Thursday, May 14, 2009

He Cried. The End.

"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.

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!

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)


  1. Really good ideas here. One writing instructor told me that you want to go to the edge of the emotion - visualizing it as a cliff - but not go any farther. He said you can try to achieve pathos, but going to bathos is not good writing and comes off too sentimental. I've never fogotten that because he once wrote in the margins of my work "You are on the verge of succumbing to bathos here. Revise."

  2. Recently I've been considering how to elicit emotions, and I came to the same conclusion as Scott: build up to the scene. If on the first page you throw in a scene of two men hugging and forgiving each other for past grievances, most people won't get emotionally involved. It doesn't matter how well you write the scene. But, having said that, I still think Davin has a great point: one must be honest when dealing with emotions. And like you, Michelle, I want the readers to care.

    One way to find out if people will care is to pay attention to reader feedback, in whatever form it comes. Yes, it'd be best if you could watch them read it, to see if a lot of debris infects their eyes throughout the reading, but not everyone has such opportunities. Only a man with hidden cameras can...uh, never mind. Just let me place this inconspicuous pencil holder on this shelf overlooking your favorite reading spot.

  3. Excellent responses. I wish I had one to share, however since I don't, I'm going to make a note of these.

    Thank you,

  4. While reading my stuff, I'm trying to become much more aware of changes in my emotions as I'm reading. Am I tense? If so, this is the start of eliciting emotion. Am I sad? Ditto. And when I find these places, I try to build on them because it is how I'm feeling.

  5. I agree with PJ. I think I write better emotional scenes when I actually feel the emotion. This often involves starting out with a bunch of crumby adjectives until I begin to "feel" those adjectives. Then I can go back and revise the scene with much better wording.

    One of my favorite lines about writing - which I think applies well to emotional writing - came from the movie Finding Forester:

    "No thinking - that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is... to write, not to think!"

  6. Be true to your characters, but don't be afraid to make them do something you would not do. Unless it's a memoir / autobiography ;-)

    I would also look at this from an editing perspective, not a creation perspective. For me, the process of writing is not overwrought with planning and plotting; those are tools for editing and revising. When I write original content, I try to detach and let it flow.

    DaVinci did not paint on a white canvas. First he prepped it by painting it black, then he added color to bring out depth from the shadows. Your first draft writing is that black paint. It should be pure. Then go back, make sure you properly identify the emotions from the reader's and the character's perspective, and hone the prose to achieve your goals.

    The goals for the reader may differ from the character. It is OK for the reader to laugh when the character cries, or vice long as that is your intention.

  7. Great post and question.

    I just write and hope for the best. And, to use your words, it's all about 'layering'. What are the layers leading up the scene? What are the emotions behind the scene?

    When I'm writing, I normally don't plot out - emotional scene, tenth paragraph, chapter 20. My emotional scenes just sort of happen as the story progresses. If my writing moves me to tears (in a good way, not because the writing is so bad I'm crying), then I've done my job. If the scene should be emotional and I'm not affected at all . . . well, I need to delve a little bit more into those 'layers' leading up to the scene.

    Thanks again for the post, and to all the commenters as well. I learn bunches everyday reading botht the posts and comments in the blogsphere.


  8. A great article and interesting to see this subject covered from 3 different POV.

    I have a hard time with emotion...

  9. Michelle, I really like that Orson Scott Card quote. It's beautiful, and something I had never trusted myself to try and do before.

    Justus, Regarding knowing whether or not your readers feel the emotion, I'm almost certain that most readers will note if they have cried while reading your work. I think having a reader feel a strong emotion is one of the best compliments, and readers will be grateful enough to tell you so if it happens. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe all these people are crying over my writing and I never knew it!

  10. Davin,

    If so, let's hope they cried for the right reasons, eh? Ha ha. By the way, my wife read your metallic balloon comment and told me about one she owns that has been inflated for roughly 17 years.

  11. I don't let my characters respond the way I would. They are unique people--they don't think like me, so why would they emotionally react the way I do?

