We all want to make readers laugh, cry, and go “Awwwww” on cue. Eliciting those perfect reactions takes time and practice, but there are a few ways you can get ahead of the curve. Here are a few things to remember when you want to make your readers weep.
A Scene Alone Is Not Enough
Emotional scenes grow from well-developed characters, carefully-woven plots, and clear consequences. Whether you aim to make your reader happy, sad, or angry, they need context. Everyone knows they’re supposed to be sad when there’s rain falling and a character is on their knees, shouting and cradling another character. Just because readers know to be sad doesn’t mean they are, though.
Emotional scenes in books fall flat for the same reasons they fail in films: the audience just doesn’t care. If they don’t care about your characters, predict what’s going to happen from page one, and don’t fear about what will happen every time a character makes a decision, then some gears in your novel need oiling. Think of bad movies with scenes clearly meant to evoke emotion that got nothing except (maybe) a giggle out of you. Figure out where they went wrong, decide why you don’t care, and take these lessons to heart. Don’t make the same mistakes they did.
Less Is Usually More
Again – rain, screaming, cradled body – everyone knows these tropes. They’re big, they’re flashy, and they’re over the top. Sometimes, a grand spectacle works, but more often than not, the real emotional zingers are smaller. Maybe after chapters and chapters of working up the courage to ask out another character, the primary character is casually dismissed before they can even get the words out. It’s small on scale big on feels. Readers can all empathize with something like that.
Likely, you’ve already lost someone. There was no epic soundtrack and rainclouds, but it still hurt. A hospital room is a scary place. On the flipside, if you’ve ever fallen in love, you know how the most romantic moments aren’t usually the big ones. Emotional impact is greatest with a touch of realism.
Personal Details Matter
Your readers care about your characters, or at least they should. Each character is a little different, and those differences make them stand out. Use them. Think of Martha Wayne’s pearls scattering across the back-alley pavement when Batman watches his parents die. She wasn’t even in the story long, but that little detail stands out in every DC fan’s mind. Make each death, each kiss, and each parting personal.
Even Emotion Must Further Plot
Don’t slam the brakes on plot development just because you want to spend some time letting your character be happy, mourn, or finally hit it off with their true love. Everything must progress the plot. So, your hero stops his journey to cuddle his true love? Great! Why? What happens because of that decision? When you’re writing your second or third draft, really scrutinize highly emotive moments for Idea Weeds. Idea Weeds are the deleted scenes of your novel. They may kinda fit, and they may be great fun, but if your novel works just as well (or better) without them, then it’s time to put on the gardening gloves and get weeding.
Remember, to make your readers care, you have to care, too. Write and rewrite until you have something so sad you struggle to read it, so awkward you have to look away from the page to take a breath. Keep these tips handy, but remember the emotion ultimately comes from you.