"Old Man In Sorrow (On The Threshold of Eternity)" by Vincent Van Gogh
I'm an emotional person. Many things push me over the edge - either to tears or screaming or laughter. Yesterday was exceptionally bad. I almost cried three times from feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, and fear. Go figure that my post today is about emotion. Traci from Words, Words, Words asked a question over in our Just Ask! box in the sidebar.
What is the most effective way to write emotionally charged scenes?
Thank you so much for your question, Traci! It's a tough one. I don't think any one person, especially me, can answer it in one blog post. Or even 20 blog posts. I'll try and sum up my thoughts and advice as best I can. Here's a few thoughts from my colleagues here at The Literary Lab, since they're two very smart men. Sometimes I feel silly being the only girl on here.
Davin: When actually writing a scene, I try to be as honest as possible. I let the ugliness and the complications of the emotions interfere as they need to. Emotion and manipulation don't go together for me. If I'm trying to steer the story a certain way, I can't be emotionally honest. I have to let the feelings come out first and then think about the story structure and the consequences after.
Scott: I think the thing to do is build up to the scene over the course of the previous scenes/chapters. Scenes fall flat emotionally when something about it isn't compelling, and usually what's not compelling or emotionally resonant is the way the story is built. I don't think the trick is "emotional writing," whatever that might be. Your mileage may well vary; I only know what works for me!
Me: I'll be honest. I want every scene I write to be emotionally charged. I want emotion from the get go. I want my reader to adore, loathe, or envy the characters and their situations. But both Davin and Scott have very good points. One, you should never manipulate your characters or plot simply to get an emotional reaction. And two, you can't expect your reader to care about flat, inconsistent characters, a mismanaged plot, or slow, pointless scenes.
No matter how beautiful your descriptive passages of emotion, you'll never tug at your reader's heartstrings until they believe the characters you've created. Here's a few ways to make them believable.
Manipulate Your Reader, Not Your Characters
One of my beta readers recently sent me a critique of my novel. Like most of my other beta readers, she noticed that the men in my book cry way too much. She suggested that these characters shouldn't be devoid of emotion, but that it seemed pretty stupid to have my super-tough main character break down like a baby in the middle of a scene. Or any scene, for that matter. She said, in reference to Orson Scott Card's book on characters:
"If you let a character cry, the reader doesn’t have to. If you give the character every reason to cry but don’t let him, the reader cries."
Get Your Character Out Of His Box
To me, there's nothing worse than stereotypes. While writing, I often stumble into them by accident and have to fix them later. Now, don't get me wrong - predictable situations and characters have their place, mostly in comedy. But you should learn when and where these are appropriate. I have yet to write an emotionally charged scene where a stereotype or a predictable situation worked in favor of what I was trying to achieve.
I found a good example of this in an online article by Anne Marble:
Let's say you are writing a Medieval romance novel about a heroine who spends her day toiling for an evil stepmother and three ugly stepsisters. You've been here before, haven't you? How can you make this story different? The movie Ever After - A Cinderella Story found ways to twist the supporting characters, including making one of the stepsisters completely different from what was expected. Don't be afraid to take similar liberties in your story. Just because you're inspired by a favorite fairy tale, that doesn't mean you can't make the plot your own in some way.
Also, try to avoid using stereotypical language like:
Shakily clenching her hands into fists, she suppressed a tremor of hate.Yes, I wrote that in my first novel. I could do so much better. It's terrible. Cliched. Telling. And there's an adverb I don't like. As Beth suggests in her post about showing vs. telling, it may take a lot more words to explain this character's feelings. And the emotion might come off better if I try it that way. In the end, it's not about the specific line, but the emotion I'm trying to convey in the scene that needs help. That specific line just shows that it's not working.
Are You Listening To Me?
Raise your hand if your characters talk to you? Okay, I see a lot of hands. It's true. Characters come to life if we've written them well enough.
While writing my first novel, I reached a scene near the end of the book where I planned for my secondary character, Eric, to physically harm the main character, Naomi. I had established Eric's anger throughout the book. I had backed up his intentions for him to almost kill Naomi with example after example that he is the type of person that would do this. The situation was perfect, but when I got to that intense moment of the scene, I couldn't write it. Every sentence on the page felt off kilter. The emotion didn't work. Eric looked more like a buffoon than a man exploding in anger. I got so angry with the scene that I couldn't write it for days.
Then I opened my ears.
Eric was talking. He told me anger wasn't the key to that scene. He was angry, yes, but he was more disappointed and filled with extreme sadness than anything else. That was a shock. A twist. Something I never expected. "Show that," he said. Not my anger." And I did. It is one of the best scenes I have ever written.
What I want to tell Traci today is that there aren't any set rules to writing an emotionally charged scene. Write what comes from your heart and what you know works for you and your characters. Read other scenes that work emotionally for you. Write. Practice. If you're not moved during the scene when you read it later, chances are your reader won't be moved either.
Question For The Day: How do you write an effective emotional scene?
~MDA (aka Glam)