Lachrymose lugubriousness

On August 30, 2016, Jordan W wrote, I was wondering if anyone had any tips for writing emotional scenes. Ways you can really make the reader FEEL what is going on, and make them emotionally invested in the story. Whenever I feel like a particular scene needs to be more dramatic and powerful, I overwrite it and make is cheesy.

Several of you responded.

Lady Laisa: Think of a time when you felt the same emotion. Write about your own feelings. I never used to be able to write about death until one night I had an EXTREMELY vivid dream in which my father died. It was horrible and it was so real that when I woke up I wasn’t sure if what I had experienced was a dream or not. Now when I write death scenes, I remember what it was like believing my father was dead.

While dreams are useful, real life is useful too. I have one story that I write especially when I’m angry, because the MC is an angry, bitter person, and writing her when I’m angry really makes her come alive. Sometimes I simply don’t have time to wait until I’m angry, though, so instead I remember past injustices, and try to be as riled up as I can.

I find I get caustically sarcastic and extremely cynical after writing in Pen’s mind-set, and I spend the rest of the day in a red fog of annoyance and disgust. Whoops.

Something I do to help me get into a particular mood is listen to atmospheric music. Creating playlists to boost an emotion has been really helpful.

Emma: I do the exact same things- remember the times when I felt that way, and channel those emotions into the story, as well as listen to music. Also, considering the fact that all characters are different, all characters will end up acting differently in different emotional situations. By taking a close look at a character’s personality, you can figure out how he or she will act in an emotional situation. One of my characters in my WIP, let’s call her A, tends to not express her emotions very much, unless she’s talking to someone she absolutely, 100% trusts. This is because she hates drama and thinks emotions are unnecessary and messy. She normally always bases her decisions on logic, and likes to push her emotions to the back seat of the car in important situations. Thus, after she witnessed her mentor and great friend die, she kept her emotions inside. She cries in a scene when no one is around, and only talks about it to two people. Take a look at your character’s personality in order to write a very real, not forced, emotional scene. If you’re not sure how your character would react, try taking the personality test at www.16personalities.com (which was brought up in comments on a recent post) as your character in question. This test will assign a personality to your character and will give you several lists describing different aspects of your character’s personality, which can help you find out how your character would act and react.

Also, if you feel like an emotional scene is too cliche or cheesy, try changing something like the setting, or the way the characters describe their emotions. Let’s pretend your MC’s mom just died. The funeral has just gotten over, everyone is clad in black and are slowly leaving the graveyard through the drizzle. Your MC is standing alone in front of her mom’s grave when her best, childhood friend walks up and lays a hand on her shoulder. What could you do to make this scene less cliche? What if, instead of an ordinary day, it’s Christmas day, in southern Texas? Begone drizzle, hello dry air. What if the gravestone has something written on it that doesn’t make sense to anyone, but was requested by her dying mother to be engraved on her tombstone? Maybe the friend asks the MC what it means. Maybe they take their minds off the sadness by trying to figure out the odd saying. The emotional scene is no longer cheesy, because it’s different. It’s still emotional. Her mom is still dead, she still has a tear on her cheek, and she’s trying to take her mind off of the sad event. But now, it’s less cliche which means it’s less cheesy. And it’s also more interesting.

Christie V Powell: I find that the more powerful you want your scene to be, the less you need to say. Understatement and zeroing in on details are what I find the most powerful.

Here’s a scene from my second book (ebook is out now; hard copy should be here in a couple weeks!!):

Brian gestured to the unmarred sand ahead. “This is the dangerous Boar Island?”
“Anything’ s better than this boat,” Sienna groaned.
The fisherwoman was quiet—or was she tired from all that rowing? The hull of the boat scraped against the sand, and Brian leapt out to pull it further. Sienna half-climbed, half-rolled out of it and collapsed on the sand. Keita and Avie hurried to help her. In that instant, the boat gave a great jerk. Brian leapt back as it shot back into the water. They all stared as the fisherwoman pulled the oars as hard as she could. “Wait!” Brian called. “How do we contact you to get back?”
“You don’ t.”
“But we’ ll pay you!” Avie reached for her pocket and then gasped. Her hand emerged, empty.
No one said a thing. They stood on that beautiful white sand, watching the rowboat disappear into the great empty sea.

I agree with Lady Laisa that drawing on one’s own experience can be useful. When I wrote in Ella Enchanted about the death of Ella’s mother I remembered my own mother’s death a few years before. The gravesite moment comes straight from my response at the cemetery. And when Ella thinks about people saying she’d lost her mother, that her mother is gone, not lost–well, that was my thought.

