We seek out fiction to experience an emotional journey with the characters. After all, how boring would it be to just walk through the action of a story without understanding the characters and exploring the human condition?
But finding the line between authenticity, sufficient ‘showing,’ and nuance isn’t always easy. How do you tackle emotionally intense scenes in a way that feels both realistic and not over-the-top? I touched on this on my Instagram earlier in March, but I thought a more detailed blog post would be helpful.
Why are emotional scenes important?
Emotional scenes aren’t easy to write, but they are crucial to your story and the connection you build between readers and your characters. Readers want to go on some kind of journey with your characters, including those hard moments. It helps them root for your characters, empathize with them, and find that human connection or universal truth we want to see in fiction.
Tip #1: Focus on subtext and authentic interactions.
When we’re trying to write an emotional scene, it can be easy to fall back on melodrama. Characters who launch into monologues, who sob uncontrollably, who throw pity parties–they aren’t necessarily unrealistic, but that level of drama probably isn’t going to create the atmosphere you want in your emotional scene. After all, when we’re in an emotional moment, we don’t usually speak in monologues or cry, “Woe is me!”
Subtext usually does better for creating an emotional moment for characters and readers alike, especially if you’ve been layering this subtext throughout your story to build up to this moment.
If it’s comfortable for you, think back to an emotional moment in your life. How did you feel physically in your body? Were you able to speak and verbalize what was going through your mind? How did you feel before this singular emotional scene? These feelings were probably building up in some way, and the same is true for your characters.
Consider your own experiences as you write, and don’t forget to study how other authors weave this authentic subtext into their own stories. Sometimes less is more, though if it suits a particular character’s personality or the moment calls for something more explosive, use your best judgment and go for it.
Tip #2: Don’t focus on the emotion itself.
As you draft, you’ll probably find yourself naming emotions in your manuscript. “She was anxious.” “He was angry.” And while this is okay sometimes–it can pack a punch in the right context at the right moment–avoid naming the emotion. Let readers read between the lines.
Instead of writing, “She was anxious,” think about how you can show this instead of telling readers. As you tackle big emotions in your story, think about the physical sensations those can cause, or even physical reactions.
Some examples include:
|Emotion||Physical Sensation||Physical Reaction|
|Anxiety||hard to breathe; lump in throat; hard to hear; knot in stomach; physical weakness||tapping one’s foot; picking at fingernails;|
|Anger||warm face; buzzing in ears; hard to see things||ironic laughter; tight jaw; flared nostrils|
|Sadness||hard to breathe; heavy feeling on your chest; numbness||tears or crying; going totally blank|
|Joy||warm feeling throughout body; relaxed muscles; quiet mind||smiling; laughing|
The above table is by no means an exhaustive list, but you can use it to get started as you think about how emotions translate to sensations and actions.
Tip #3: Avoid cliché phrases, especially when you’re showing emotions.
Another reason your emotional scenes may be falling flat is the use of cliché language.
Sure, a single tear down your cheek can happen, but it’s not the default reaction for many people nor does it fit every character’s personality. Just like you probably want to avoid melodrama and monologues, try digging deeper into your character’s reaction to something instead of throwing in a cliché phrase.
Other cliché phrases you might find in emotional scenes include, but aren’t limited to:
- Faces red with rage
- Clenched fists
- Throwing oneself down in despair
- Single tear trailing down one’s cheek
- A stammering heart
- Twinkling eyes
- Letting go of a breath they didn’t realize they were holding
Be creative with how you convey characters’ reactions, feelings, and body language in these moments. If you feel like you’re writing every character to have the same reaction, study other books, movies, and TV shows.
And don’t forget to dive deep into your POV character’s perspective and inner world! Body language is great, but understanding where your character’s head is at is also important. Balance physical reactions with the character’s thoughts.
Bonus Tip #4: It’s not just about the one scene.
Although individual scenes can be emotionally impactful on both the reader and character(s), it’s just not about that one scene. You have to build up to it to give readers the full picture and get them to feel something.
