hair again. Why isn’t Andrew here yet? Her stomach fluttered.

She saw him walking towards her and her heart rose in her chest. He flashed her a sweet smile that stretched ear to ear, waving as he approached. She thought she’d never catch her breath when he took her hand in his.

Remember that skipping emotional scenes is cheating the reader out of the emotional journey your characters are making. Use these tips to round out your emotional scenes. What are your favorite emotional scenes? What made them so good? Comment below and happy writing!

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J.K. Allen Julia Allen received her BA in Creative Writing and English from Michigan State University. She did her senior thesis in poetry under the tutelage of Diane Wakoski, but has been focused primarily on fiction as of late. Common writing themes that can be found in her work address identity and the type of strength that can be found in ordinary people. Julia is currently working on a Young Adult fantasy novel and can be found at local cafes in her hometown when writing, and painting, drawing, or reading when not.
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