Today I got to a point in my novel where there is a funeral and an emotional reunion between my two leads, who have been emotionally estranged from each other for several months (and a few chapters). Quite a lot rests on this scene, and it happens also to be the saddest exchange in the novel. As I gathered the words to shape the moment in my story, I decided I should reflect a little here on how authors, in general, might go about constructing such moments in their stories.
It is incredibly difficult to pull off such emotionally charged scenes. We all have read (and some of us may have written) passages that ooze with tears, and those of us who are more self-conscious about our writing want to do what we can to avoid such pitfalls.
One of the obvious safeguards against such overwriting is to limit the number of times we use certain words: tears, crying, sobbing, etc. In the editing (if not in the writing) of such passages, we should make certain such words appear only in one or two key moments (if at all).
The important thing to remember is that the reader, if the story is constructed and paced well, will already be feeling the weight of the moment. Any attempt on our parts to “cue the sappy music” will turn off more readers than it will win over.
Another method to prevent overdoing a scene is to read back over the paragraphs that precede and follow the emotional ones. Do you notice any change in your style? Most readers will notice if you suddenly add extra details or your word choice becomes particularly flowery.
In my scene, I also tried to get to the dialogue as quickly as possible. When you let your characters interact, with realistic conversation, there may be less of a chance of running into mush.
Above all, I came away from the scene reminding myself that I probably should apply the exact same method to construct this scene as I did all the others in the novel. Focus on clarity. Let the story tell itself. Let the characters speak. And get out of the way as much as possible.