Emotional Stories: Pass the tissues please

the-fault-in-our-stars-by-john-green“You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories…” This is a quote from John Green’s, The Fault in Your Stars. Inarguably, this author knows how to tell a sad story. The Fault in Your Stars had me reaching for my tissues, time and time again. Sometimes, I’d even laugh and cry simultaneously. To create these emotions, an author requires precise craft writing skills.

I have often heard amongst my writer friends that, “If your characters cry, your reader won’t.” While I read Green’s book, it made me think, does he
use tears to create emotional Spoiler Alert Buttonscenes? In chapter thirteen Augustus reveals to Hazel his cancer is terminal. In that scene Green allows both characters to cry. Is that what made me cry I wondered. No. It wasn’t.

Green took the time to set up the scene, preparing the reader emotionally, so that we are crying long before the characters actually do. Let’s examine that particular scene.

Augustus and Hazel fall in love, which is a universal emotion. The reader becomes invested in this relationship. Augustus reveals to Hazel his cancer is now terminal. The reader immediately feels emotions because death is a universal experience. At this point in the story, I didn’t cry, even if five paragraphs later Augustus cries; then Hazel cries in the next paragraph after that.

Green lets Hazel explain that she tries not to cry. She knows what it feels like, not to cry. Then she goes on about the things we do, when we don’t cry.

“You clench your teeth. You look up. You tell yourself that if they see you cry, it will hurt them, and you will be nothing but A Sadness in their lives, and you will not cry, and you say all of this to yourself while looking up at the ceiling and then you swallow even though your throat does not want to close and you look at the person who loves you and smile.” 

And by the end of this quote, we are crying because Hazel just described perfectly  the emotions and the physical reactions we experience when we try not to cry. Teeth clenching. Sadness. Looking at the ceiling. Swallowing. Loving. Smiling. Combine these together, in a tense and already high stakes situation, and you have a crying reader.

Emotional scenes are difficult to write. Almost as difficult as funny ones. They require attention to detail. Tapping into universal emotions, using minimal and concise language…and not allowing your character to cry too early or too often because the reader won’t cry with them.

I recently read a great blog about this topic. “Make Your Characters Cry” by Allison Maruska on A Writer’s Path.

Let me know what works for you. What do you use to create emotions on the page?

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