Thursday, July 22, 2010

Saying Good-Bye

Or: On The Art of Writing Emotional Parting Scenes.

Since last week I've been working on two chapters that lead up to and end with one of many parting scenes I'll need to write in Willa. These scenes have made me shed a few tears, wrenched my heart, and generally sent me into an emotional tail-spin right along with my characters.

But there's an art to writing these types of scenes--in hope that a reader will feel what I felt in the writing of them--and it doesn't come easy for me. That art is called restraint. Most of what I know of it I learned from writer Diana Gabaldon, who has often given the advice "use a lot of emotional restraint when you write a deeply emotional scene." We've had many a discussion on the subject at the Books & Writers Forum over the years. Here's some of what I've gleaned, in a tidy list:

~ Hold back on telling the reader how the character is feeling. Instead show their response to what's happening, what's being said, and trust the reader to get it.

~ Use sparse and simple language. The emotion should be evoked by the characters and the situation, so the writing itself doesn't have to force it on the reader. 

~ Don't drag the scene out. Let it pack a quick punch. Otherwise it will exhaust the reader.

~ Stay focused on what is most important. This is not the time for too much detail, or trying to focus on everything (sensory and visual detail, extraneous goings on, memories, or thoughts that might dilute the scene's impact).

~ Most importantly for an overwriter like myself: write the scene and let it cool off (overnight, or a week, or while you write another scene), then come back and edit it. Read it out loud. Edit it again. Repeat as necessary.

Any writers out there have additional tips for not laying it on too thick during those scenes of high emotion? Please share!


  1. This is such a helpful post. I've just written the climax of my book and there are several emotional scenes following it. It's always a fine balance to convey emotion without dragging it out and these tips are so helpful. I definitely agree with the show-don't-tell tip. It pulls the reader directly into the scene and lets them experience what's happening right along with the characters.

  2. Cindy, yeah, I know I'm telling and not showing when these kinds of scenes are scattered with "emotion" words or the phrase "she/he felt." A lot of the emotional impact needs to come from the work the writer has done to build character sympathy in the reader in all the scenes leading up to that point. I had better have made it clear what's at stake, and what's being lost or gained, without me having to restate it all at that pivotal moment. Overstating it often sounds like whining on the POV character's part, anyway. Far better to watch a character stand and take an emotional pummeling with some semblance of dignity, even while we know they are coming apart inside.

  3. Excellent and timely post, Lori! I just went through one emotional scene and sluffed off some extra baggage with this in mind. I'm thinking I know who parted company in Willa and why, but I'm just guessing:)

  4. Laura, so glad it was a help (and for Cindy too!).

    I hope it won't be TOO easy to guess who parted ways in Willa. :)

  5. I've just written two different parting scenes (one a farewell to war, one a burial) and now I have to write an even bigger one. The burial scene was much more effective than the departure, which I need to revise quite heavily.

    I think the difference between them was that in the one that worked, the character saying goodbye was thinking about what the departed person meant to them- about their past- and not just about their actual absence. In the one that didn't work so well, it was all too focussed on the actual physical departure.

    So, I think (if I can articulate what I'm trying to say) that any departure is the culmination of a lot of moments in a relationship, and it's necessary to have that history sitting behind the good-bye to make it truly poignant. Good-bye is not just another moment in a relationship- it's the summary, the conclusion, the wrapping up of all the other moments.

  6. "any departure is the culmination of a lot of moments in a relationship, and it's necessary to have that history sitting behind the good-bye to make it truly poignant"

    Claire, Yes! That's what I was trying to get at in an earlier comment. The characters' history has to pull a lot of the weight in emotional scenes, and if we do our job right in building that history, and the emotional stakes of the relationship that's in jeopardy (in whatever way), the reader knows what's being lost; they don't have to be reminded. Just show what's happening, and trust the impact to be made.

    What I think would be a real challenge is to evoke a strong emotional response early on in a novel, before the characters' history/relationship has had a chance to be fully explored. Thankfully the parting scene I'm working on happens a little past the mid point in my WIP.