How to make readers cry, in six steps

PhotobucketKath and I are teaming up to answer the last two questions posed to WU on characterization; I’ll tackle one now, and Kath will be on later to answer the final question.

The first comes from Vic, who suggested this topic after Plot month (February) came to an end.

How do you go about making your readers cry?

To explain; I was surprised to discover some of the writers I had thought would have had a more organic process to plotting actually wrote out very systematic plots and so I’m wondering – since some of the same authors have made me sob my heart out – do they use a logical process to bring me to tears?

It is my sneaking suspicion that this is something that comes naturally to many writers. I think maybe you can do it, or you can’t.

But if there is a secret, I want in!

I should note, and I think it is interesting, that if you google any variety of ,’how to give your characters emotion,’ you end up with a bunch of substance-less essays. I’ve read all of them. They’re a collection of platitudes that end up with ‘get inside your character’. The closest and most useful information out there is about the order emotion falls in; event, emotional reaction, physical action. But that’s too simplistic, at least I think it is.

Oh and don’t get me wrong, I’m not a beginner writer. And maybe that’s the problem; the information out there is basic and starts with such inanities as, ‘use rain in the setting mimic sadness’. *eyeball roll*

I thought about this question–and several stories that have made me cry–for a long while. How might you invest a reader so deeply in a character’s journey that the line between reality and fiction blurs?

Note: I’ll be discussing some critical points in a novel that not only made me cry, it made me sob. And by sob, I mean SOB. This book slayed me: Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. If you haven’t read the book, be warned: There are spoilers ahead. (Why haven’t you read the book? Go read the book!)


1. Create a character we care about, who has struggled with something we can identify with. By identify, I don’t necessarily mean that they’re dealing with something that could happen to us, or that has happened to us. Just that we understand what’s happened, and we can relate to the steps that person took—whether desperate or valiant—to cope with their situation.

Let’s consider The Time Traveler’s Wife. Can readers identify with being a man who time travels due to a genetic flaw? Yes. I could imagine the strange experience that was Henry’s life, and Niffenegger made sense of his responses to his situation.

2. Create primal stakes for that character. Blake Snyder, author of a highly recommended screenwriting/storytelling book, Save the Cat, tells us that every great story taps into primal elements. Here’s his explanation:

Primal, primal, primal!

Once you’ve got the hero, the motivation for the hero to succeed must be a basic one. What does X want? Well, if it’s a promotion at work, it better damn well be related to winning the hand of X’s beloved or saving up enough money to get X’s daughter an operation. And if it’s a match-up with an enemy, it better well lead to a life-or-death showdown, not just a friendly spitball fight.


It’s because primal urges get our attention. Survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, fear of death grab us.

The best ideas and the best characters in the lead roles must have basic needs, wants, and desires. Basic, basic!


And when it comes to who to cast in your screenplay, we respond best to stories of husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, ex-boyfriends and girlfriends. Why? Because we all have these people in our lives! You say “father” and I see my father. You say “girlfriend” and I see my girlfriend. We all have ’em — and it gets our attention because of that. It’s an immediate attention-getter because we have a primal reaction to those people, to those words even! So when in doubt, ground your characters in the most deep-seated imagery you can. Make it relevant to us. Make is something that every caveman (and his brother) will get.

Make it, say it with me now…primal!

Back to my example, are Henry’s stakes primal? Absolutely. Survival, hunger and fear of death are just a few of the things he has to contend with whenever he time travels. Add to that, we become intimately acquainted with Henry’s wife, Clare–the co-protagonist of the book. We feel her lifelong fear for Henry, and we can identify with that, too. Primal. Real.

(Psst, you can read more about Blake and his great book in my interview with him. Check out part one, HERE.)

3. Plot a difficult journey. Your protagonist’s struggles should continue to escalate through the story, as s/he actively tries to end whatever is tormenting him/her. We’re invested at this point, especially because we don’t know how things will resolve and failure seems as likely as success.

In TTW, Henry’s time travels become even more dangerous for him as time passes; his body endures more violence. Can the doctor he’s found possibly develop a cure for Henry’s disorder? And will Henry and Clare ever be able to have a child whose embryo-self doesn’t spontaneously travel, aborting itself?

4. Surprise us. As you close in on the story’s culmination, consider adding a surprise that relates to the character’s primal goal: the death of a character, maybe, or an unanticipated success. You’ve been taking the reader down one road–hope? certain failure?–and now you yank them onto another. This invests them that much more in your story.

In TTW, Henry has been working hard with his doctor to find a remedy for his faulty genes. Suddenly everything is called into question as Henry forsees not only his death–but runs into his future daughter.

5. Create a moment. Maybe it’s something visual and startling, but whatever it is, we recognize it as The Primal Ultimate. This is where the protagonist will find success or failure.

