Thursday, January 10

Connect With Readers' Emotions: How To Make People Cry

How To Connect With Our Readers' Emotions: How To Make People Cry

Yesterday I talked about how Chuck Wendig writes a novel. Chuck gave great advice, but one point in particular stayed with me: make your characters compelling.

What we as writers want, the goal, is to reach through our prose and connect with our readers, our audience, emotionally. Or intellectually. But chances are we won't be able to do anything with their minds unless we've got their hearts.

But how do we do this? How do we reach out to our readers through words and move them to laughter, to tears. How do we make them joyful or sad?

(And I suppose this raises the question: What effect DO we want our stories to have on our audience? How do we want to leave our readers? Filled with happiness over a long lost love rekindled or terrified out of their wits, hiding under bed covers, scared to use the loo because they don't want a clown to eat them? [That makes me sound bitter about reading It, but it truly was one of my favorite books!])

Here's what I'd like to talk about today: How to make someone cry.

I know that sounds mean! And I'm not mean, I'm nice. Really! But I think of these blog posts as writing 101--this isn't creme brulee it's bread pudding. We're looking at the basics.

I think one of the easiest emotions to evoke is sympathy, sympathy aroused by an injustice.

Let's talk about how to build character identification, what sorts of character traits we'll need, what sort of trials and tribulations we'll need, if we want to move our readers to shed tears.

1. Give The Reader A Chance To Get To Know Your Character

Don't be too quick to put your character in jeopardy. Build some character identification first. Marg McAlister in Make Your Readers Cry writes:
You've probably been advised many times to plunge the reader into the story right away. Start at the point of change. Dive into the action; involve the reader.

This is good advice - to a point.

I've read far too many books (published and unpublished) in which the author has begun with Something Bad happening to the main character. The idea is to get the reader hooked from the first sentence. Oh my goodness... how will Jane get out of this?

The bad news is, it doesn't always work. And almost always, the reason it doesn't work is because we're reading about strangers. To become really involved you have to 'become' the viewpoint character. Then you will feel her pain!

2. Slow Down And SHOW, Don't Tell

This point is about pacing. Sometimes you want to move the reader quickly from one scene to another. No one wants to sit beside your protagonist as she drives to the corner store to pick up some milk, but we (ghoulish readers that we are!) would like to be there for the holdup she'll walk in on.

This applies especially when we're writing about something sad that we want to focus the readers attention on. Jody Hedlund in Creating Characters that Make Readers Cry writes:
Slow down and show. In those especially charged scenes, I slow down the action and I take the lens of my mental camera and zoom on specific details and emotions. This isn’t the time for a panoramic or big picture shot. This is the time for a close up. I point my camera around the scene trying to capture the heartache in ways that SHOW the emotion and tension I'm trying to convey. 

3. Go Primal

In order to make readers care we have to tap into primal desires. In Save The Cat, Blake Snyder writes:
You say “father” and I see my father. You say “girlfriend” and I see my girlfriend. We all have ‘em — and it gets our attention because of that. It’s an immediate attention-getter because we have a primal reaction to those people, to those words even! So when in doubt, ground your characters in the most deep-seated imagery you can. Make it relevant to us. Make it something that every caveman (and his brother) will get.

Make it, say it with me now…primal!
Blake Snyder's quotation is by way of Therese Walsh's article, How to make readers cry, in six steps.

Has anyone ever cried when reading your prose? Have you ever cried when you wrote, or when you later read what you wrote?

Other articles you might like:

- Chuck Wendig On Writing: How He Writes A Novel
- The Starburst Method: The Hero's Journey, Part 3
- The Magic Of Stephen King: How To Write Compelling Characters & Great Openings

Photo credit: "Untitled" by seyed mostafa zamani under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. The only crying you'll ever get from your readers, is when you kill off a beloved character - ergo, one of the main characters. Tragedy is the most powerful thing there is, because the reader is way passed empathy toward to dying character. He is feeling sympathy. In order to get it right, you - the author - have write the scene as if you were visualizing the death of one of your own friends/loved ones. But more than that, that particular friend is also part of you, while the one doing the killing and or the circumstances which produce the death of that character, is also you - the writer. You have to live the character, the motivations, you have to feel the world/context and you have to live the whole thing from the eyes of the other side as well. You have to bear that dichotomy inside your own mind and heart, you who are the creator of all that you write.

