The 5 Secrets of Grabbing Your Readers' Emotions

The 5 Secrets of Grabbing Your Readers’ Emotions

Want to know the secrets of grabbing your readers’ emotions? For starters, let’s pretend I’m your reader–‘cuz I’m a hard sell. I’m not a very emotional person. Even when I feel deeply about something, it takes a lot to move me to tears. I can count on my fingers the stories that have made me cry. Part of this is just my emotional makeup, but part of it is also because I realize the special power tears have.

The stories that have pulled me so far out of myself that I’ve closed their covers feeling emotionally scarred—those are the stories that will stay with me for the rest of my life. The comedies and the fluffy chick flicks are quickly forgotten; only the stories that have given me the gift of my own tears, that have connected with me on a primal level–that have made me feel to the utmost the pain and joy and sorrow of our crazy human lives–only these stories can claim a special place as catalysts in my life.

A saw in the advertising world proclaims, “If they cry, they buy!” Why is this? Why is it that deep emotion solidifies stories and grants them that brilliant realism? And what’s the secret recipe for grabbing your readers’ emotions in your own stories?

Emotional responses, like all of fiction, are subjective. Due to our distinctive psychological makeups and the varied influencing factors of our individual lives, we each react differently to emotional stimuli. We can never expect to tap into the tears of every single person who reads our fiction. But if you can figure out what it is that makes one person—yourself—emotionally responsive, you can likely tap into a universal reaction.

So ask yourself, what characters, actions, and themes affect you most strongly? What are the books and movies that have left the greatest impact on you? What about them did you find particularly moving? After spending this past week making my own lists in answer to these questions and querying others about their responses, I’ve come to the following revelations about how you can start grabbing your readers’ emotions.

1. Tragedy for the Tragedy’s Sake Isn’t Enough

In the July 2009 issue of The Writer, Jill Dearman pointed out:

One of the biggest issues I deal with from my clients is the “So what?” factor. The idea is good. Check! The form is clever or classic. Check! But so what? What the reader needs is emotional and mental engagement with the work—exactly what writers must conjure up during the writing process.

2. Readers Feel Characters’ Grief of More Than Their Own

Dreamlander (Amazon affiliate link)

The fictional deaths that have affected me most are those not only of characters I loved myself, but particularly of characters who were loved by other characters. When I asked my critters if they were affected by the death of an important character in my portal fantasy Dreamlander, their almost universal response surprised me. They said they grieved most strongly for the characters who remained alive rather than for the character who died.

3. Conflict in Relationships Magnifies Loss

In expanding upon the previous point, sometimes the most poignant separations, in fiction as in life, are those that are either preceded or caused by misunderstanding. We grieve all the more for a death if the characters cared deeply about each other but were at odds and unable to put the relationship back to rights before it was torn apart forever.

4. Self-Sacrifice Is Extremely Powerful

Speaking for myself, the single most gut-wrenching thematic element in any story is self-sacrifice. When characters make the “hard right choice,” when they deliberately surrender their own happiness, well-being, or even their very lives for the sake of someone else or a greater cause—nothing moves me more deeply. And judging from the responses I received from others over the course of this week’s research, I’m not the only one who feels this. Making characters suffer is one thing; making them choose to suffer because it’s the right thing to do is another plane altogether.

5. Emotional Honesty Is Key

Although I could probably go on about this subject at length without exhausting its possibilities, I will end with a final thought: in eliciting any emotion, honesty is the single greatest factor in resonating with readers. In a response to a comment I left this week on her blog RX: Hope, novelist Candace Calvert said it as well as anyone:

[It] boil[s] down to having the courage to be honest. To dig deep for the emotion, risk being vulnerable: and share it with our readers. As a reader, I’m most impressed with an author who creates flawed, human, heart-on-their-sleeves characters that make me think: “Omigoodness, she’s writing about me!” We all want to feel understood, connected. I think that’s what we must strive for as authors, to offer that blessing as best we can.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s your secret for grabbing your readers’ emotions? Tell me in the comments!

The 5 Secrets of Grabbing Your Readers' Emotions

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. One of my favorite books and movies is Schindler’s List. I don’t cry easily either but at the end, when Schindler agonizes over not having saved enough people, I was extremely moved. He had risked his life time and time again and yet couldn’t let go of the fact that his efforts hadn’t saved every one.

    Noble main characters are often unforgettable.

    Thank you, Outlaw Lady, for sharing your research results.

  2. And thank you for sharing yours! This was actually some of the most fun research I’ve done in a while… discovering people’s favorite books and movies.

