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.
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?
Sally Apokedak 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 sally-apokedak.com.