Make Your Readers Cry: Writing Emotional Scenes



by Allison Maruska

I watched The Hunger Games last night. I read the book before the movie came out, and I’ve seen the movie a few times. So I obviously knew what would happen. Still, a certain scene got me.

By that, I mean it made me weepy.

I’m not usually a weepy individual, so the moment surprised me. I think the root of it was I forgot this particular scene was in the movie (I don’t think it was in the book). I’d also had a couple glasses of wine. Bad memory + alcohol = the feels (that’s not one of the tips, but maybe write it down anyway).

It was near the beginning, when Katniss volunteers for Prim, and Effie encourages the crowd to applaud. Effie’s all bubbly and claps with her hands near her head, seemingly expecting the crowd to join it. Instead, everyone in the crowd does that salute where they kiss their fingers and hold them in the air.

Gah. Goose bumps–right now, just thinking about it.

What makes that scene powerful?

I want to use this and other scenes from the movie to pick apart what makes an emotional scene work (I’ll be writing spoilers, so maybe don’t continue if you’re one of the three who hasn’t read the book or seen the movie).


1. It taps into the human condition.
There are certain elements that connect us. We know how it feels when a friend stops talking to us. We “get it” when a character is afraid to face danger. Anyone who’s been in love and lost it knows the highs and lows of that experience. People of every race, class, gender, orientation, etc. can relate.

The Reaping scene in the movie does this with the “us vs. them” scenario. When we’re kids, it’s “us vs. strangers” or “us vs. bullies.” As we grow, it becomes “us vs. parents” or as is the case in current events, “us vs. the corrupt establishment.” Usually, the “us” represents an underdog, which is certainly the case in the movie.


2. It connects the character’s story to our own.
This is more personal than point one. Consider the scene where Rue dies. Sure, it would have been sad if Rue had simply been a young girl who befriended Katniss and then died. But she wasn’t. She was a young girl exactly Prim’s age who asks Katniss to sing to her as she’s dying. We the readers/watchers understand Rue reminds Katniss of Prim, but until she sings that song, it doesn’t hit home. For Katniss, losing Rue was like losing Prim. Considering Prim was supposed to go to the Games, the scene is even more poignant.

Most of us have lost someone close to us. When a character experiences this and reacts, it resonates. We empathize with her, and that pulls us more into the story. We want to see how she deals with the loss.


3. Few words (of dialogue) are needed. 
This is easy to convey in a movie, where they have the luxury of music, lighting, acting, etc. But it’s equally true in a narrative. How emotional would a scene be if a character babbled on and on?

In the Reaping scene, no words are said. In fact, everyone is stony silent. Yet the crowd communicates a strong message of solidarity. It’s the same with Rue’s death scene–the girls talk a little, but it’s the song that brings the emotion home.

Think about love scenes. While probably not “weepy” emotional, the principle is the same. The affection the characters have for each other is communicated through looks, touches, and even breathing. It wouldn’t be very romantic if one of the lovers won’t shut up–actually, I think I’ve seen that situation in comedies.

Exception: some stories require a “rally the troops” kind of speech by a leader. These can carry a great deal of emotion through dialogue (monologue, really).


4. Tears aren’t flowing. 
There’s a minor detail in the Reaping scene that illustrates this point: Katniss’s mom. Next time you watch the movie, notice what she does when Prim’s name is called. I’ll give you a hint–she doesn’t cry.

Really, she can’t because of the world they’re in, but her lack of tears adds so much to the scene. She’s not collapsing into a weepy mess when her daughter has basically been sentenced to death. She stands tall, and we can only guess what’s going through her head.

I heard a quote once that I can’t find now, but the gist of it is if the characters cry, the readers won’t (if you know the source, feel free to tell me in the comments). I think this is mostly true. It’s easy for us to write tears (because look how sad this is!) but see what happens if you don’t. Trade the tears for something else – body language, memories, maybe a little dialogue. Make it a chance for characters to show their strength. Katniss cried when Rue died, but she quickly redirected it to anger and then to a mission.

Side note: sometimes weepiness can be a character trait, like that one’s happy, and that one’s nerdy. One of my characters in The Fourth Descendant is like this, but even then, she cries maybe three times in the whole book, and she never becomes incapacitated with her emotion.



Guest post contributed by Allison Maruska. Allison likes to post in line with her humor blog roots, but she also includes posts about teaching and writing specifically. Check out her website for more of her work.

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29 thoughts on “Make Your Readers Cry: Writing Emotional Scenes”

  1. I love writing a good two-hanky weeper scene. I know when I am getting the close to what I want when I read them back and ball my eyes out. Strangely, I am not that emotional about film or TV, with the exception of Dr Mark Green dying to Somewhere over the Rainbow in ER. Now, that scene should be a study in itself.

    When writing, I don’t stop at looking for reaction from a character crying, but by describing how others in the scene witness it, I can create a strong connection for the reader.

    In one scene in my current labour-of-love a character is told of the death of a very close friend. We do not hear the conversation, however, I just describe how her other friends who were walking away to give privacy to the moment were stopped in their tracks when they heard her scream of grief.

    One of the most painful things in life is to witness another’s grief, and that works well in literature.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I think that’s true that if a character cries, we don’t. We probably figure no need in two people crying. When I went to see the movie, I noticed a lot of people crying while they dragged the families apart. I have to go test that theory again and go watch a sad movie where the character doesn’t cry and see what happens.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the help! I always find it really difficult to transmit the emotion I feel thinking about my scene into the words necessary to convey it. This looks like a great guideline to help with that 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Is this it?
    Corussa on cited Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint:

    ‘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.’


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