Read Part I of Sasha Leigh's article on how to grab your reader's heart.
Think of Kuber-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief when you are writing an emotional scene: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. If you are aware of these, you can more accurately predict how a character will respond so that it is believable, and not just what you want them to do. Here are a few exercises to attempt when you are having trouble getting those emotions out, or just like to practice in between projects:
1. Draw from your own memories. Write down situations you have been in using brainstorming, snowflake method, or even just making little pieces of paper which you later pick from a hat. One at a time, pick a situation and write about it. You can:
- Freewrite -Write everything you know, from start to finish of the memory, without pause or edits;
- Jot Notes - Make a bulleted list of the emotions the situations you have been in made you feel;
- Again, brainstorm with words about those emotions;
- Use the Stages of Grief (the five above or what some believe to be Seven Stages of Grief) as an outline and identify what you felt during each event comprising an emotional memory.
2. Watch TV. Discover which situations will provoke more emotion, what age group overreacts more than another (usually teenagers), and how they get over what they have been thrust into by the writers.
3. As a writer, this is one of your most important resources, but I put it as the third tool because the old, "Write what you know" cliché does have its place, and is important when you are attempting to write a scene powerful enough that your reader can't pull their nose out of it. Also, you can write while watching TV, so there's that. But we all have our favorite scenes in our favorite novels that we can't help but go back to, so do it again. Read it over and over until you can say with certainty what it is about the passage that has gotten you so hooked, and then try to incorporate the qualities that you admire (without copying).
4. Now that you know the level of reaction, and which situations will be more likely to provoke a more intense outcome, figure out the dialogue. Do they moan and cry? Slur? Stutter? Or is the character so traumatized, they shut down, and a group so shocked, they are silent? A really great example of this, especially for YA, is The Vampire Diaries. Though it's not my favorite show, it does have some of the most believable dialogue when compared to the reactions/dialogue of actual teens.
5. Set a mood and stick to it. I've read some scenes where the emotion is on full-throttle, but the effect was broken by bouts of humor in between the protagonist declaring it's the end of the world and wishing they could be at the mall instead (needless to say, I didn't finish that book). Dry humor is sometimes okay within emotional scenes, if it fits with the character's voice, but don't overdo it or you'll lose the effect.
6. Remember your audience. If you are writing for children, you're going to fluff it up i.e. "Oh, Tommy was so sad . . ." But if you are writing for MG/YA/NA, your content can become more graphic with each age category. MG might get hit in the nose from a bully, and then go tell a teacher. YA might use a few swears in the same situation, plus a return swing, while NA could turn into a full-fledged bar brawl that, because they are now "in the real world", ends with having a sleepover with the police. Now escalate to an adult novel (Rated-R for violence, nudity, mature language and/or subject matter), and you'll have to read the book between the cracks of your fingers as you cover your eyes and blush.
7. Surprise your reader (or character) and write what would be least expected to happened in a given situation. Abnormal situations with high emotion will provoke people to do things that they would not do otherwise. Use this as a tool to make your story more interesting.
8. As I mentioned above, most speech and action is stilted and short in an emotional scene; however, too much of this will drop your reader's interest, so mix it up every few paragraphs with a thought or two from the character. A gesture, short description, revelation, or a really good, incoherent ramble, could be used, as well, if implemented in SHORT DOSES.
As always, this list is not exhaustive for this topic. It is based on my own experiences as a writer, as well as what I have read from authors I admire. All writing takes practice, so work on it, and sooner or later you will find what works for you. However, if you are ever stuck, try one of the above. Before committing an emotional scene for publication, make yourself aware of the "triggers" people may encounter when reading about certain subjects. While much of this is over-done, there are subjects that can trigger episodes, and for your readers' sake—and your reputation—make sure to put a warning on your written works, which can easily be worked into the blurb or copyright page.
Do you know of any other ways to provoke emotions in your writing? Acting out a scene with a friend? Improvisation? Obviously, I write, so those aren't big on my list, but it would be interesting if they worked.
By Sasha Leigh
Sasha Leigh is a self-diagnosed dreamer. When she isn't stuck in worlds of her own making, listening to characters squabble for attention in her head, she's immersed in stories created by others. A lover of all things "weird", Sasha's world is considered complete when she has her daughter at her side, her sketchpad, notebook, and something to write with - even if it's just a piece of chalk. Working by day in the insurance industry, she spends her evenings and weekends devouring or writing new tales of magic, mythology, and all things supernatural (except dragons).
To find out more about Sasha, check out her interview.