How much detail do readers need in order to feel the emotion in a scene? And who do you trust to decide that? I tend to be rather intellectual about my writing. I’m not sure that’s a weakness, but it’s something I need to be aware of. In a scene where the characters are feeling emotions, I tend to trust that readers don’t need too much hand-holding.

The editor I hired to go through my fantasy series likes to see emotions spilled out onto the page. (She never seems to suggest this for any but the female lead characters, but that’s a separate issue. Page after page where a man is the viewpoint character, and she interpolates no notes whatever. Is it because I write more sensitively about men? I think that’s doubtful.)

To examine this issue in detail, I’m going to quote a scene from Book 2 of my series. Arik and Kyura have been separated by events, but now they’ve met up again. They’re sitting by a campfire, next to one another on a log, and the obvious thing is happening. Here’s the scene the way I wrote it:

She kissed him again. This kiss went on longer than the first one, and got more complicated, with some nibbling and rubbing. She pressed her hand against the back of his head, so he couldn’t stop kissing her even if he wanted to.

Eventually they did pull apart again. They were both breathing hard. Arik said, “I think we ought to stop. This isn’t very private. And, you know, I don’t want to stop.”

Kyura didn’t want to stop either. But that wasn’t something a girl should say to a boy. “You’re right. We have to stop.” They edged apart a little on the log, still touching the edges of their legs together, his arm still brushing her back. “I know I’m a mess,” she said. “I don’t even have a comb, and my clothes are all dusty.”

“Not to mention the blood spots.” When her face contorted in anguish, he went on: “I don’t mind about your killing the wizard. I kind of admire you for it. Not that you go around killing people, and I don’t think that’s what you do. That you can take care of yourself when you have to. I like that.”

“But I can’t! I keep doing things all wrong! We almost got killed by a dragon this morning, and it was because I grabbed Meery and dragged her off the train. If we’d stayed on the train—”

“If you’d stayed on the train, you wouldn’t be here right now. I think you’re doing just fine.”

She didn’t think she could possibly explain to him how hopeless she felt right now — not about him, about everything else — so she didn’t say anything.

Now let’s look at it again as the editor suggested I might rewrite it in order to bring “emotion and physicality … into the scene to make it richer and more resonant.” Well, who wouldn’t want to do that? Okay, then. I’ll underline the editor’s suggested additions so you can see them more easily. How does this feel?

Kyura didn’t want to stop either. She wanted to sit with him in the gathering dark forever, like he was just a boy and she was just a girl and all they had to worry about was someone seeing something they shouldn’t. But they weren’t, and they didn’t. She pulled away. “You’re right. We have to stop,” she said.

They edged apart a little on the log, still touching the edges of their legs together, his arm still brushing her back. “I know I’m a mess,” she said, instead of all the other things she wanted to say. “I don’t even have a comb, and my clothes are all dusty.”

“Not to mention the blood spots,” Arik said. His kiss-red mouth quirked up at the corner, and somehow that made it even worse. Her face contorted in anguish, and he added hurriedly: “I don’t mind about your killing the wizard. I kind of admire you for it. Not that you go around killing people, and I don’t think that’s what you do. That you can take care of yourself when you have to.”

“But I can’t! I keep doing things all wrong!” She hadn’t meant to say anything, but it just spilled out of her; she twisted her fingers together in anguish, as if she could physically hold herself together. “We almost got killed by a dragon this morning, and it was because I grabbed Meery and dragged her off the train. If we’d stayed on the train—”

Arik cut her off gently. “If you’d stayed on the train, you wouldn’t be here right now.” He placed one large, callused palm over her hands, and her movements quieted under his touch. “I think you’re doing just fine.”

He meant it kindly, but the warmth his kisses had kindled in her chest had turned abruptly to ash. She didn’t think she could possibly explain to him how hopeless she felt right now — not about him, about everything else — so she didn’t say anything.

I’m afraid my reaction to those suggestions is, “Oh, yuck!” Her movements quieted under his touch? He placed one large, callused palm over her hands? The warmth his kisses had kindled in her chest? His kiss-red mouth? She twisted her fingers in anguish? It just spilled out?

It should be noted that this editor has never written, or at least never published, a novel. And in her defense, many of her other observations are very good, and I’m using them as I rewrite. She acknowledges that these particular added bits are “[not] the pinnacle of the writing craft, by any means.” But that’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s all very well for an editor to suggest that the emotions in a scene could be made more physical or more immediate for the reader — but when her suggestions on how this might be accomplished read like a cheap romance novel, can I trust her?

Or should I trust the reader to sense the chemistry?

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