Make Your Readers Cry: Writing Emotional Scenes

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, its “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.

emotion3. 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 TFD is like this, but even then, she cries maybe three times in the whole book, and she never becomes incapacitated with her emotion.

Question time: in what ways do you add emotion to your scenes?  

15 thoughts on “Make Your Readers Cry: Writing Emotional Scenes

  1. What gets me in some films is the subtle show of love through loyalty and my wife and daughter know this, because they both turn to see if the tears are flowing—and damn if they usually are and I don’t want anyone to see.

    Liked by 1 person

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