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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Don't Cheat the Reader

 I am constantly tempted to skip over heavy, emotional scenes. I want to shield my characters from prying eyes. I don’t want people to see them standing at their fathers’ graves with red, puffy eyes and snot dripping from their noses. Even worse? Watching and listening in while they smooch and call each other silly pet names. They wouldn't do that if they knew people were watching. I feel a little rude, spying on them with my hidden camera. 
Besides, these kinds of scenes—loving, fighting, grieving—take a lot of energy to write and they never feel good to me. I go over them again and again until the characters feel like cardboard people I’m manipulating for my own ends. Everything they do and say feels forced and cheesy. 
Of course, readers don't know how long we work on our scenes. It all feels fresh to them.   
Besides that… 
Readers Want to Feel Emotion: 
We read fiction because we want to go on an emotional journey with the main character. If you cheat us out of sharing the emotional journey why should we go on reading?   
I remember a book that I loved, loved, loved. This book was going to be my next favorite. I was gearing up to rave about it to all my friends.
Then . . . boom! I fell out of love with the turn of a page.
At the end of one chapter a character I really like—the main character’s mother—is injured. She collapses onto the floor, an ambulance comes, the paramedics wheel her out, and the curtain falls before we are told how serious the injury is. 
The next chapter opens . . . three months in the future.  
I turned the page thinking I'd find out what happened to the mother. Instead I found the POV character and her friend discussing the DEATH of the mother as if it was old news. To my mind she had just fallen, injured, mere moments before. 
I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I quickly flipped back to see if I had somehow skipped a chapter. No. On the previous page the character was wheeled out on a gurney, still alive. And then we skipped forward three months and got a three-sentence summarization of her death. 
It was bad enough that the mother died, but I could have forgiven that. What I couldn’t get over was that the author gave me the news in such an abrupt, cruel way, three months after the fact. I was bonded with the POV character. When her mother died, my mother died, but I wasn’t given any time to grieve. 
I struggled through one more chapter, then put the book down and never picked it up again. I simply couldn’t reattach myself to the heroine. She was over her mother’s death and I was still reeling from it. This created a breach between us that was too wide for me to cross.
We have to write the hard scenes. The reader has to live through what the character lives through. No, we don't have to show the sex or violence, but we have to show the emotion the character is experiencing, whether it’s wildly crazy love or a devastating sense of loss. 
Do you struggle with writing emotional scenes? I shrink away from them, sometimes, because I'm afraid of being melodramatic. How can we guard against melodrama? Have you read any books where the author left out an emotional scene she should have put in? 
 is the editor of Best Books for Young Readers, a semiannual newsletter. (Subscribe for a chance to win a Kindle Fire.) She is also the local liaison for SCBWI in Cobb County, Georgia. She has published short works in a number of places and has received an SCBWI Work in Progress grant. She can usually be found blogging about young adult novels at
photo credit: pcgn7 via photo pin cc


  1. Maybe because I'm a drama queen at heart, Sally, I thoroughly enjoy doing the emotional scenes. But of course I'm in a totally different genre than you. There is always the necessary caution for creating melodrama, but in the original definition of melodrama - not the connotation - it can be a good thing. If I can't persuade a reader to dredge up an emotional response where I intend one to be, I've failed.

    And where reading is concerned, any book - from thrillers to romance - an author better tap into my emotions at some point or they're history.

    1. "If I can't persuade a reader to dredge up an emotional response where I intend one to be, I've failed."

      I've always said if I can just make one reader laugh and cry, I'll feel that I've lived a good life.

  2. I struggle with the types of scenes you mentioned. I'm afraid of being too melodramatic, of making the reader laugh rather than grieve, because my writing is cheesy and too emotive.

    On the other hand, I know the value of those scenes. They connect characters to readers.

    At the moment, I'm endeavoring to answer requests from readers to insert more romance into a science fiction serial, but I feel awkward writing that. What happens when I get to the mushy stuff? (cringe) But the characters and the readers are connecting over the unexpressed emotions evident in actions; therefore, I'm stepping out of my comfort zone in order to give the readers some pay-off for their loyalty to my characters. It's only fair.

    1. I read those scenes in books, Keanan, and do not find them cheesy, even though I hate to write them. You're exactly right about the pay-off being necessary. When we have slogged through a story with characters we love, we want to see some pay-off.

  3. I know what you mean, we need to stay with those characters through those horrid parts, not jump out of their lives b/c it's convenient! I like understated drama that speaks of a character's mental state. In other words, instead of bursting into tears, weeping at the drop of the hat, I think it's more effective to see the character withdrawing from others, delving into memories, other words, they're internalizing and WE realize that they need help, even if they don't! Grin.

    1. Yes, Heather, I agree. I've read editors, I can't remember where, who have said that they can't stand characters crying all the time. I tend to have my characters cry a lot, and I can see where that get's old. We want characters to act, not cry. Withdrawing is an action they are taking to protect themselves, so that's more interesting than watching them sit around crying.

  4. I *love* this post! (I'll tweet the link on Monday.) Yes, yes, yes!

    I read one book where the heroes were stuck in a room and the bad guys were outside, just about to break in... And the next scene was of them several miles away talking about how *that* was a narrow escape. Arg! That is *so* lazy. It's like the author didn't know how they'd escape and so just glossed over it.

