Because some writers fear being seen as melodramatic or sentimental, they avoid emotion-filled passages in their writing. Their characters can't afford to be deliriously happy or ferociously angry or desperately sad; they move through an emotionally neutral narrative in which their inner state is merely hinted at. The steel-gray sky serves as a metaphor for despair; a snippet of dialogue reveals a well of pain; a muted action—stirring sugar into a cup of tea, or pruning a hedge—suggests anger, or loneliness, or joy. All of these techniques are useful, even admirable, but sometimes we can get so worried about being caught in the act of sentimentality that our fiction suffers an even worse fate: It becomes bloodless. After a while the readers begin to cry out for a character to, well, cry out.
How your characters cry out marks the difference between heartfelt prose and schlock. Take a character with a broken heart (please!)—how do you describe this all-too-common feeling? The heart in question can break, or ache, or constrict; the owner of the heart can weep or sigh or sob; he or she can verbally express heartbrokenness by saying "I'm heartbroken" or "I'm sad" or "I want to die." These descriptions are true enough, but they don't move us in any specific way. It's a challenge to convey common, cliche, yet very human emotions without sounding melodramatic. You know you're in trouble if the expression of emotion is all cerebral:
She was heartbroken. Bill had left her and now she was all alone with her tears, her aching heart and her sorrowful memories of a happier time. She felt she would never smile again. "I want to die," she said aloud.
Okay, we know this is awful. Why? There is not one concrete image in the entire passage, that's why. It's all thoughts. The character sounds like a self-pitying blubberpuss instead of a woman who is genuinely and rightfully sad. By transforming her fuzzy thoughts into concrete images, you can turn melodrama into poignancy:
That night, lying in her damp sheets, she listened to her heart. Across the room his face stared out of the photograph that seemed already to be yellowing. She stared into the dark, imagining she could see dust gathering on the frame. He was gone.
In this revision you employ strong, accessible images to invite your readers into the character's world. Damp sheets, yellow photograph, dust—these things are real. We can see and feel them. They allow us to experience what the character experiences. We understand why her heart is broken because we can see her transformed room.
The following example works in the same way, by avoiding the cerebral and embracing the physical. A man is visiting his dying mother. They are on the back porch, watching the sunset:
He watched the last red strand of sky fade to dark. "That's that," his mother said. Then his heart broke.
Again, you give us specific images rather than thoughts or feelings. The direct information—"his heart broke"—comes only after we have been outside the character for a few beats. First we watch the end of the sunset, then we hear the mother's cryptic comment. Only then do you inform us that the character's heart is breaking. You return us to the character with a jolt, so that we recognize his sorrow at the same moment he does.
In the following two examples, the emotion is fortified not by an outside image, but by the behavior of the characters:
Sarah leaned against the trellis, stricken with longing.
Henry crossed his hands over his chest, first one and then the other. He held them there, protecting his heart.
The act of leaning against a trellis gives weight and credibility to the information that Sarah is filled with longing. The measured act of crossing his hands over his chest emphasizes Henry's fragile emotional state. Cerebral prose like "Sarah was filled with a sudden, indescribable longing" or "Henry was overcome with grief" cannot by itself tell the tale; you need the characters' bodies—their arms and fingers and eyelids and knees—to fully convey to the readers that the character is a human being who is suffering or savoring or fleeing or fuming. The difference between cerebral and physical prose is the difference between reading about an accident in the paper and pulling your own father from a crumpled car.
When managing emotional moments in your fiction, remember that the emotional moment itself—the sorrow, the joy, the shame, the rage—depends mightily on the prose that leads up to it. Overblown, melodramatic lead-ins only diminish the emotional moment. Conversely, stingy descriptions might leave readers ill-prepared for a dramatic emotional display. Strong, concrete images in place of abstract thought should carry the day.
The best build-up to an emotional moment I know of in recent fiction is in Kazuo Ishiguro's deeply affecting novel The Remains of the Day. The first-person narrator is Mr. Stevens, the aging butler of Darlington Hall, who embarks on a "motoring trip" during which he looks back on his life, trying to reassure himself that he has served humanity by serving a "great gentleman." His doubts about Lord Darlington's true nature—and therefore his own worth—slowly take shape as the narrative progresses. The final stop on his trip brings him face to face with Miss Kenton, who was once the housekeeper at Darlington Hall. Her crackling spirit was the one (unadmitted) bright spot in Stevens's life, until his excessive reserve drove her away. They meet. They talk. And, finally, Miss Kenton confesses her feelings:
"But that doesn't mean to say, of course, there aren't occasions now and then—extremely desolate occasions—when you think to yourself: 'What a terrible mistake I've made with my life.' And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. For instance, I get to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens. And I suppose that's when I get angry over some trivial little thing and leave. But each time I do so, I realize before long—my rightful place is with my husband. After all, there's no turning back the clock now. One can't be forever dwelling on what might have been. One should realize one has as good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful."
I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed—why should I not admit it?—at that moment, my heart was breaking.
From a man whose life has been dedicated to submerging his emotions, the simple words "my heart was breaking" are enough to break our own hearts. We understand that the entire book has been a preparation for Mr. Stevens's ordinary human admission. The hapless aside—"why should I not admit it?"—makes his admission all the more poignant, for had he been able to admit such things twenty years ago, he would be telling a different story now. Straight-laced words like "moreover" and "implications" only heighten the emotional impact by contrasting his proper outside with his disheveled inside. What an unforgettable moment!
Good fiction is about human interaction, and human interaction takes place in the realm of emotion. Let your characters' hearts break, let their laughter ripple, let their shame consume them. Beware the critics, though. Several years ago a certain old, well-regarded magazine ran a short story by a certain young, well-regarded writer. The story was about a former child movie star, now an old man, who visits a dying little girl in the hospital. Granted, the story's premise is a minefield for a writer wanting to avoid sentimentality and melodrama, but this particular writer's gorgeous prose rescued the problematic premise; the story became a brief, moving account of a moment between a man with his best years behind him and a child with her best years never to come. Still, this story was listed in another magazine as the "worst short story of the year."
No matter how you decide to depict emotion in your fiction, you run the risk of a bloodless critic looking down the long slope of his nose and pronouncing your story a bowl of mush. Take the risk.