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I have the opportunity to read a lot of unpublished content, and every so often I find a story where the writer doesn’t let their readers do the emotional work.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 never actually 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 ever broke down and bawled, 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 In one unpublished story I read, one of the characters was often worrying about a mystery.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.

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while on rare occasions critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side. Mostly she hides out in her room and writes.