A Tip for Writing Emotional Scenes

I struggle with writing emotional scenes. In part because I have a hard time admitting that I feel any sort of vulnerable emotion myself and writing about it feels like an admission of that fact. But mostly because I have a tendency to give too many details which leads to telling rather than showing. For example, I might write a scene like:

Tommy was riding his bike as his mother watched from the living room window. Her hands were wringing with worry. She thought he might fall because she had just taken the training wheels off last week. Sure enough, he toppled over as he passed the mailbox. He cried out. She ran to him and swooped him up into her arms. Her face was pained. It hurt her to see her little boy in pain. She held him close as he clung to her, sobbing. As she held him, his sobs began to recede. He lay his head on her shoulder, relaxed, for one brief minute before releasing and hopping on his bike again. She smiled and wiped away a tear because she was happy that her love was so comforting to him, but also because he was getting so big. She knew he would not need these comforting hugs from her much longer.

That scene is rife with telling and is too wordy. To convey emotion I should be concise and let the reader figure things out. Here is the same scene with less explanation, that paints a clearer picture and has less unnecessary explanation:

Tommy was riding his bike as his mother watched from the living room window, wringing her hands. She had just taken the training wheels off last week. He toppled over as he passed the mailbox and cried out. She ran to him and swooped him up into her arms. Her face was pained. She held him close as he clung to her, sobbing. As she held him, his sobs began to recede. He lay his head on her shoulder, relaxed, for one brief minute before releasing and hopping on his bike again. She smiled and wiped away a tear.

I need help with this. I’m still learning. Still practicing. So here’s a tip that I hope I remember to follow: keep a record of scenes that convey emotion well and refer to them for a reminder of how it’s done.

I’ve created a document in which I record well done emotional scenes to give me inspiration. The first scene I’ve recorded, for example is from the film Kramer vs. Kramer. I haven’t seen it in years and I don’t think I ever saw the whole thing, but there is one scene that stuck with me.

Billy has been living with his dad (Dustin Hoffman) since his mom left. After a custody battle, he finds out he is going to live with his mom. In the next scene, he’s sitting on the kitchen counter while his dad makes breakfast. We see the sadness on his face. When his dad lifts him from the counter he hugs his dad tight for a moment before letting him put him down.

I don’t think I’ve ever thought about this scene without tearing up. The silence is so perfect. It says there are no words to convey the intensity of the feeling in the room. It’s so simple. The boy hugs his dad. But in the context of the rest of the film, we the viewers, know that there’s so much pain, longing, love, heartache. We want to fix the situation for that little boy. We never want another child to feel what he’s feeling. We don’t want another parent to feel what Dustin Hoffman’s character is feeling.

Next time I am working on a heart-wrenching scene of helpless longing, I’ll refer to my “Emotional Scenes” folder and watch that scene for inspiration.

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