Suddenly dropping a confessional or breakdown with limited context doesn’t have the same impact as when readers have seen the build-up to that moment. As I said in Tip #1, in real life, situations, emotions, and actions all build up ahead of that one emotionally intense moment. Think about a day when you were on the verge of tears for hours, but finally, something made you cry.
The same is true in fiction. We need to understand the situation, the people involved, the consequences, and the stakes surrounding the problem that causes the emotional moment. What made you cry after holding it in all day? What’s the ‘final straw’ that makes your character react/feel something?
Slow and steady wins the race. Weaving subtext, subtle bits of emotion, and the stakes into the scene preceding that ‘big’ moment will help your characters gain sympathy from your readers.
Bonus Tip #5: Your character’s internal reactions and thoughts are just as important as the external scene.
As I alluded to in Tip #3, just focusing on some body language doesn’t build the complex reaction you and readers are looking for.
Here’s an example of just using mostly body language in an emotional reaction:
Cressida sighed and tapped her foot as she leaned against the alley’s brick wall. Looking from the busy street to her watch, Cressida rolled her eyes and muttered, “She’s always late.” It annoyed Cressida that Mel couldn’t get someplace on time. Would they ever get to lunch in time for their reservation? She looked at her watch and sighed again.
There’s a little bit of context woven in: her best friend is always late, and they have lunch reservations. Cressida is clearly annoyed. It’s not the worst writing in the world, but it’s clunky and doesn’t dig any deeper than the surface. It focuses too much on the melodrama of sighing and tapping her foot.
Here’s an example of how you can streamline some of the physical reaction and give us a deeper look inside your character’s head:
The heaviness of the afternoon air settled over Cressida, an unwelcome preview of the humid summer ahead. Sighing, she leaned against the cool brick in the alley and looked down at her watch. “Late,” she muttered. Why was Mel always late? They’d confirmed their plans for lunch just a couple hours ago, and Mel had promised to watch the clock this time. But it wasn’t the first time Mel let her down, and Cressida knew it wouldn’t be the last.
In the rewritten example, we’ve set the scene: a humid day that Cressida has to stand in to wait for her late friend (rude! unpleasant!). We learn that Mel is always late (also rude!), and Cressida clearly feels frustrated that her best friend can’t keep a simple promise to be on time. There’s even a hint that Mel lets Cressida down in bigger ways, too.
This is just a small, low-stakes example, and your emotional scenes will probably be longer. But I’m sure you can imagine how over time, this frustration and resentment will build on itself until there’s some confrontation over why Mel always lets Cressida down.
Be mindful that you’re weaving in this internal world as you write and examining what’s really bothering your protagonist.
Wrapping It Up
Exactly what this all looks like on the page will depend on your story, your characters, and your style. But if you’re mindful of how you write these emotional scenes and don’t shy away from the big feelings on the page, you’ll be one step closer to giving your readers a complex and nuanced journey through your story.
Want help and tips tailored to your manuscript? Consider working with me as your editor!
If you found this post helpful, share it on Pinterest!
Well darn! You just solved a problem I’ve been frustrated with since I began my writing journey three years ago–the way to handle the expressions of heightened feelings when it really counts. I can easily see what a difference it makes, and I’ve already started to actively use your advice. Thank you.
Hi John, so happy to hear you found the advice helpful! Conveying emotions in writing can be tricky, but I’m sure you’ll be fantastic at it soon enough! Happy writing 🙂
hannah: thank you for this article. it popped into my mail just at the right moment.i am soon to start revisions on my manuscript; this article is so timely!briefly my mss is about domestic violence and escaping alive – lots of emotions & i want to offer the truth & chaos in a way my readers can understand. now i have some new skills to assist me.
peace – ginger
Hi Ginger, I’m so glad to hear this article found you at the right time! Best of luck with your revisions 🙂
Awesome. Brief and to the point.
Nice post adding little more to it ! If We don’t want our work to suffer from that disconnect. There are many techniques we can use to give room for privacy, avoid the melodrama, and share the emotional journey of the story with readers.