4 Tips for Writing an Emotional Scene

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Emotions are the cornerstone of a story, and leaving an emotional impression on your readers is how you make people fall in love with your book. They need to feel the impact of a story, but how do you write an emotionally charged scene without being overly sentimental, cheesy, or awkward? If you go overboard, an emotional scene can quickly get uncomfortable and taint the effect of your story. Writing an emotional scene where a reader won’t roll their eyes takes some know-how.

If you’re struggling to draft an impactful scene in your story, read these tips for writing emotional scenes that feel genuine. Want feedback on what you’ve already written? Order a manuscript critique, and we’ll provide you with a professional assessment of your story.

Why not skip those scenes?

If emotional scenes are so dreadful, why include them? The truth is that those awkward, sappy scenes you may be tempted to avoid are usually crucially important to the story. They’re a declaration of love, grief over a character’s death, or a moment of forgiveness. Humans are fundamentally emotional creatures, and the most important moments of our lives are defined by strong emotions; therefore, a good story needs to tap into these feelings.

So, while these scenes cannot be avoided, the awkwardness certainly can. Here are four tips on how to do it. 

1. Be subtle

Spelling everything out for the reader a) makes the writing less compelling and b) can feel insulting. This is not something you want.

Show what you wish to convey through action rather than through straightforward description or a character’s internal monologue. The famous writing advice to “show, not tell” applies here, too. Not only will this approach make for a more engaging narrative, but it will also allow you to paint a more vivid picture for your readers.

Also, let your audience read between the lines. Trust that they’ll be able to feel the emotions and that you don’t need to explain everything in detail. You don’t need to spell out that your character’s “heart is breaking” for your readers to understand it. In fact, the story will be more engaging and rewarding for them if they can figure out things for themselves rather than be spoon-fed by the author. If you’re stumped, think about how emotions are portrayed effectively in cinema and try to replicate the same techniques in text.

2. Remove cliched phrases

Speaking of "heart is breaking,” cleanse your writing of such cliches. Phrases like “deafening silence,” “a dark and stormy night,” and “loose cannon” are overused and will cause that eye roll you’re trying to avoid. Don’t rely on the same old phrases everyone’s already used a million times—get creative. Be raw, be genuine, get deep into the scene, and write it as you feel it.

3. Lay the groundwork

Build up your characters and conflicts first. Your readers need to understand a character before you introduce an emotional scene. They won’t care about a scene of resolution if you haven’t built up the conflict. A scene of forgiveness won’t have an impact if you haven’t spent time fleshing out the relationship and the conflict between characters. Readers won’t care about a scene of grief if you didn’t give them enough to get to know the characters involved. A declaration of love will feel empty if you haven't built up the characters’ feelings over the course of the novel.

Basically, for your emotional scenes to evoke real emotions, you have to get readers invested in your characters and plot. Do this by slowly revealing the motivations, backstories, and idiosyncrasies of your likable yet flawed and realistic characters as you smoothly roll out a gripping plot that leaves your audience dying to know what happens next. 

4. Show vulnerability

Vulnerability is powerful. The best way to write genuine vulnerability in your characters is to put yourself in their shoes. What would you say or do in the same situation? Would you be articulate or fumble through your words? Would you lay your feelings bare or struggle to be open? 

At the same time, though, your character isn’t you, so the way you would act in a given situation might not reflect their behavior. Imagining yourself in their circumstances is a good start, but to write your characters, you must become them. This requires extremely robust character development and intimate knowledge of their background, motivations, and mindset.

Your characters need to feel real. Always write them as a person first before writing them as a hero. A person messes up, miscommunicates, and struggles. Showing a character’s vulnerability makes them more believable—reading about “perfect” heroes simply isn’t interesting.

Final thoughts

When all else fails, take a step back from your writing. After some time away, you’ll have a fresh pair of eyes to spot cliches, instances of telling instead of showing, and other problems.

Don’t forget that you can hire a professional for feedback on your manuscript. For more writing and revising help, check out our services for authors.

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