Sad scenes can be some of the hardest to get just right. Too much emotion can seem melodramatic, but too little can make it underwhelming. How can you achieve a perfect balance between the two? Here are my tips:
- Avoid tears
I see a lot of manuscripts where characters cry frequently or excessively. While tears can be an easy way to communicate that a character is upset, they should be used only in rare circumstances. If your character cries every time something goes wrong, how will you escalate that emotion for their ultimate breaking point later? Be careful about when you use tears and how much a character cries. Some characters may be more prone to tears than others, but even the most sensitive probably shouldn’t cry frequently. Their tears will have more impact if used sparingly.
- Show, don’t tell
You’ve undoubtedly heard this writing advice before, but it’s especially important when it comes to sad scenes (and character emotions in general). Simply telling your reader that a character felt sad is the easiest way to convey that emotion, but it isn’t particularly effective. Let’s look at examples:
An overwhelming sadness overcame him. “I don’t know what to do,” he said helplessly.
Now, it’s very clear that this character is sad, but it also feels excessive and doesn’t offer any specific details. Let’s try showing instead of telling:
He swallowed past the lump forming in his throat. “I don’t know what to do,” he said.
It’s a small detail, but it truly shows us how he’s feeling. This is likely to have a much more significant impact on readers, even though it’s more subtle than the first example.
- Consider tone
Think about the tone of your scene, and use imagery to convey it. The wrong images can throw off the tone of the scene, while the right detail can bring it to life. For example:
She watched the bright beams of sunlight stream through the window and bit her lip, holding back tears.
See how inconsistent it feels to mention bright sunlight in a sad moment? (Granted, sometimes you might want that kind of contrast. But let’s keep it simple for now.) Let’s reframe the same detail in a different way:
Strips of light filtered through the window blinds, casting half the room in shadow. She bit her lip, holding back tears.
Same image, but now we’re focusing on different details—the fact that the light is filtered and partially blocked by the blinds, and the shadows it creates. This character is focusing on the more unpleasant details of her surroundings, and that alone helps to convey her feelings.
What do you think? Have any tips for writing sad scenes? What makes you feel emotional when reading sad scenes? Let me know in the comments!
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