  12. All I have to say is WOWZA! That was an amazing post Michelle. Again, I feel as if I can move forward.

    I need to get inside my characters' heads more. I can totally see how the reader would feel distanced. I am excited to explore this!! It will be emotional for me with my current novel. Cathartic. I was thinking that a writer has to be willing to explore emotions that might be uncomfortable...but that exploration will be quite a growing experince.

    I have learned so much from everyone's comments!! Thank you!!

  13. This is a wonderful post and I love it. I just have one question: How do YOU know if your characters are flat and without dimensions? What if I think my character is and I'm not pulling it off?

  14. That quote from Orson Scott Card is wonderful!

    Emotional scenes are tough for me. This may sound corny, but sometimes I act it out to see if it sounds real. Sometimes my automatic response to the situation is more accurate than what I was trying to force feed a character.

    And Glam, don't feel silly as the only girl, revel in your position :^)

  15. I guess I don't really think about it. I get so involved in my character's POV and his/her world that they do the work for me. Sort of. Plus, I have the added bonus of two wonderful critique groups who'll set me straight if a scene doesn't feel right. Great post!

    Lynnette Labelle

  16. Great post. Emotion is a hard one to write without resorting to cliques. There are lots of emotional scenes in my book and I'm unsure whether they work or not, it's one of my points to work on. So thanks for the ideas here :)

  17. I love the OSC quote too. It seems to me that the best way to make the reader feel the emotion is to take the character through all the steps that make the emotion flood into him. If we as readers see all the things that make up the situation we will feel it. A book that did this so well for me was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. With death as the narrator there's not a lot of sympathy in his recounting of the details, but boy did I ever feel the power of the emotional intensity of the characters. I think it helps for us to look at emotional scenes that are well done to understand how to do them. In this scene the MC's brother has just been buried. This quote is from right after the funeral. (I chose this scene because it's at the beginning of the book and won't ruin the story for anyone.)

    "The girl...stayed./Her knees entered the ground. Her moment had arrived./Still in disbelief, she started to dig. He couldn't be dead. He couldn't be dead. He couldn't--/Within seconds, snow was carved into her skin./Frozen blood was cracked across her hands./Somewhere in all the snow, she could see her broken heart, in two pieces. Each half was glowing, and beating under all that white. She realized her mother had come back for her only when she felt the boniness of a hand on her shoulder. She was being dragged away. A warm scream filled her throat."

    To me that scene drips with emotion as so many do in that book.

  18. lotusgirl: Thanks for quoting that passage, because taking it out of context like this gets at what I mean regarding building up to emotional scenes. The passage you quote doesn't move me at all, because it has no context. Without what comes before it, it's just meaningless action from a character I don't know.

    Emotion comes from the resolution of conflict, for good or bad. You have to build up to that resolution through the story arc, and the reader will have built up expectations as they follow the story.

    In my book there is a scene where one of the main characters becomes very upset with my protagonist, but without the two long scenes between these people that come earlier in the book, her Big Emotional Scenes are meaningless. The reader's emotions have to be earned by the author. We can't just point to something and tell our readers, "This is happy" or "This is sad" and expect them to laugh or cry. Because they won't. I worry a lot about the emotions my characters feel; are they believable in the context of the story? Do they ring true after what's happened to them so far? It's tricky.

  19. I want my readers to care so much about my characters. Sometimes I think I dive off the ledge. I go to the extreme, you know? I have to find that fine line and stop right at the edge. :) Great post Glam!

  20. Good point Scott. That scene means something to me because I'm already invested in the character. I "saw" the brother die and how it happened, etc. It's hard to see how it wouldn't move any reader, but when you don't already have that investment in the MC, I can see where you wouldn't be moved.

  21. I try to gain sympathy/emotional connection to my main characters early on. You do this by making your character relatable. Watch the news and try to figure out what draws you to a particular person. There courage under pressure. There strength, the love they show for those around them, the raw emotion, tension, etc.
    Use it in your writing.
    Great post Michelle!

