How do you, as a fiction writer, convey extreme emotions, minus the melodrama?
I mean, the tears and tantrums.
They happen, right? A lot. We are discussing extreme emotions here.
Our highly emotional scenes are surely going to involve crying and screaming? Perhaps the destruction of physical objects, and even other human beings? We are talking extreme, after all.
Okay, fine – your characters can cry.
They can scream, in some circumstances. And violent outbursts might also occur. All of these things can happen in your story, and it doesn’t have to be melodramatic, as a direct result.
But let’s start with acknowledging that none of the tears and tantrums, in and of themselves, are going to make the reader care. If the reader doesn’t care, your scenes aren’t making an emotional impact, and no amount of crying and door slamming will alter that.
Oh, and incidentally, the same applies to happier emotions. So, your character is experiencing intense joy, or deep inner peace: Why should the reader care, one way or the other?
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, to anyone familiar with my blog posts – strong, believable characters are truly the heart of great fiction.
If you’ve focused sufficiently on character development, your highly emotional scenes are much more likely to be effective, when they do occur.
That said, we can work on the assumption that you’ve created awesome, well-developed characters.
Conveying powerful emotions, whilst avoiding melodrama, should come relatively easily.
Here are a few specifics to look out for:
The frequency with which tears cascade down faces.
Go easy on the “cascading”, incidentally. Overwriting in this way is exactly what we’re trying to avoid. It’s melodramatic. Any kind of cliché is likely to be an issue, or any phrase tends towards OTT and even ridiculous.
But, returning to my point about frequency, keep in mind that crying loses its impact, in general, when characters cry too often. In real life, some people do cry more than others, and some allowance can be made for this. But there are limits.
Terms such as “weeping” and “sobbing” should only ever be used when they actually describe the level of crying involved.
People seldom weep or sob, and yet, these words are too often used, by writers, apparently seeking a synonym for “crying”: quite possibly a red flag, suggesting too many instances of “crying” and “tears”. Alternative words and phrases are probably not the solution.
One more point, on the subject of crying characters: Tempted to “show” the tears – perhaps by mentioning moisture on cheeks?
I would rather read: “Lucy cried.” Show, don’t tell has its limitations, and moisture on cheeks is definitely a cliché.
If your characters tend to cry a lot, it’s often best to let them. In the first draft, that is. I personally edit out excessive tears, as part of the revision process.
That’s another thing. Admittedly, these are realistic and relatable: feeling like screaming, being on the verge of tears, or fantasizing about punching some particular person in the face. The general tendency is to Feel Like more than we actually do.
Unfortunately, if characters are described as “feeling like screaming” or “being close to tears”, we’ve heard those phrases too many times, and barely register the words any more, when we read them.
For this reason, unless you can express these in an interesting and original way, it’s probably best to go easy on the Feeling Likes.
I also look out for Character Smashing Stuff Up In Temper Syndrome.
Common in TV dramas, and many novels. And yes, I too often find my characters behaving the same way.
Honestly, do you purposely knock over and smash up your own possessions, every time you lose your temper or get upset? I don’t.
I guess it’s an obvious – too obvious – way to indicate that a character is angry or/and hurting. But really, don’t resort to this one too often. It’s not standard behaviour in real life.
Foreshadowing is particularly important, when it comes to emotional scenes.
If a character is going to die, for example, what would make that even more poignant? Even more devastating for the other characters?
Sow seeds. This is more difficult, admittedly, for “pantsers” – who write without the benefit of an outline or plot – but not impossible. Rework earlier scenes to include the necessary foreshadowing. It’s worth the effort.
My general conclusion here is that, even though we’re talking about how to convey overwhelming and intense emotions, we often need to be more subtle.
The most powerful, and deeply emotional, scenes are those that stay with us, forming a lasting impression. Those are the scenes that we must endeavour to create.