Avoiding Emotionally Manipulative Writing

Melodrama and emotional manipulation are the things I see so many of my students struggle with, at all levels. I get why. I’m sure I did too when I was in school.

Basically, everyone wants an emotional impact to their story, wants the reader to have a connection to the characters. This is extremely difficult to achieve on a deep level, and so the failure to do it often results in melodrama.

These students are usually shooting for the right thing. It’s the execution that’s off.

I don’t want to delve into what this is. I’m sure most people know, but in any case there’s a great write up of the “what” right here.

I’m more interested in how to avoid it.

So, here’s the advice I give my students.

First, since you need a fully developed character in order for the reader to get a legitimate emotional reaction to the circumstances, keep the big emotional scenes to the main characters. If you have a massive emotional moment mostly involving a secondary character, there probably won’t be enough context to do much more than tug at heartstrings. If someone gets heartbroken, we’d better know that character and understand the context of the heartbreak beyond the very basic “I didn’t get the person I wanted.” It’s the complexity of the situation, the nuance that will really connect the readers to the character, not the simple fact of a breakup which is in itself pretty cliché.

And speaking of cliché, it’s best to avoid stale situations as much as possible. Breakups are a big one, but what I mean by that is common breakups. College students realize they’re not right for each other, husband and wife grow apart in late-middle-age (maybe have an affair), wedding planning makes the groom realize he loathes the bride. That’s all overdone.

It doesn’t mean that breakups are a bad plot for a story — there’s a reason we’ve been writing about love since we invented language — but a good breakup story is particular to well developed characters, and probably won’t fit easily into a category of cliché.

When your story isn’t easily categorized, there’s a good chance you did it right.

Other cliché situations that need serious character development to be good include: Watching someone die at the end of a long, lingering illness. Someone is seriously injured in an accident. A recently orphaned child. Someone gets unjustly fired from their job. A parent who’s just lost a child.

Notice how many of these have to do with death or violence. Those are easy ways to ratchet up emotion, since death is almost always sad, but that doesn’t mean they’re complex rhetorical devices that do more than give the reader a vague feeling of “sad.” And sad in your story does not equal quality.

Telling a writer not to do these things, though, is only the start. How does one not do these things?

Develop characters, that’s first. Everything come from character.

But then make sure to include the right details about their situation. Not all details, but a few that show the reader that it’s these particular characters in their particular situation.

And then, remember that the drama doesn’t have to be all the way at eleven in order to affect the reader. Readers get into the little aspects of people’s lives, too. A setback can be more dramatic than an utter failure if only because there are so many more options for the the way the character handles things. It’s the nuance of the handling of these issues that connects us to a character, not the abject sadness a character feels when his life is unambiguously torn apart.

Here are some examples of books that could be melodramatic, that aren’t:

The Remains of the Day: It’s basically about unrequited love — cliché! — but because we know so many details about Stevens’s life, personality, and his relationship with his love, it’s a totally legitimate connection with him.

Into the Great Wide Open: It’s about teen love, which so many writers idealize in the fantasy that it somehow matters, often by postulating that the universal human experience doesn’t involve thinking you were an idiot when you were a teenager — but this book doesn’t. It’s gritty, real, has perspective on the situation and flawed characters, and is written in gorgeous prose.

Justine: Not the de Sade one. After him, weird sex is so easily a gimmick, just ratcheting up sexual emotions in the reader. Getting really close to porn. This one doesn’t do that, mostly because the characters are so well drawn. The weird sex serves a purpose beyond shifting the blood flow into the readers’ groins.

So, that’s the basics of it for me. Like anything else, it takes a lot of practice to get the right emotional result, but it’s worth the effort.