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 (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!

  1. OMG thanks Gail for writing this post! I really can use this!
    So now onto my writing problem. Usually when I write romances, I base the main character on myself – feisty, bold, and a little demanding (yeah, I know, I need to work on that haha). Then the love interest is very patient, optimistic, and overall just a nice guy – I guess kind of like Katniss and Peeta from “The Hunger Games”. I’ve also written stories where the girl is very sweet and bubbly, and the boy is more of the leader.
    One of my new characters is a quiet, sweet girl who believes the world is full of goodness. But her love interest is also an idealist and more of a lover than a fighter. So I don’t have a clear leader between the two. He naturally talks more than she does, but he doesn’t have that strong character that drives the story. Got any tips? Thanks!

  2. Jenalyn Barton says:

    I had to encounter this when I was writing my WIP during NaNoWriMo last November. My MC’s main emotional journey is learning to work through the grief of losing her toddler son. Which meant I had to write his death early on in the story. I have a toddler son the same age, and, let me tell you, those scenes were hell to write. I kept putting it off because I knew I’d be an emotional wreck, especially since I had the MC’s son’s behavior off my own son to make him more realistic. I’ve never lost a child, but as a mother I could imagine how devastating it would be to lose my son. When I finally got around to writing those scenes, I drew on those emotions and imagined myself in the MC’s place. I also drew on my experience with the miscarriage I had had almost a year prior, and for her son’s funeral I used my own reaction from my grandpa’s funeral, where I kept smiling at everyone and gave myself a huge headache because I couldn’t bring myself to cry. When I finally did cry, it was months later, in the privacy of my own car, when I drove to his grave on a whim. I used that experience to bring more emotional realism to her (although she cried a few days later, rather than a few months). And let me tell you, I was an emotional wreck during the few days it took me to write those scenes. But I know it was worth it, because I put my own heart and soul into what I was writing, so I know that my readers should be able to pick up on that and recognize that I’m not faking it.

    On a side note, when I saw your poem prompt, I immediately started singing in my head “Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam…” Yeah, I’m a major Disney nerd.

  3. Thanks to everybody who encouraged me to try starting “Malak’s Book” with a prologue in the last post.

    I posted the prologue in an online writers’ group, and one person says she wants to pick up Baby Malak and cuddle him. That’s a BIG improvement!

  4. Just so everybody knows, I have finished my research paper, the one on the Purpose of Fiction that I mentioned quite a while ago. It took me much longer than I thought to write, but it’s finished now! Thanks to everybody who offered opinions and quotes, especially Gail, who moved the date of her blog post so that I could have all my information in time. Thanks, everybody!

  5. Awesome post! I’m really glad I popped on! I just finished “Writer to Writer,” I absolutely loved it! There were several times it talked about basing characters off of real people. I tend to base my MC’s off of myself, and I was wondering if you (or anyone else on here!) had suggestions for how to deal with this, such as precautions, tips, or ways to separate myself from my MC. Thanks!

    • The Florid Sword says:

      I have lots of trouble with this. Usually what I do to make my MC different from myself is I take one aspect of myself, such as a hobby or a negative trait, and say, “How can I change this from being myself?”
      So, for example, I like to draw. The book I’m writing right now is based on my own experiences and the main character has to be kind of like me, to react in a similar way. However, I decided to take my hobby of drawing and make my character a cook.
      I also tend to get very annoyed by even the tiniest things, but to change that I made my character very longsuffering but also gave her a habit of exaggerating everything.
      I hope this is helpful!

    • In a sense, all your characters will be based off of yourself. That’s the only way to make them feel real. But real people are complex, so you can put different bits of yourself in each one. I appreciate a neat room, so one of my characters is tidy. I often don’t bother, so another throws things where ever she wants. I’m usually forgiving and believe the best of people, so my MC does. I’ve been hurt before, so that I don’t feel like I should trust anyone, so another character does that.
      A couple of things to watch out for: don’t coddle your character and make things easier for her, because that’s how you’d like it to be. He or she should sometimes be wrong. Make sure your antagonist and other characters are believable– none should be either perfectly good or perfectly bad.