  22. Amber, That's a great point. I do that with news articles all the time. Often, the victim of whatever circumstance will say something that just breaks your heart. I've started to keep a collection of stuff like that.

  23. My goal is to make a reader laugh and cry, at least once each, by the end of the novel. To my knowledge, I have never succeeded.

  24. Scobberlotcher:I love your cliff visualization. That will work really well for me!

    Justus:LOL! Well, I'll be sure to tell you what emotions I feel if I ever read your work. I've had others tell me certain scenes made them tear up. It's a good feeling - at least when they mean it in a good way!

    Suz:Glad this could be helpful!

    PJ:I think that's a key to becoming a great writer - getting in touch with even the most subtle emotions we're feeling. They can easily be overlooked when we're so focused on technical things.

    Shorty:That's an awesome quote! And yes, I agree with PJ, too. Oftentimes getting those emotions right comes in much later drafts for me. The emotions were there to begin with - just not shown very well.

    Rick:Great thoughts! I love the idea of letting things flow in the first draft. It helps so much to know that we don't have to feel the pressure of rules and all that jazz all the time.

    Scott:I'm glad to hear that we're helping you out! And your comments help, too. I like what you said about the emotional scenes just happening. That's how it should work. If things feel forced it never works out!

    Marty:My main problem with emotion is overdoing it or making it too subtle. Like all the men crying in my book - that just doesn't work. At all. It's comedic and weird! Finding the right balance is tricky.

    Davin:Trust is key. If you don't trust yourself to handle your characters effectively, things fall apart. At least for me they do. That quote (which is not a direct quote from Scott Card, but from my beta reader), really is key for me. It's one I'm going to remember every time I write.

    Jill:That's is such a great point! And I agree. I think that comes into the not manipulating your character section I wrote about. I have to remain true to the characters I've created or it will never feel right.

    Traci:I wrote this post with you in mind, m'dear. Having read your book, it was easy to see what I needed to focus on to guide you in the right directions. I hope I guesed right! You know I'm always here to help when you need.

    Lexicon:That would be an excellent question to ask in our questions section over in the sidebar. Just click on the icon. But to try and answer you here, I know they fall flat when my Alpha or Beta readers tell me. And I also know my characters are flat when I can't immediately answer questions about them like what their favorite food is, color, place to go, etc. They need to have a past, fears, insecurities, etc. That's just a start...

    Sherrie:I'm reveling, hehe.

    Hey, I'm married to an actor. I act out scenes all the time!

    Lynette:That's great you don't have to worry about it much! I used to think I didn't. Then I got beta readers and some brutally honest opinions. Yikes! Critiques are so great. I'm glad you have great partners. :)

    Alexa:Yes, cliches = cheese. Never good to have cheese in your novel when you don't want it there! From what I've read of your work so far, you're doing a great job with emotion.

    Lois:That's a beautiful scene, but as Scott says, not emotional for me since I haven't been there for the buildup. I've GOT to read that book!

    Scott:Great thoughts. I see more than ever now what you mean by building it all up.

    Robyn:Yes, I know what you mean. For me it's too far back or too far forward. Or just plain flat. It really is a hard balance and takes lots of practice.

    Amber:That is some great advice! I think I miss out on that emotional connection up front in my writing. I always have to build it in later, and it gets really frustrating.

    Davin:What a great idea to keep a collection of such things!

    Tara:Really? I'll bet you've at least done it once? Maybe the reader just didn't tell you? For as passionate a writer as you are, I can't imagine that your novels don't pack that emotional punch!

  25. Yup, writing emotion is really hard. I'm getting better at it but I still tend to shy away from really digging deep. And that is to the detriment of my novels. So, some more great advice in this post, leaving me with ideas to chew on.

  26. Ann:
    Yes, I believe it's a difficult layer to consider and really put yourself into. I wish you luck! I'm in the same boat. :)


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