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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Let Your Reader Do the Work

I have the opportunity to read a lot of unpublished content, and every so often I find a story where the writer doesn't let their readers do the emotional work. I've heard the writing rule that if your character is crying, then your reader doesn't have to. At first I wasn't sure how much I agreed with it, but after I read it, I started paying attention.

Here are the examples I ran into. Harry Potter: while Harry is on the verge of crying several times in the series, he almost never does. Fact: I cried more in those books than any other book I've ever read. And thousands of people cried too. In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Jean Valjean weeps several times just in the first 200 pages. I never cried once. (And anyone who knows the story, knows how heart wrenching it is.)

If Harry broke down and bawled all the time, I don't know that I would have. I may have still gotten teary-eyed, but I don't think I would have sobbed like I did. There is something about having your character cry that takes the tension out of the reader. The character is doing the emotional work, so the reader doesn't have to.

I soon realized this applied to more than crying. In one unpublished story I read, one of the characters was often worrying about a mystery. She asked all the questions, did all the wondering, the worrying, and I found that I, as a reader, didn't have to. And you know what? I wasn't as engaged. The author didn't let me do that part. So instead of participating in the story, I was merely "watching" it.

I Open at the Close by Yume Dust
I'm not saying you can never have your characters cry etc. (there is a time and place), but keep it minimal. You want to build up those feelings in your reader so that they experience the story, not just read about it. Just because you didn't write that your characters were crying, or worried, or angry doesn't mean they weren't. 

In fact, I've come to accept that those passages where I was bawling my eyes out were moments where I was vicariously crying as Harry. And that's what you want as a writer. You want your readers to be in the character, in the story, because only then can they reach that deep, emotional plane where the story leaves an indelible mark on them.

So when your character is sad, anxious, fearful, embarrassed, or angry, instead of focusing on how the character feels and reacts emotionally to it, focus on how to elicit those emotions in your readers, so that they become part of the story. This is often done by focusing on the event that caused those emotions and rendering it in a way that amplifies those emotions. For example, how much emotion do these sentences conjure?

Harry watched Sirius fall through the archway to his death. Harry couldn't believe it. He was upset and started crying.

How much more emotion does this passage conjure?

It seemed to take Sirius an age to fall. His body curved in a graceful arc as he sank backward through the ragged veil hanging from the arch. . . . 

And Harry saw the look of mingled fear and surprise on his godfather's, wasted, once-handsome face as he fell through the ancient doorway and disappeared behind the veil, which fluttered for a moment. . .

Harry heard Bellatrix Lestrange's triumphant scream, but knew it meant nothing--Sirius had only just fallen thought the archway, he would reappear from the other side any second. . . .

But Sirius did not reappear.

"SIRIUS!" Harry yelled, "SIRIUS!"

[Harry] sprinted to the dias, Lupin grabbed Harry around the chest, holding him back.

"There's nothing you can do Harry--"

"Get him, save him, he's only just gone though!" . . .

Harry struggled hard and viciously, but Lupin wouldn't let go.

The second example is more likely to give the reader that vicarious feeling, the sense that they are experiencing the story firsthand. If you look at the first example again, you'll see that almost all the info is shown in the second example.

So, make sure your characters aren't doing all of the emotional work. Let your readers worry about outcomes, make them want to throw the book across the room in anger, make their stomachs drop with anxiety. Make the reader the vessel, most of the time.


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Jennifer Brown Bennett is working on a young adult novel that involves bigfoot. She is also the head of Author's Think Tank, a site for writers and an online writing group. What I love about Jennifer is that she can just jump in and work her tail end off making things happen. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, on her own blog, and again, at Author's Think Tank. Thanks for following, Jen!


  1. This is one thing I've found that makes character voice SO important. If you're conveying a character's viewpoint well, you are conveying their emotions through their experience-- like Rowling did in the section you quoted.

    I also think that actions showing emotion are often overused in the same way crying is (mad = clenching fists, etc.). There's a time and place for those things, but I found when I relied on them to show emotion, it weakened the impact on the reader the same way a crying character does.

    1. I think you're right. I was thinking this was related to voice and penetrating your character's viewpoint deeply.

      Yes. I know I overuse some actions to convey emotion (but I'll edit them out eventually). It's a step up from saying "Jodie was mad," but pulling your reader deeper into the experience is the higher road to take. But again that has to do with viewpoint. If your viewpoint character is watching someone get mad, then it would be more physical (clenched fists etc.)

      Thanks for commenting Shallee. I think you got what I was trying to say in this post. :)

  2. I've never thought about this. I'll need to pay more attention now and with other applications. There are only two books that have brought me to tears, and I don't think the main characters ever cried when it happened.

    1. Yeah, once I heard about it, I started paying attention, and it seemed to hold true for me. Thanks for reading James.

  3. Great thoughts Kami! Thanks for the spot light too! The tears have been flowing here for our poor doggie. Sorry I didn't see this until now. (hugs)

    1. I'm sorry about your doggie :( but I'm glad I could spotlight you. Thanks for commenting.

  4. This is awesome insight, and exactly what i needed to read today. This will definitely affect my next round of revisions.

    But i'd just like to add that Sirius' death had absolutely no emotional pull on me. He fell through a curtain. Ugh. And Lupin and Tonk's deaths as well--just no buildup. Interesting characters with boring deaths.

    1. Hey thanks for reading and commenting Christine. Glad I could help!

      Interesting. I was totally devastated with Sirius's death...but he was one of my favorite characters, and I also really like the whole gateway between life and death with the curtain. But, I've heard people complain about it. Lupin and Tonk's didn't really get their own death scene...so I didn't cry for them either.

      Happy revising!

  5. Alright, I've known this for a while but always get accused of not putting enough emotion into my writing. I've been trying to marry the idea of not having crying characters but giving more of an emotional reaction and your example was great.

    Thanks Kami!

  6. This post is dead on. It's definitely something we need to be reminded of on a regular basis. I read a book in a series by an author that I have enjoyed for years. For some reason (I think the author must have been experiencing a bout of depression...) her strong, tough, sassy heroine started crying, frequently. It didn't take long before I stopped caring about what she was going through. I couldn't even feel sad for her; I just wanted her to snap out of it and stop being a baby. This is an extreme case of course, but it shows that it's something we have to be on guard against with every book.

    Thanks for the post!

  7. Found this post three years later than the rest of the world, but here goes: I kept a tight rein on my protagonist's emotions, but my editor thought she seemed like a weird android girl without feelings. So I let my girl get lumps in her throat, and I let her shed tears now and again. It's a fine line to walk, because neither all people nor all characters respond emotionally to life in the same way. Furthermore, crying is not everyone's default response to sadness. When I'm sad, for example, I go numb. Good post--thanks.

    1. Yes, it can be a fine line.
      Definitely agree that people have different responses to different emotions. Actually, I blogged about that once too ^_^


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