Capturing the genuine heart of the human experience in fiction relies heavily on poignant and impactful depiction of emotion. In order to evoke feeling in the reader, you must evoke feeling in your characters, and you need to do it well (duh). So, how to write emotional scenes in a way that feels authentic? Love your characters, and break them. And at a microscopic level…
Cut out adverbs.
I have been very guilty of overusing adverbs in the past. I’ve had multiple editors make me remove as many as possible prior to publishing my work. At times they can be useful, but they can also make your writing unweildy and lessen the impact of a scene and the depth of feeling in it. When using adverbs, make sure they actually tell the reader something. Words like “absolutely” and “suddenly” are often not needed. On the other hand, someone “gesturing wildly”, for example, could be useful because it changes the meaning of the description.
Use mostly short sentences.
In general, I think it’s super important to vary your sentence length. If you don’t, the cadence will be off and your writing will generally sound awkward. That said, you should use more short sentences than long ones when writing a particularly emotional scene. When somebody is feeling something deeply, whatever it is they’re feeling, they’re more likely to think in short, to-the-point bursts—although it can sometimes be good to also make use of particularly long sentences. Stream of consciousness thinking. In sum, when someone is overwhelmed with emotion, they don’t reason and think in a organized way as they usually do. Try to make this obvious in the structure lf your writing.
Show more than you tell.
Going off of those short, intense sentences—show emotion through characters’ behavior and thoughts (and those thoughts shouldn’t just be “I was feeling sad”). Trying to show happiness? Don’t say it. Say, “his eyes sparkled, and the corners of his mouth threatened to turn up”. Show the reader how a particular character experiences their feelings.
Don’t be so specific (and stiff).
It’s an unfortunate fact of life that many, many people are idiots (something I’ve been hyper-aware of since Donald Trump was elected president)…still, most readers can infer some things without having everything spelled out for them. Particularly actions most people are familiar with—cut out filler. Don’t say, “She sat down, reached for her husband, then grabbed his hand.” Say, “She squeezed his hand so hard it hurt.” No need for all the specifics. Again, keep those sentences short and sweet, and don’t tell readers things they can figure out on their own.
Know you characters coping mechanisms, and write with them in mind.
Everyone has their own ways of dealing with their emotions without breaking (and sometimes they fail, and you fall apart). Sometimes they’re healthy, sometimes they’re anything but. How your characters handle the tough things in life says a lot about them, and allows you to depict deep emotion without stating it outright. Before you write, think about how the people in your story will function when things go wrong.
Show the effects of bottling emotions.
On that note, try to show what happens when your characters attempt to supress their feelings. I was a psychology major in college, and this definitely helps me when depicting characters’ responses to the problems I create for them, particularly what happens when they try to hide them. I suggest reading about common effects of suppressing emotion. Bottled feelings can be as poignant as openly expressed ones.
Just a few examples of what suppressed emotion looks like—
Low tone of voice, muscle tension, flushed face, sweating, carefully controlled expressions and voice volume.
Talking fast, touching face, repeating things, fidgeting, quickened pulse and breathing.
Stopping mid-sentence to avoid crying, puffy eyes, splotchy skin, blank stare.
Don’t spend too long on negative emotions.
As someone who puts all my teenage angst (still going strong, just shy of 27) into my writing, I frequently struggle with not making my characters spend half the story crying. But while sustained happiness does indeed make for a boring story, too much repetitive, drawn-out, detailed misery can also get old. It can lose impact, and leave readers bored. Make your characters’ breakdowns count.
Make descriptions of settings and situations raw.
In a particularly emotional scene, it stands to reason that words and images that illicit a strong emotional reaction should be used. Descriptions should be intense and detailed, but simple. I have a running list of things that make me really FEEL, added onto whenever I see, read, or experience something big. Then I put these things in my stories as I see fit.
Be mean to your characters.
Simple—if your characters don’t have serious problems, there’s no story. Bully them, steal from them, break them down. But make it meaningful. Nobody likes a story that’s shitty and dark all the way through for no reason.
One of the many marks of a truly great writer is the ability to make a story emotionally impactful while avoiding making it melodramatic. This goes along with not depicting in detail too much drawn out negative emotion, and using bottled feelings and subtext to your advantage. When writing a scene, especially one heavy on intense emotion, it’s crucial to be realistic. And of course, you don’t want to annoy readers with excessively dramatic dialogue and behavior from your characters. Even in a particularly painful or exciting chapter, keeping the characters’ reactions (and the narrative itself) relatively “low-key” is almost always best. That’s not to say you shouldn’t make your characters react to major events with intense emotions—of course, if someone hears that their family has been killed, they’re going to react violently. But there’s still room to rely on nuance rather than soap opera-esque theatrics. Don’t be heavy-handed as far as forcing the visceral impact of a scene or moment.
Write in deep POV.
This might be my number one tip in writing intense emotion. I almost never write in the third person because I find that it’s far less amenable to giving a story a sense of humanity. Going a step further than simple first person, deep point of view involves fully writing from a single character’s perspective. What they don’t know, you don’t know. Their opinions are your opinions as far as the story is concerned. Their feelings are your own. People are never impartial and don’t know everything—writing in deep POV reflects the messy, emotional reality of life.
Actually, this is my number one tip in writing emotional stories. One of my favorites quotes on writing, from Richard Price—“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.” This is an extension of showing rather than telling. Life is a series of moments and reactions, and more often than not, it’s the little human things that make it meaningful.
Go forth—make your readers angry and miserable. Make them fall in love with your characters, and never feel weird about crying at your own writing. If you do it right, writing fiction should be an emotional process.