    1. I disagree.

      Give the reader the illusion that the character is dead, but do NOT kill the protagonist.

      Orson Scott Card started _Empire_ with a soldier. He worked that character hard as the hero. I identified with him. And two-thirds of the way through the book HE KILLED HIM! I did not cry. I got angry. I felt lost. I did not identify with any of the remaining characters. I mark _Empire_ as a big, fat FAIL. I hate it.

      Konrath started _The List_ at a breakneck pace and never slowed down. Despite that pace, I came to identify with the characters and root for them. Heinlein started _Starship Troopers_ with fast action and then slowed down; that is, he hooked me first and then drew me into the character, Johnny Rico. _To Kill a Mockingbird_ worked its way through a leisurely pace but still drew me in.

      What I take from Ms Woodward's post is 'Make the reader identify with the hero'. I think there are many ways to do this. This post illustrates one way that writers have used with success.

    2. Antares, great examples. It's a tricky thing, the killing off of a protagonist.

      As you say, there are various ways of evoking emotion. For instance, many authors have used the death of a pet or a trusted companion. (Though I have to say I dislike killing off a pet to evoke emotion as it can often seem contrived.)

      I have this idea that there is the actual, 'physical' death of a character, but there are other deaths. Dreams can die. Ideals can die.

      Good discussion. :)

  2. @antares
    It takes guts to kill off a main character. George RR Martin had guts when he killed Eddard Stark. He had guts and brilliance when he wrote the chapter of the Red Wedding. I cried at that chapter. Fair enough, Roy Dotrice's awesome voice-acting was a big impact. You'll never see JK Rowling kill off Harry Potter. It's just too much money lost, if she does. Characters that die, however, don't necessarily have to stay dead. But the method and motivation you use to bring them back has to be sound. And it would work best, in my opinion, if that character who's brought to life is not changed for the better or made purer. Either he or she is still the same, or he or she is a shell of what they once were. That's why Gandalf the grey is so much better than Gandalf the white. See Barbossa and J. Sparrow, and Brienne and lady Catelyn post-mortem.
    On a side note, I don't recommend that authors kill off their main character starting with book one. If you have a series, a powerful and engaging world, and a lot of other awesome characters, then you can afford to kill at least one of the main characters, but only after that character served its purpose, and does more for the developments in the world and the motivations of the other characters by staying dead. I don't like cheap tricks, or illusions employed by authors. When you kill off a character, regardless if you're bringing the character back to life or not, make sure it's an actual DEATH scene - make sure it's death and not a coma.

    1. George RR Martin is a brilliant storyteller, no question. And killing a beloved character is certainly one of the ways Martin evokes emotion in his audience.

    2. @Serban V.C. Enache

      You made your point well. I was shocked when Eddard Stark was beheaded. I think the difference is that I identified with other characters in _The Game of Thrones_, so I was not lost. I suppose the death of Achilles in the Iliad counts, too.

      I concede this round to you. Well won, sir.

  3. Great post as usual! For me, the key to the moment when I cry, is the comeback. That moment of resurrection, when the hero decides that, come hell or stuff even worse than hell, he or she is going to try again. That's when my eyes get watery. Knock your hero down hard, but then give your hero his or her or its moment.

    1. Exactly! Thank you for mentioning that. The death doesn't have to be actual, it can be metaphorical. Symbolic. The hero can suffer a seemingly crushing defeat but then come back stronger than before.

  4. I have sections of my MG books that move me to tears - usually when the young heroes are in danger and/or someone is being rescued from jaws of death. That's usually when the editor says, "OK, we can cut this bit down." I obey, reluctantly (I mean kicking and screaming), but the good part is that I know there's strong emotion underlying the scene. I hate it when I like a character and the insensitive writer KILLS my hero. I was shattered when Eddard Stark was executed. I instantly hated Joffrey (nasty spoiled little beast!) with such a passion that I do not think I can forgive him. Maybe that's what George RR Martin intended?

    1. "Maybe that's what George RR Martin intended?"

      Could be. I do feel your pain. I couldn't believe it either! Stark was a fabulous character, one I liked and identified with strongly.

      I bet those parts of your books, the ones that move you emotionally, are among the best in your book. Silly editor!


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