  3. Great post. I know my favorite novels are the one’s that have brought a lump in my throat and tear to my eyes.

  4. I cry easily, I must admit. My husband often walks in on me crying over a book. He’s learned it might not be an actual crisis situation just because I’m crying.
    I don’t cry as easily when writing, although I have once. I’m not sure why this is because I feel their grief immensely. Maybe it has to do with what you said about feeling a character’s pain more deeply than your own. When I’m writing, I am that character.

  5. Excellent post–Especially about having a character choose to do the right thing. You made me think about my characters and their actions in my WIP. Have I done enough to pull a response from the reader?

  6. @heather: I do get choked up over my own writings. I’m reminded of the scene in the old June Alyson version of Little Women, in which Beth comes up to Jo’s garret to find her sobbing over her story. Beth asks what’s the matter, and Jo responds, “My story!” “Poor, Jo. Isn’t it any good?” “No – it’s wonderful!” 😛

    @Terri: The added benefit of having characters choose to do the right thing, even at their own expense, is that it not only makes for teary-eyed readers, but it also gives the story extra depth, extra meaning.

  7. Marie W. says

    Great post!!! It brings to mind the scene in the movie ‘Shenandoah’ when the youngest son returns from the war. Just thinking about it makes me cry, but it is so heartwarming and displays the beauty of a parent’s love for a child so well. What would any story be without emotion? It truly is the writer’s best tool.

  8. Shenandoah brings another good point to the table: the joyous reunion at the end of the movie is that much more moving because of all the heart-wrenching loss that preceded it.

  9. Excellent, thoughtful post–thank you so much for including my humble opinion on this very important subject. May we all be honest and unafraid to be vulnerable–and enrich our readers with that gift!

    Candace Calvert

  10. Thanks, Candace! It’s amazing to me how the Lord works things out. Here I was pondering this subject all week, and you just happened to write a post on it! Thanks for sharing!

  11. I’ve been known to cry at commercials, so my cry meter is set low. But you’re right: I cry hardest at just the type things you mentioned.

  12. So that does that mean I haven’t scored as big a victory as I thought when I get you to cry over my stuff? 😉

  13. LOL! I’m like Linda. My tear meter is always at the bottom. I will cry at the Brady Bunch or Family Matters! Excellent article, Katie. I loved it!

  14. Thanks so much for stopping by, Lynn! Tears are always precious, no matter how often they get used!

  15. When I was pregnant, I cried at the drop of a hat. Before and since, I’m somewhere between that and you, Katie. (My husband said I was ‘hard’ immediately after the birth of our daughter. I wasn’t crying–I was relieved! But, he was and I was giving him a bit of a hard time about it.)

    I generally don’t cry at movies or books. But, the characters I care the most about, if there’s a really touching scene, I do cry. As I mentioned in my own blog this week about the book ‘Conspiracy in Death’, there’s one scene where the lead character is relieved from duty. Her reaction, and the subsequent scenes with her husband always make me cry, even after reading the book at least a dozen times.

    The scene in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ right before Han is placed in the carbon-freeze always brings tears to my eyes. And, I sobbed when ‘The Passion of the Christ’ ended–probably worse than anything else I’ve ever seen. I’ve only seen the movie once for that reason.

    Personally, I love it when I’m writing a scene that’s so emotional that I look up to get my thoughts together and realize that I have tears in my eyes while writing the scene. 🙂

    Keep up the good work, Katie! Great as usual!!!

  16. Thanks for sharing the stories that particularly moved you. I always love hearing what stories grab other people. And hormones can definitely affect the crying factor!

  17. I don’t cry or anger easily. Irritate, maybe, but wide swings of the emotional pendulum aren’t my style– so if a writer can emit that kind of emotion from me, I call it a job well done. Few books have actually done it for me and when authors (or even film makers) try to have that heart wrenching, gut wrenching moment, it seems disingenuous to me.

    I’ve made myself tear up ONCE with something I wrote. I wasn’t trying to make anyone cry, I just was suddenly moved by the situation and the character’s reaction.

    I once (and I am paraphrasing terribly) read that if you cry while writing/reading what you’ve written, you’ve exposed the heart of your character. If you laugh at what you’re writing/have written, you’re being too cute. Pull it back. Iv’e found it to be helpful!

    By the way, did you change your twitter name? (sadness)

  18. You sound very much like me. The authors and filmmakers who can make me cry should be very proud of themselves, because it means they’ve produced a story I’ll never forget.

    Nope, didn’t change my Twitter name. Still KMWeiland. You can find me by hitting the Twitter button in the blog’s side column.

  19. I’m actually one of those people who are very emotional. If it’s a sad scene, I’ll feel for the character. But while listening to your podcast, it made me think a little deeper about what TRULY touches me. The things that do touch me the deepest are the self-sacrificing scenarios. A book or movie about a person who gives up something for the best of mankindstick with me a whole lot more than just a sad scene (like his puppy died or something). 😉

  20. Thanks for listening! I think you’re absolutely right about varying levels of emotion. Of course, we all feel sad when the puppy dies, but (unless he’s Old Yeller) we’ll have forgotten all about him long before we’ve forgotten about the heroic sacrifices of men such as William Wallace.