  6. I personally don’t really need that much help with writing emotional scenes, sadly I am good at this (sometimes in a bad way which mean much editing). However, I do need some help with just getting started. I write all the time, and I have several stories going right now, as well as poems and a short saga. I recently finished a novel after writing everyday on it for three months. Now I am still writing everyday, but not on just one story, and I have been having trouble getting inspiration and deciding which story to work on. I am thinking about just starting a new novel and planing on writing it every day, but I am afraid that I will loose interest in my other stories. Any tips? Thanks!

    • It’s okay to stop a story that isn’t working out. I’ve got a box of them in my closet from high school. A mom who drove our carpool once told me that my writing stories was a waste of time. I said nothing then, but I thought about what I ought to have said quite a bit (still doing it over a decade later!). Even though I didn’t finish, and I don’t plan on recycling any of them, I got a lot of practice out of it, plus I have a collection that reveals the whole attitude and mindset of being a teenager that I’ve forgotten. If you lose interest, that’s okay. Just make sure, as Gail says, to “save what you wrote!”

    • Congratulations on finishing a novel! That’s a huge accomplishment. I’ve heard pro writers say they sometimes need to take a vacation between novels to recharge their brains.

      And you have my sympathy. I dug out a pile of unfinished stories the other day to try to see if I could finish something. There are 23 of them. And those are only the “solid starts,” not the ones with just an idea and a couple of lines.

    • Thank you so much! That was very helpful and inspiring.
      I am a teenager, Christie V. Powell, and I really appreciate hearing that from an adult!
      I am proud to say I have ‘saved what I wrote’ since I was drawing my stories, and before I could read. (That is thanks to my awesome home schooling mom).
      I also journal a lot, which is a HUGE help for me. I think it is really good to journal especially in the years when you are a child and teen. Because, if ever you want to write a story about younger years as an adult, you can go back and read what you wrote.
      Thank you Gail, for everything! Right now I am reading your book ‘Writer to Writer’ and I have already read ‘Writing Magic’. Both books are AMAZING and I often go back for inspiration and help.
      Thank you Melissa Mead, I really appreciate that!

  7. The Florid Sword says:

    I’m having trouble remembering: I may have asked this before, but I’m going to ask again just in case.
    In my WIP I feel that my MC’s love interest is too flat, and kind of the stereotypical “Guy who exists to serve the heroine”. Does anyone have any advice on how to make the male love interest a character in his own right? Thanks!

    • You could give him a friend or relative (or several) that he interacts with: he’ll have a different relationship with a brother or friend than he would with the girl.
      Give him a flaw or two.
      Base him (loosely) off of someone you know, or borrow pieces of real characters (ie he’s got Jim’s thoughtful way of speaking but Sam’s confidence).

      I worried about this with my love interest, Brian, and these are some of the things I used. He is super competitive with his brother, because his brother is an insufferable teaser. He gets upset and withdrawn when his plans don’t work (he’s a good planner so they usually do). Also when he’s upset, he gets more and more formal, which was quite fun to write.

  8. I come from dreams, puppets with broken strings, and places and people who never forget.

    That is a really cool prompt! Thanks for sharing it! 😉
    Emotions are the hardest for me. Ugh.

  9. Lots of great advice here! I was particularly struck by the reminder of the power of detail to enhance the emotion in a scene. I’ll definitely be keeping that in mind in my writing!

    Now I have a question. I recently completed my second manuscript, and am deep into the revision stage. Something I’ve struggled with in both of my novels is writing a final, satisfactory ending. Once my characters’ stories are resolved and every plot point is checked off, I have serious trouble working up an appropriate send-off. I’m just done. I’ve received feedback that the ending in my current manuscript feels abrupt, and am struggling to rectify that problem in subsequent drafts. I’d love some help working through this end-of-the-road roadblock!

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