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Writing Emotional Scenes Without Melodrama

by Anne Marble

Emotional scenes are, of course, crucial to romances. A romance is a novel about two people falling in love and defeating their problems together. So without the emotions, one of the most important parts of the romance is missing. Because a romance novel is a novel, conflict must drive the plot -- and sometimes, that conflicts stems from the relationship of the hero and heroine.

However, all too often, scenes that should pull at the heart strings instead tug at the heart strings with full force. What makes one scene emotional and one scene melodramatic? As a writer, how can you avoid yanking so hard on the heart strings that the window shades flop up violently?

Put the "I Hate You, Let's Go to Bed" Plot to Bed

The infamous "I Hate You, Let's Go to Bed" relationship was a mainstay of romance during the early day, and it is still alive and well. Some writers can make this work despite its flaws. Think of Sam and Diane in Cheers or David and Maddie in Moonlighting. However, many readers loathe that plot and will hurl the book against the wall if they run across it again.

Make your characters stronger. If they are fighting that much, maybe they should avoid sleeping together. If you really want to write a story using the "I Hate You, Let's Go to Bed" plot, give it a twist. For example, if you're writing a screwball comedy, you might be able to use it in a farcical manner that sends up this (in)famous plot. Or if you are writing an emotional and angsty romance, get to know your characters so well that you can find believable reasons for them to act this way, and then make your readers buy into that. The "I Hate You, Let's Go to Bed" is so often a tired excuse for empty conflict, but if you are writer enough to make this plot work, you will end up with a truly heartrending read.

Avoid Contrived Character Behaviors

One of the worst things you can do is push your characters into emotional scenes by manipulating characters to act in illogical ways or by forcing the plot to twist into unbelievable directions. Your plot will be stronger if the characters act logically rather than acting like marionettes. This applies to secondary characters as well as to the hero and heroine.

Let's say you've written a contemporary romance about a cop hero from the wrong side of the tracks who falls in love with a software tycoon's daughter. The software tycoon has been very nice to him. But when the hero and heroine announce their engagement, the tycoon suddenly goes off half-cocked, calls the hero a fortune hunter, remembers that he hates cops after all, and threatens to disown his daughter if she marries him. This leads to a conflict because the hero now starts to think he's not right for the heroine, and the heroine is afraid to marry the heroine because she doesn't want to lose her father, which of course results in the hero thinking the worst of her because he doesn't know why she is having second thoughts. What happened? Did the characters suddenly become pod people? This conflict would be so much stronger if it arose from logical character reactions, not pod people behavior. If you must have the father object to the wedding, find a believable reason for him to do so. Does he believe the hero isn't right for his daughter because he is worried the hero might be killed in the line of duty? Ask questions about your plot and characters and how they might react, and you can find a much better reason for creating conflict than pod people behavior. You might even find a new conflict to add on top of everything else.

Avoid Stereotyped Characters

Besides making sure your characters don't act as if they had suddenly become pod people, you should also avoid using familiar character types to push the plot along. The hero and heroine are getting along well, so it must be time for his manipulative mother or his former fiancee to show up.

No. Please. Stop. Readers will see this one coming from a mile away. (For more information about avoiding stereotyped characters at Romance Clichés to Avoid -- Or Reconstruct and Don't Treat Your Characters Like Puppets!)

Let's say you are writing a Medieval romance novel about a heroine who spends her day toiling for an evil stepmother and three ugly stepsisters. You've been here before, haven't you? How can you make this story different? The movie Ever After - A Cinderella Story found ways to twist the supporting characters, including making one of the stepsisters completely different from what was expected. Don't be afraid to take similar liberties in your story. Just because you're inspired by a favorite fairy tale, that doesn't mean you can't make the plot your own in some way.

Avoid Huge Coincidences

We've all read romances where major plot twists come about because of huge coincidences. The plots of Victorian writers such as Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte often hinged on coincidences. In Dicken's Oliver Twist, the orphaned Oliver meets long-lost relatives through incredible happenstance. And for an orphan, he has an awful lot of relatives. Maybe Dickens and Bront‘ could get away with it, but don't expect your readers to be so forgiving. Readers often refuse to swallow coincidences. If the plot hinges on a huge coincidence at a crucial moment, don't be surprised if readers get upset. Even little coincidences can rile nerves if they happen too often.

There is an exception to using coincidences. If you're writing a farce or screwball comedy, coincidences can add to the fun. Also, if you're trying to capture the flavor of a classic Victorian novel, coincidences might be just what you need to add that tone. Connie Willis included coincidences in her humorous SF novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is inspired by Jerome K. Jerome humorous Victorian novel Three Men in a Boat.

Get into the Characters

Have you ever read what should have been an emotional scene and watched it sputter out because the characters didn't appear to display the proper emotional reactions themselves? You can avoid that by crawling into your characters' skins. How would they react to what is going on? Most important of all, how would they show their response? Even a character who is trying to appear unaffected will show some signs of their emotions, signs the other character might miss or misinterpret.

Imagine you are writing a Regency historical where the heroine refuses to marry the hero because of a secret in her past -- when she was young and naive, she lost her virginity to a suitor who then ran off on her. She is in love with the hero but doesn't dare tell him the truth because she knows he will then cast her aside. Now, imagine yourself in a Regency era study, having this discussion with the hero. What would you touch? Would you pick up a book from the shelves and pretend to read its title so that you don't have to look at him, because you know that if you looked into your eyes, you would start to cry? Would the hero see through your act, or would he believe you really didn't care? Done well, this can be poignant.

By getting into the characters, you might also start hearing a nagging voice that says "Psst! Hey you! I wouldn't act this way." Yes, characters become independent in this way. (If you've ever played the computer game The Sims, imagine independent characters as annoyed Sims characters waving at you because you put a sofa in their way.) Sometimes you have to follow this voice. Ignoring those voices can hurt your novel. Be careful, though. Are you really listening to your character? Or are you hearing the character you really wanted to write instead? When your character talks to you, make sure what she says makes sense in your current plot and background. If your Victorian era heroine is telling you that she wants to strip off all her clothes and jump into the hero's arms without worrying about the loss of virginity, pregnancy, and her reputation, you may have created a very independent female... or you may have created a heroine who belongs in a spicy contemporary romance novel instead.

Avoid Overwriting

The more emotional a scene, the easier it is to find yourself typing "He shouted" or throwing in adverbs and exclamation points. However, the more emotional the scene, the better off you are avoiding that sort of writing or at least using those devices sparingly. Finding new ways to express your characters' emotional state can make that scene stronger.

Also, try to strengthen your descriptions of the characters' reactions by avoiding the usual clichés associated with descriptions emotions. Boycott glaring and shouting and glowing eyes in your writing. Run away from phrases such as "She clenched her fists..."

One warning: If you're the type of writer who likes to write a first draft without stopping to revise, It's all right to use those phrases while you're writing the draft. You can always change them during the revision process. I've learned that if I worry too much about characters glaring and gazing each other during my first draft, I end up freezing, becoming unable to write.

Copyright © 2003 Anne Marble
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Anne M. Marble (amarble "at" sff.net) has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

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