Music lyrics, if we’re writing something contemporary, can help. After each of my parents died, I couldn’t help crying whenever I listened to a jazz song I adore, “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” because the lyrics seemed suddenly cruel and deceptive. Of course, we have to be aware of copyright law if we use lyrics that aren’t in the public domain. However, whether we’re writing contemporary or fantasy, we can always use a song’s sentiment to write our own lyrics. Music and song cut straight to feeling.

But what if we and our character don’t have similar experiences? Or if our character is so different from us that she’s unlikely to respond the way we do? I’m with Emma on this. In this situation, I write lists. We can list how our MC might respond to a death, for example. Could be directly with anger or sadness, or by walling off all feeling, or something else. Once we have a response that seems right, we can list how she might enact it, what she might do to release it or keep it bottled in. My mother, who keeps cropping up in this post, was a worrier and, consequently, a frequent insomniac. If we have a character who worries and is up in the middle of the night, we can list what she might do during those dark hours. The action is likely to convey the feeling to the reader.

I agree with Christie V Powell about the power of detail to carry emotional weight. Let’s imagine that our MC has lost a memento of a friend. For whatever reason–death, distance, a quarrel–the friendship is over but the memory lingers. Let’s say the memento is a medal. Instead of telling the reader that our MC is suffering because of the loss, we can show her looking frantically for it. We can describe the box that held it: what it’s made of, the sound it makes when it opens, the material the medal nested in, the smell of the box. Maybe there’s a letter that goes with it, and we can reveal what it says.

Regret is powerful, because it’s painful and we’ve all experienced it, so we can have our MC think about her responsibility for the loss–whether she’s really responsible of not. She can consider what she might have done to keep the medal safe.

However, regret may not be her feeling. She could be angry, and we can write her angry thoughts. She may be angry at herself for losing the medal, or she may be angry at someone else for the loss, or even angry at the old friend for the dissolution of the friendship.

That’s three strategies–action, detail, and thoughts to bring us and the reader into our character’s emotional life. Notice that neither one have to mention the feeling itself. The feeling is intrinsic to the actions, details, and thoughts. We can also bring in body responses, like a churning stomach or a headache. So that’s one more.

Emotional connection with a character will grow as the reader gets to know her. We don’t always have to work hard. Suppose, for example, our character is given to feeling stupid and the reader understands this about her, then we can cause her to say something that comes out wrong. As soon as she does and realizes her mistake, the reader will suffer for her. Whatever she thinks or does next will be infused in the reader’s mind with her pain.

Here are three prompts:

∙ As sort of a mirror image of Lady Laisa’s dream, a few months after my father died, I dreamed him alive again. He and my mother wintered in Florida after they had both retired and would call me on Sundays. My father’s usual mood was buoyant, even joyous, and I dreamed a phone call from him that was so realistic I was convinced for the first moments after I woke up that he was still alive. I had to experience his death all over again, which, of course, was devastating. Dreams are often–not always–hyper-emotional. Keep a pad next to your bed for, say, the next four nights, and write down your dreams. In the interest of going back to sleep, don’t turn on the light and use your free hand to guide your writing hand so you don’t write over your lines. After you have a few dreams, use one or a combo to write an emotional scene that isn’t a dream.

∙ I love Emma’s idea of changing a setting. Imagine your MC and another character are at odds. Their conflict can be major, as in, hero versus villain, or micro, as in, two friends arguing over hurt feelings. As they’re carrying out their fight, which might involve swordplay or yelling or whatever you decide, they’re magically transported to a circus arena, where thirty clowns are exiting a clown car, acrobats are performing overhead, and the animal trainer is entering with a caged lion. Continue the scene in this circumstance.

∙ Apropos of nothing, I heard a poetry prompt on the radio that I’ve been wanting to share. It’s to start a poem with the words I come from… The radio show was a call-in, and people called in their poem beginnings, which tended to go something like, I come from a long line of strong women whose strength was tested… etc. I thought, Meh. In your poem, avoid the general for the specific. For example, when I tried it, I included my husband’s origins as well as my own. He told me about Mr. Dibble, his boyhood barber, and, in the barber shop, the plastic behind the chairs of the people waiting for a haircut that protected the knotty-pine wallpaper from pomade–and I put those wonderful details into my poem. What a peek into mid-twentieth century small-city life! So think about your early toys, pets, bedroom, shops and anchor your poem in detail. (For my I come from stanza, I wrote about times with my friends when we pried mica up with our fingernails from Hudson River rocks in our local park in northern Manhattan.)

Have fun, and save what you write!