If you are writing something absolutely devastating in your story, such as a heartbreak or death scene, it’s natural as a writer that you want to make your audience cry when it happens. If they cry, that means you have successfully connected with them in a way that is powerful enough to move them, which means your story is well written enough to connect with.
There are two ways you can go about reeking emotional devastation on your audience.
Piling On Tragedy
The first way is by writing something that is just really terribly sad, and hoping that you push a button enough that it has an impact on your reader. So, you write that your character leaves his dog in the house for the day, and then the house burns down, killing the dog. That is a devastatingly sad incident in any story, and would definitely move some people to tears. However, if your audience doesn’t know your character or his dog, doesn’t know why the dog matters so much to him, and hasn’t spent any time with them enough to know how much losing the dog would mean to him, most people won’t be particularly upset by the scene.
Writing terribly sad things that, in and of themselves, are very upsetting, is not enough. That’s just trying to make people cry but without any care or any heart put into the work. It’s cold. Cold sadness doesn’t stick with people and it doesn’t move people, it’s just acknowledged as sad and then you move on with the story.
Emotionally Connect To Your Audience
If, however, you take the time to tell your audience about the character and his dog. Build the relationship, develop the connection and show why the dog matters so much. Have scenes with your character depending on the dog for comfort and company, show their bond growing and how much the dog loves him. Then, when he leaves the dog in the house, show that he has prioritised something over the dog that he shouldn’t have, show the dog sad that he’s being left behind.
THEN burn the dog.
If you want to go even further for more emotional pain, after tragedy throw in hope. So before the dog died, he’d had a relationship with a lady dog and then she births a litter of puppies and your character can take one home and begin the journey again, with a new dog.
It’s brutal and calculated, but that’s the job. If you want to make people cry, you have to put time and energy into making them connect with the characters that you’re going to break their hearts with. To make them connect to the character, you have to give them reasons to care, so layer reasons why that character or that relationship matter, then give them hopes and dreams for that character that you never realise. If it’s a couple you’re going to break up, make your audience hope for their wedding or their child. If you’re going to kill someone, make your audience want something for them that they can never have.
Stories That Make Me Cry
Stories that have made me break my heart and ugly cry, such as Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, Tinkerbell and the Neverbeast, and The Notebook, have had that impact on me because by the time you get to moving moment, I’m already invested in the characters and care about them deeply. When the old couple lie down together at the end of The Notebook, cuddle up and die, I am a broken woman. I cannot breathe I’m crying so hard. If you’d shown me that old couple at the beginning of the film I’d have thought it was very sad and moving, but I wouldn’t have been broken because they’re not my people. By the end of the film they’re my people, I care, I’m invested in them, so their deaths have an emotional impact on me.
Making Your Audience Care Makes Them Cry
If you just want to make people cry but can’t be bothered to invest time into connecting with your audience, you can throw tragedy after tragedy into your story and maybe poke enough bruises in your audience that you make them cry. But it won’t be real, it won’t stick, and they won’t carry that emotion with them after your story finishes.
If you want to make people cry because they care about your characters and will carry your story in your heart for years after they’ve read it, you have to treat both your audience and your story with the respect of investing in them.
Build to the sadness, grow the audiences bond with your story, demonstrate why the characters matter and give the audience something to hope for. If they want good things for that character, and their lives matter to them, then you shatter that hope, you’ll have the exact right amount of emotional devastation.
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