It’s my belief that the chief goal of fiction is to make a reader care. Without that emotional investment, you’d be wasting even the most kick-butt plot and the most ingenious characters. Without an emotional connection, the rest of your hard work will never take off.
That’s why I get frustrated with writers who expect me to rise to serious emotions without giving me a reason. A great example is putting a very emotional or traumatic moment in the first chapter, before I’ve had a chance to bond with the character. Let’s say the book opens with a funeral for the character’s father. They are a wreck, weeping all over the place, inconsolable. You’d think that a funeral scene would automatically elicit strong emotions in the reader, but you’d be wrong.
I don’t sympathize with anything or anyone unless I care about it first, even a little bit. If I’m just meeting your character, I don’t know anything about them. And while funerals are sad, yes, and crying is sad, sure, I will not automatically match emotions just because they are presented on the page.
Similarly, I don’t much like to see crying for crying’s sake. There are manuscripts I’ve read that have characters screaming, raging, crying, laughing, and every other powerful emotion in between. But they fail to strike a chord. Why? Because rather than seeing those external displays of emotion, I’d rather know the exact thoughts that bring those tears about. Instead of saying, “She wept bitterly as they lowered the casket into the ground,” I’d prefer to read something like, “Of all things to think in this moment, she remembered the stupid joke birthday card she was planning on giving him next week, and how she’d never hear him laugh about it.” The thought that triggers the tears, whether it’s rational or completely random, like the above, is always much more powerful. I know more about the character and her relationship to her now-dead father from the specific second example, and that makes me more invested. It helps me to form that emotional bond.
Another thing to think about, and this I borrow from Robert McKee and his scriptwriting Bible, STORY: The Law of Diminishing Returns. The first time you see something, it’s powerful and it gets your attention. Like a rip-roaring action sequence in a summer blockbuster. “Awesome,” you think, “that semi just totally just clipped that low-flying police helicopter,” or whatever. But if the movie keeps throwing insane chase sequences at you, they’re going to have less and less of an effect. This principle makes many things in life possible. Think about doctors. They may feel queasy digging into their first cadaver, but by the end of medical school, they’re mucking around in bodies like champs.
Don’t hit your reader with strong emotion over and over again because you mistake this for making your audience care. If people aren’t attaching to your characters or their struggles, the answer isn’t to make them cry or rage more or more often, it’s to carefully choose your moments of high emotion, motivate them well, and really let us into the character’s experience.
Again, I’ve read many manuscripts (especially YA), where a vexed and emotional teen cries all the time, constantly flying off the handle. Instead of bringing me into that character’s world, it turns me off, and keeps pushing me away the longer the tantrums continue.
We all are hard-wired to respond to emotions, but it’s the way in which you present those moments in your fiction that will make all the difference.