October 25, 2011

She Thought Her Heart Would Break

Question number four (-ish) on You Haven't Got an Appointment! was put by Londongirl, who asked

How do you write a sad, emotional scene without making it seem sappy or forced?

First of all, I'm flattered that you thought the scenes in The Soldier's Cross met this difficult hurtle! Emotion can be a very hard thing to capture, but, when done right, it also provides some of the best dramatic scenes; done incorrectly, the scene becomes melodramatic instead. So how does one manage to convey emotions, whether it be fear or anger, tension or sorrow, without falling into the trap of being ridiculous and cliche?

Probably the most important element of writing emotion is knowing your character. I won't go so far as to say that the whole issue boils down to that one thing, but I will say that if it boils down to anything, that's what I would expect to find left in the pot. Individual characters will react differently to traumatic events, just as individual people in real life will; there is no cut-and-dry solution which allows you to say, "If the event is a death, the main character will feel this way," and, "If the protagonist is insulted, he will react like that." In every story you write, you should find the protagonist a little different from the one in the novel you wrote previously. Get to know your character; this may mean filling out pages upon pages of interview questions, or it may mean simply continuing to write and learning by trial and error. When you begin to understand what makes that person tick, you'll be better able to write those dramatic scenes.

As to the nuts and bolts of writing an emotion-packed scene, these are a little more difficult. I wouldn't venture to give a dogmatic answer, but I can give some suggestions that you may or may not find helpful - hopefully you will! First off, recognize that in the early scenes of a story, you probably won't get the character's reaction quite right on the first try. I wrote a good 40,000 words of The White Sail's Shaking before I had a handle on Tip's character, and I had to go back and rewrite the early chapters. Don't deceive yourself into thinking that you won't have to edit, and you'll begin to realize that there is no point in being too hard on yourself the first time through. Relax.

Second, as you write (or before you write, if you like to warm up before you start in on a scene), put yourself in the place of the character to the best of your ability. What would you feel like if someone were coming at you with a knife? Or, to use the example that Londongirl did from my own story, how would you react if someone told you your brother was dead? Try - again, to the best of your ability - to see things with the eyes of your character. K.M Weiland on her blog Wordplay frequently emphasizes the importance of using all five senses in description (not all at the same time) - smelling, hearing, tasting, and feeling as well as seeing. It might help to consider each of these as you write out a scene, then hone in on the ones you feel are most important.

Third, don't forget the little things. I mentioned in a post some months ago how marvelously Rosemary Sutcliff conveys emotion through small things. You may be inclined to think that in the midst of something traumatic a character wouldn't notice details, but this isn't always the case; the mind often fixates on strange details like an odd smell or a particular color. Incorporating something like that to a highly emotional scene helps to set off the character's emotions without forcing the author to relate his or her feelings point by point.

And then, of course, look beyond the cliche! Think about how you can describe reactions and emotions in a fresh manner. Give the old phrases a new twist or look at an emotion from a different angle, and see what you come up with when you do. After all, isn't that part of the fun of writing?


  1. Great post and advice. I find it hard, myself, to write an emotional scene without making it seem shallow.

  2. Thanks for answering my question! It was very helpful! Great advice!

  3. Glad it was helpful for you two! For myself, dramatic, emotional scenes are some of my favorite. Inflicting pain on characters is amazingly therapeutic. (Problems? No, I don't have problems. Why do you ask?) So it was fun writing up this post, and hopefully something in all that will strike a chord with you gals.

  4. I think there's an art to communicating emotion in subtleties, and it often forms the distinguishing line between excellence and mediocrity in just about anything that is moderately literary. The difference between a professional and an amateur actor, for example, is very often the difference between a gut-wrenching wince and an overdone sob-scene that has no effect on the viewer at all. So it is with a character in a story.

    And a good part of it (seems) to have something to do with simply trusting your readers to know that what is going on is devastating, and then let them see how the character deals with it. A writer robs readers of the opportunity to actually observe a person being a person and dealing with grief when all that grief prompts the character to do is puke emotion all over the pages. One might as well simply set them on the side of the road with a cardboard sign that says "SAD." Of course they feel sad, and of course the typical way of expressing sadness is to bawl. But most people do not bawl in every situation; there are a million things going on that make heartbreak far more interesting.

    I do ramble. But this is a lovely subject, and you're quite inspiring about it. ^.^

    (Thanks to your mention of 'White Sail's' editing, I now have 'Bad Day' stuck in my head. Speaking of brilliant acting with regards to emotions... it all comes back to 'Merlin,' doesn't it?)

  5. That show is going to end up becoming "The One We Shall Not Mention."

    You make me laugh, Anna. Your points are excellent, but you have such a refreshingly humorous way of expressing them - cardboard signs...! Anyway, you've hit the nail on the head (as usual). Part of the skill of writing is knowing what to write, but I think the other part is not what not to say. If you say nothing, you convey nothing; if you say everything, you cheat the reader. Such a troublesome, fun business it is!

  6. I agree. This is a little tangential, but one of my biggest hurdles is knowing what not to say, or when not to say something, or when to let it be say by something or someone else...

    As a naturally intuitive person, with struggles in the area of the Concrete, I find this dashed difficult to explain.

  7. I think you're very right that you must know your character well. A character's reaction is all-important. In some of my stories, a character simply "zones out" or seems dazed when a tragedy occurs; other characters cry or run or even grow angry. I would tell writers to observe the people around them. When my family faced the death of my aunt some years ago, one of my sisters stuffed her hurt inside herself and wouldn't talk about it for a long time. Others wanted to talk out the pain and still others found comfort in just having a good cry. Our differences in dealing with pain showed the differences in our personalities.

    Secondly, I agree with Anna. Say less. I generally don't explain anything that I can show. For example, simply telling the reader "He was generally relaxed and had to be provoked severely before he reacted in anger" is not nearly so effective as writing a scene in which he displays his restraint (unaccompanied by explanations about his feelings--just pure body language).

    Abigail, great observation about the "little things." You're so right! In the book "Men of Iron" by Howard Pyle, a young squire is caught by the master in a forbidden place. He could be executed for his impertinence, but all he can think about is the fact that if he nudged one stone with his toe, he would create a perfect square of four stones at his feet. Stupid? Probably. Realistic? You betcha.

    Thanks, Abigail! I'm looking forward to more.

  8. Glad you enjoyed it, Yaasha! Your reference to Men of Iron fits in perfectly with my thoughts on capturing the little things in a scene. Isn't it funny how the mind works sometimes? Thanks for commenting!


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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