    I could go on and on with this, so you might have inspired a blog post. :) Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Jami. Link here when you do the blog post, please, so I can go read it.

      I appreciate your affirming that this is a real problem. I think I recognize the problem because I'm apt to write in this lazy way, myself. I had a great critique partner, early on, who pointed out that I was skipping some really tense scenes and wasting some great opportunities.

    2. Hi Sally,

      I'm not sure if you're still checking this post, so I'll tweet the link to you too, but here's what I ended up with (and as usual, my post went in directions I never expected! :) ):

      Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. As a reader, I agree with this. I love being pulled into the story. Some of the best books are ones where I've felt the urge to pray for characters and had to remind myself they aren't real! LOL

    I don't like it when authors toy with readers' emotions, which is a bit what you described. Killing off a character in whom I've invested time and emotion better have a really good purpose! Even when it does, it's still really hard to take. I know an author that still gets flak for killing off a beloved character near the end of the book -- and she even grieved when she was writing the book and realized that was the only outcome that would bring the necessary redemption. It really helped to know that, and that she wasn't just doing it indiscriminately.

    1. ha ha that's hysterical. Man! I wish I could write so well as to make readers want to pray for the characters.

      You're right about there needing to be a good reason to kill off characters. I hadn't thought of that before.

  6. Sally, I took a class on writing emotions from Alicia Rasley. She said we shy away from strong emotions because it's uncomfortable, an invasion of privacy. She recommends the writer back out of deep point of view a little. This lets the reader experience the emotion without being told what to feel.
    Alicia gave the example of a scene with a man whose father died in a house fire. The man drives to Dad's house, thinking about everything he has to do, and the one thing he hopes to save - family photographs. The man finds the box holding the photos, opens it, and discovers only ash. He kneels in the mud, letting the rain wash the ash from his fingers.
    If she'd written deep POV (No. Nothing left. The photos were gone, all gone. Why couldn't at least one of them be saved?) etc, the reader might think, "What a whiner. Get over it already." But they way she wrote it, readers are thinking these things and aching for the man.
    So, yes, write the scene! And try backing out a little!

    1. Excellent advice! Thank you! I agree that for me it's a desire to protect my characters' privacy that makes me dislike writing these scenes.

      I remember reading a scene in a manuscript once where the author described a homosexual rape--big boys on a little boy. I told her I was so numb from reading the little boy's feelings that I couldn't take the scene in. I suggested she show the big boys approaching and then cut away to a flower that was trampled by the big boys as they approached, and then come back with the little boy lying in a heap after the fact. I thought the picture of the flower being trampled would be enough to show the little boy being so violated. I thought that would have more power than showing the actual act and letting us hear the little boy crying in pain and shame.

      So, yes, I agree that pulling back from close first person is exactly what we should do sometimes. I hadn't thought of that when I was writing this post, but we can engage more emotion in our reader by letting them fill in the emotion sometimes, instead of laying it on ourselves. This is great. I'm going to look at a couple of my problem scenes with this in mind.


    2. FYI, the link to the post by Alicia Rasley that Cathy mentioned is:

      I figured I'd share since you mentioned that you had some problem scenes. :)

  7. "We read fiction because we want to go on an emotional journey with the main character." Gotta say, I'm in the minority as a reader because I don't want an emotional book. Understate it, hint at it, but don't make me cry.

    I read fiction for escape, adventure, and laughs if I can get them, and after years of forcing myself to try to write emotional-journey fiction when that's not what I like to read, I'm giving myself permission to write what I like.

    I'm sure there are other readers out there like me. My challenge will be to engage their curiosity if I'm not going after their hearts.

    1. Well, laughs are an emotion.

      Some people like to read nonfiction and don't want any emotion, I guess. But I think if you don't want any emotion, you are in the minority of fiction readers.

      I would argue that laughs, and adventure that gets your heart pounding, are moving you emotionally.

    2. Sally, I hadn't thought of humour as an emotion. I guess I'm a reader who wants positive emotion with understated feel-good stories. Thanks for the perspective.

  8. I love writing emotional scenes,especially the "silly little moments" between characters. It's the times I have to move the character from inside the building to out that I struggle with.

  9. There are times when I hate writing emotional scenes. They can be very draining. But I know they drive the story too. I don't think I skip emotional scenes...though I may procrastinate writing them. LOL

  10. Good post, Sally, thanks. A part of me is like Janet. If I know a book is about something really tragic, I would prefer not to read it. But if I'm surprised and the story grabs me and I cry, well, that's only an indication that I was really close to the character. But I don't really want to read about stories that I know have no happy ending possible. I just would rather not read those.


    1. I don't like tragic books, either. But if we aren't connected emotionally to the characters, why would we keep reading?

      Even in reality TV shows about people we don't know, the producers try to make us care by making us "feel" for the people.

  11. I find writing emotional scenes hard because I feel vulnerable myself as the author. I feel like I'm exposing a part of my heart. But I know that if I am not feeling the scene, then my reader is not going to feel the scene either. It took years of peeling away layers and rewriting scenes to finally get to the emotional level I wanted for my book.

    Great post!


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