Make Your Reader Cry 0 Comments

Make Your Reader Cry

I used to have my characters cry, but now I don’t. The closest I’ve come recently is hinting at it through a pile of tissues on the floor of the character’s bedroom, but no more of this ‘her tears were swallowed by the earth’ business.

I’m dobbing in Amy Hempel. Her collection of short stories is written in such measured prose that it’s hard not to try to sympathise with the poor character, who doesn’t seem to know what to do in such a heavy situation. While reading ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried’ I want to reach into those pages, put my hand on the character’s shoulder and say, ‘It’s OK, you can cry. Just let it all out.’ But instead I find myself crying in her place.

For example in that particular short story, when Amy Hempel hints at how she feels when her friend is dying of a terminal illness in hospital, she writes, ‘She laughs, and I cling to the sound the way someone dangling above a ravine holds fast to the thrown rope.’

At the end of a scene she leaves a reader with:

‘Bring me something back,’ she says. ‘Anything from the beach. Or the gift shop. Taste is no object.’
He draws the curtain around her bed.
Wait!’ she cries.
I look in at her.
Anything,’ she says, ‘except a magazine subscription.’
The doctor turns away.
I watch her mouth laugh.

And after her friend passes away she says, ‘I sleep with a glass of water on the nightstand so I can see by its level if the coastal earth is trembling or if the shaking is still me.’

Nowhere does the protagonist cry, yet every time I’ve read that story, I do.

Reading over various writing blogs I’ve found that many writers prefer to circumnavigate the action of crying, rather than dwelling on it. They use phrases such as ‘brushed tears away angrily’ in place of words like ‘tears, wept, sobbed’. They feel it’s too melodramatic and that the more a character cries, the less a reader will. Other writers say having characters cry is a natural thing to happen and is OK so long as it isn’t in every chapter. Other writers still say they haven’t considered it at all.

Orson Scott Card in Characters & Viewpoint (1999) writes, ‘If your characters cry, your readers won’t have to; if your characters have good reason to cry, and don’t, your readers will do the weeping.’ Having characters suffer mutely seems to allow space for the reader to feel on their behalf, in a similar way that through the minimalist genre a reader may impose their own meaning on the sparse events and character descriptions. If nothing is explicit, we as readers can make anything of it. And as writers, instead of telling a reader how to feel we can instead coax them into feeling.

If a character is exposed to a traumatic event and the tears don’t stream down their faces, perhaps tears will be streaming down the reader’s instead.



There was a time when Chloe Brien wanted to be a fairy and work magic. Having given up on that dream, she instead wants to work magic with words. Her preferred incantations are fiction and poetry. She has been published in Verge, Voiceworks and elsewhere.

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