Making Readers Cry

by BA Couture

In Lizzie Hermanson’s blog series on Writing Emotion, “For Crying Out Loud”, she gives examples of how several of her favorite authors write a scene in which a character cries. (If you’ve not read this blog, please do. It’s interesting and thought provoking.)

Ms. Hermanson finished her blog by asking the writing community how they make their characters cry. Here are my thoughts on tearful scenes, but focusing on the tears of readers.

When I decide on a crying scene, I know immediately whether or not I want readers to cry. In a comedy I never want to draw tears, unless it’s tears of joy of course. Imagine Lucy Ricardo’s screwed-up face as she wails to Ricky that she forgot Little Ricky in a grocery cart. We laugh at her. Why is that?

We, as the audience, were set-up, conditioned to laugh well ahead of Lucy delivering her message. We knew the story was a comedy. A writer starts at a high level with the tone of the story, which should carry on throughout, and then provides a set-up for each dramatic scene, humorous or not.

When my stories are not humorous, I again decide whether or not I want readers to cry. As Ms. Hermanson’s blog pointed out, provoking a prolonged or repetitive, deep, emotional response can be too straining for readers. Eventually, the drama will get tuned out, thus losing impact. It doesn’t have to be comic relief, but rather a break from pain, discomfort. So I choose where in the story it’s important to feel that deep emotion.

Then, the all-important question of how I get there, which is the set-up. Readers should be brought to feel exactly what the character is feeling, and I attempt to achieve that in the same way as Hermanson’s blog suggests. My goal is to insert readers as far into the character’s Point of View as I can. If readers say they didn’t get emotional during a particular scene, I generally feel I’ve missed, either in this aspect of the set-up or in the timing.

Readers need to be given time to get into a character’s POV. They need to be seduced into becoming one with the character. What’s happening to that character is happening to them. The words I choose will make all the difference in how quickly and deeply I can get the reader into the character’s POV.

I personally like a slow moving set-up, allowing anguish to build until a heart over-flows. Then I like the drama to be over fairly quickly. I will withdraw from his or her POV and tell the reader that the character cried for perhaps another five (or thirty) minutes and then either pulled herself together, fell asleep, or was interrupted. That is strictly my preference, and as long as I’ve drawn tears from readers at the moment I wanted, I’ve accomplished my objective.

Another alternative is having the character cry but not the reader. That’s probably the easiest, for me and probably for most writers. I simply get out of or move away from my character’s POV. The narrative will be at a distance from the character, or the crying will be seen through another character’s POV.


From the Narrator: “The sun had been shining all morning, but Julie wouldn’t know that because her head had been buried in a tissue box since she woke up. John shuffled quietly up to the bedroom door, reluctant to open it.”

From John’s POV: When John opened the bedroom door, Julie was sitting at her dressing table, crumpled tissues on the floor around her. He knotted up inside. How could he have been such a cad?

If the above scene is all inclusive; that is, there was no other set-up to tell readers just how hurt or heart-broken Julie was, readers will have difficulty empathizing with her. They won’t cry for or with her.

Julie herself could tell readers she was crying and cause very little emotion from readers.


“John didn’t come home and I cried all morning until he finally walked through the door.”

Readers don’t hear any of her sniffing, don’t see her red eyes, and don’t feel her pain.

There you have it; character cries, the reader doesn’t.

It’s important to note that people experience different levels of emotion. If a reader wouldn’t cry over a particular situation in real life, they probably wouldn’t cry while reading about it. I have a sister who will cry over a bunny losing a whisker, and I once knew a human resource manager who could have been a guard in a women’s prison.

But that’s the challenge for writers. How do I make a character cry so readers will cry too…or not?

Thank you for reading.

*** BACouture is an accountant living in Wisconsin but soon moving back to her home state of Vermont, where she intends to live close to family, lost in a rural, pristine setting, while reading, writing, and sharing ideas with the writing community. She likes to travel and loves animals beyond reason.


One thought on “Making Readers Cry

  1. Great post and thanks for the mention!

    “Readers should be brought to feel exactly what the character is feeling,”

    I completely agree, but this is what I find so difficult to achieve!

    I also agree about the slow build up. The classic example that comes to mind is Love Story. That film/movie gets me every time!


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