Capturing emotion

Here’s a post from Helping Writers Become Authors: How to Write Emotional Scenes (Without Making Them Cringey)

In a recent email, reader Jessica commented to me about how, when deeply emotional scenes are executed poorly, the audience “just wants to run and hide.” She goes on:

And yet, some storytellers can pull this off, and not only don’t you want to cringe, it’s your favorite part of the story. So I was wondering if you had any tips around the difference between achieving that heart-melting thrill versus falling into the cringe, cover your eyes for a moment kind of scene.

I completely relate to the sheer difficulty of creating emotional scenes that don’t feel cringey. When I first started writing, these scenes were my least favorite to write. I cringed my own way through all of them. I had to do a lot of soul-searching and work to figure out how to write emotional scenes. What I’ve learned over the many years since is that the single most important key to writing emotional scenes that truly pull their weight is verisimilitude.

Bottom line: readers cringe when they know the author is trying to make them feel a certain way… and failing. It’s like watching a stand-up comedian who is missing the mark so badly that you’re embarrassed. Cringe.

What do you think? I think … I think it’s possibly true that the scene itself can fail. I can’t offhand think of an example, but that may be because I don’t generally get far enough into a poorly written book to hit a scene that’s supposed to be emotionally intense. I do wonder which specific scenes the initial question had in mind and whether the author of the post is thinking of a specific scene.

I wonder if a more typical failure is simply a failure to make the reader care about the characters. Then the reader hits a scene that should be emotionally intense, but shrugs: Whatever. That’s not a cringe; it’s just indifference. Again, I don’t have a specific example in mind. It’s been years since I forced myself to continue a novel when I didn’t care about the characters.

Personally, I find a lot depends on the emotion in question.

Emotions I loathe:

Oh, if I can’t see him again, my life will be over. It’s worth any stupid unnecessary risk to see him one more time.

The author has to be REALLY gifted to make that work for me. I don’t cringe, except with scorn for the protagonist’s inability to just get a grip on herself. I roll my eyes, or sometimes throw the book across the room, and move on to another book.

Oh, whatever shall I do? The villain is succeeding at all his nefarious aims! I wring my hands in dismay at my own total ineffectuality! Alas! Woe!

I despise a helpless protagonist. There she stands, wringing her hands while everything crashes down around her. That is a character type that’s just painful to read about, and an author whom I may avoid in the future. I don’t think there’s anything at all the author can do that makes me accept an ineffectual protagonist. I think it’s really the author’s job to come up with something for the protagonist to do, something effective rather than eye-rollingly idiotic, though the consequences of her actions may be unforeseen and create more problems.

Offhand, I can’t think of any other types of emotions I particularly dislike. Oh, no, wait, I can:

I really dislike public embarrassment. All my life, I’ve avoided every sitcom because a tremendous proportion of all the supposed humor in sitcoms depends on putting characters into embarrassing situations and laughing at them. I don’t find those scenes funny at all, ever. I find them excruciating. I don’t like those scenes in novels either. I don’t think it’s possible for an author to write a scene like that where I wouldn’t cringe — and here cringe is exactly the right word.

However, I do think it’s true that any emotional scene may fail, even if that emotion is not in and of itself a turnoff. Grief ought to be intense, and so should love, and fury, and terror. When scenes that ought to evoke those emotions fail, I think that may happen because of a problem not with the scene itself, but with the leadup.

A lot of the success of emotional scenes depends on building up to those scenes. The emotion in an intense scene has to be earned. If a character is grief stricken, the strength of the loss has to be established beforehand by making the relationship important. If the character realizes she is truly in love, the significant other needs to be established beforehand as worth loving. I wonder if, when someone says they cringe at an emotional scene, the failure is in the prior pages, which failed to lead into the intensity of that scene.

The author of the linked post says When I first started writing, these scenes were my least favorite to write.

They’ve always been my favorite scenes to write. Moving toward a scene like that is motivating. The intensity draws me in and I’m very likely to write scenes like this “in flow,” fast, with a literally painful sense of discontinuity if the phone rings. That’s been true right from the beginning. I’m glad of that, because I can’t imagine not loving those scenes.

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3 thoughts on “Capturing emotion”

  1. I have never heard the term ‘closed door romance’ before, but some of those scenes really make me cringe. In Laurie Marks Fire Logic, in particular. It wasn’t enough to put me off the book, but it may other people.

    I think GGK’s latest attempts at wringing emotion out of people are cringe-worthy. I do think he’s trying too hard.

    Too much tension and terror makes me anxious. You do it very well; Patricia Briggs does it very well, but I like you all more for relationship management and competence porn.

  2. Someone asked me recently on Quora how to find non-steamy romance, so I came up with every search term I could think of: clean, sweet, fade-to-black, closed door, wholesome, uplifting. Those last two get you Christian romances and things like that, but the others are all about equally good for finding non-explicit romances.

    And thank you! “Relationship management” is a pretty good term.

  3. Oh, I also just thought, I quit reading Stephen King because in ALL his more recent books you could immediately recognize the Nice Girl Who Will Die. She would step on stage and you’re like Ah! There she is!

    Then she’d be killed in some incredibly heavy-handed tear jerker death at the last moment in the story.

    That happened like three or four times in a row and I was done.

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