When I consider TTW, two images come to mind. The first is Clare twining her limbs around her husband just seconds before she knows he’ll vanish and go to his death in another time. The second is the afterimage–Henry on the floor of their home, surrounded by their friends, bleeding. Dying.

I believe this is the moment that has the greatest potential to make your readers cry, as long as you also—

6. Deal authentically with human emotions. Avoid sappy, but don’t shy away from the desperation we as humans can feel when we’re thisclose to winning or losing it all. What will your protagonist do and say at this point? It’s here that s/he may become, truly, a hero. It might be a moment of enlightenment, but it should always strip your character down to bare Essence. Be true to it.

About TTW: SOB.

Readers, do you have anything to add?

Kath will be up in a bit. Until then, write on, all!

Photo by Flickr’s fotologic



About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. says

    Great ideas!!

    One book that recently made me sob was CERTAIN GIRLS by Jennifer Weiner. All of Weiner’s books have made be cry, actually, but this one made me sob– for one of the completely unexpected surprises that you mention here. I honestly felt ravaged after reading that book… I was mentally drained for the rest of the day as if it had happened to me. And I even felt a bit upset afterwards at what Weiner had done– I wanted her to be kinder to Cannie than that! Still, it was yet another amazing book and that huge connection I feel with Weiner’s characters is what keeps me coming back to book after book. I cried during GOOD IN BED (which deals with the same characters much earlier) over something simpler– I think I cried at the moment Cannie realized she was loved. (I’m not a very emotional person, either… or rather I tend to be really selfishly emotional, in that I cried over not passing my Israeli driving test but not over saying goodbye to my family when I moved to Israel… I know, that makes me sound horrible… but it says a lot when a book makes me cry! I also think that I could figure out the reasons that *I* cry I could channel them more powerfully into my writing.)

    My sister cried when she read one of my earlier manuscripts… it’s a project I’ve actually put aside for now, but I still remember that as one of the most meaningful compliments I’ve ever gotten.

  2. Cathy J says

    The Time Travelers Wife also made me cry like a big baby several times. I was so caught up in the emotions that I did not really think about the author planning to make me cry. Thank you for this wonderful blog.

  3. Rachael says

    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the last one) makes me cry every time. I spent half of that book in tears. I’ve made myself cry while writing a particular scene.

  4. says

    Great, well thought out article. Very helpful. The one that makes me cry every time is Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, and I can see exactly how the guidelines you lay out here lead to my response to Dianora’s story. Thank you!

  5. says

    Hey, I really liked this. I’ve never really thought about the process of making the reader cry . This was interesting to read.

    Please check out some non-fiction writing contest we are having at One of the contests is an element writing contest with the theme: Water.

  6. says

    There are two places in Dorothy Dunnett’s work where I always cry, even on multiple re-readings. Each relates to the death of a child, and each is written with what I would describe as poetic understatement. One occurs in the ‘human chess game’ scene of Pawn in Frankincense. The other is at the end of the last House of Niccolo book.

    As a writer I never consciously think of what will tweak a reader’s emotions. I just write the scene as well as I can, trying to be inside the characters’ heads. My only craft advice on this topic is that understatement is the key – go easy on the adjectives. It’s very easy to make these emotive scenes rather overwrought!

  7. says

    I just read TTW a couple months ago and LOVED it. During the final scene I actually set down the book, got tissue, and readjusted myself because I knew I was about to bawl like a baby.

    1000 Splendid Suns also had this effect on me.

  8. thea says

    I remember reading an interview a long time ago with LaVerle Spencer. She wrote Morning Glory, and that book made me cry. In her interview, they asked her what makes someone a best selling author and she said, simply, that you had to “make them laugh and make them cry.”

  9. Vic K says

    Oh wow – this is fascinating – I’ve been waiting for this article since the question about topics was first asked. Thank you very much Therese, that was both insightful and useful. I’m going to print it out and paste it to my forehead!

    One of the scenes that I cried over (seemingly endlessly) was during one of Juliet’s novels – The Daughter of the Forest – when Sorcha was raped. I defy anyone to read that scene and not cry. And the advice that Juliet mentions above – the keep the adjectives out – is very evident in that scene and I think the emotion is starkly exhibited because of it.

    In my own work, I think I’ve ticked some of the six steps but not all of them. Looking back, I always have the keep it primal point happening, but I often forget to make the journey difficult enough. And there’s my lightbulb moment for the day… *ting*. I think the tragic events coming up in the storyline could be more personal and would be more powerful for that.

    Hmmmmm… lots of food for thought here, both in the article and the comments. Thank you everyone!

  10. says

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Maya, you touched on something important here: What affects one person may not affect another, but authentic writing has great power.

    Smart advice, Juliet.

    Vic, I’m glad you saw this and that the post was helpful to you! It was a great question that really made me think. :-)