  21. Lorna G. Poston says

    When I was younger, I didn’t cry often. But now that I’m reaching “The Change”, I have been known to cry at Hallmark commercials.

    Great post, but now I know someone dies in Dreamers Come. 🙁

  22. Oh, I’m infamous for my body counts…

  23. Lorna G. Poston says

    I’ll read it anyway. 🙂

  24. Yay! 😀

  25. “…making them choose to suffer because it’s the right thing to do…”

    I think this is my absolute favorite idea to play with as a writer. Hard choices, sacrifice, and love (not just romantic) are to me the foundation of who we really are as people, thus the most interesting aspects to explore. What motivates us to choose that way? What do we love enough to sacrifice for? How do we know what’s the right decision? How do we make that decision even when we don’t want to?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The questions you just asked are *exactly* the questions I like to see asked in stories – and which I’m interested in asking in my own fiction. Hard questions are the birthing ground of good stories.

  26. Nice post again. I am the kind of person who hardly got into crying (while reading fiction, mind you, otherwise there hardly goes a day in which I don’t stumble upon some teary part)

  27. Kate, I know what you mean with the Self-sacrifice, I always get teary over those. Espeically in movies. Kung Fu Panda 2 has one scene that I cry over every time, because of his mom’s sacrifice.
    Captain America the First Avenger does that to me too. Steve is just so lovable you’ve gotta cry when he does and laugh at his jokes.
    One of the books I cry over most is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, spicifically the last few chapters, starting with Severus Snape’s two chapters and all through the rest of the battle.
    Little Women is also one that pulls my heartstrings. Jo is so like me in many ways and so I relate to her sorrows and trials.
    By the way, thanks for writing all these posts. They are really helpful for me.

  28. thomas h cullen says

    It takes work, always. Whether it be in one form (the tangible, such as the hours and hours spent consuming a story’s huge quantity of pages), or another (the mind’s absolute genuine work, creating a work of fiction, long or short), from a person emotion will always come when there’s an “understanding” of work..

    If say in November, a film or novel comes out, its release having been planned a year in advance, but then upon the release people barely indulge the product, that’d be sadder for that/those artists in question than those just who’ve had to wait a couple of months. And the same for anything else in life, nevertheless applying to the same formula..

    A student, preparing all year for their exam, who then finally fails it; a someone who, despite having passed through so much time (years and years!), still feels tormented by a same reason of guilt dated from a time predating it all.

    The arena of life can change, but the formula for eliciting emotion is always the same: a result, informed by some (“understood”) kind of mountain of history.

    That’s why people have to communicate with one another: if they don’t, they’ll just find it so much harder trying to bear life’s mountains and oceans of time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Connecting with readers’ emotions really is all about empathy. If we can find that common ground, we’ve got ’em.

      • thomas h cullen says

        Of course. And that’s the answer to life’s struggle: finding the common ground (in many cases, literally in fact, meaning the way to move forward is to incorporate the common.)

  29. Emotional honesty… Transparency, even… Why doesn’t it happen more often in our writing? Because it’s tough and painful. Because it might reveal too much about us. I continually struggle with this (most recently in my Tracking Jane series), but the alternative, an emotionally detached story, or one that touches on emotion superficially, is the kind of story that tends to sit there, no matter how many things are exploding or who’s chasing who.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Absolutely true. We can’t expect to provoke an honest reaction in readers if we’re not willing to first be honest with them ourselves. And, as you say, that’s hard!

  30. What I feel is that, bringing people to tears by killing characters is far more easier than making them smile!

    Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’ remains my all-time favorite.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It depends on the story, of course, but I actually find that the sad stories are by far the harder to write.

  31. robert easterbrook says

    I’m all choked about this post. Thanks.

  32. Towards the end of the book series that I am currently working on, one of my characters sacrifices her life to save someone else. The character that did this came from a family where she was never cared for. She sacrificed herself because she knew that the other person had something to live for. I cried when I wrote it. :'(

  33. Thanks, K.M. I’m working on a novel in which three characters have experienced grief, but showing how they respond differently. This was helpful to me as I think through the various ways people handle emotions. Also loved the picture for this post!

  34. Awesome post! Definitely self-sacrifice is powerfull! And really Allara was the character I grieved for the most!

  35. I loved the article. You are totally right about being honest with your emotions. An author once told me that if you write a scene and it doesn’t do to you what you wish to invoke in the reader, it will never do so in the reader.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! I think it was Robert Frost who said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

  36. The only book that has yet to make me cry is The Fault in Our Stars, but it wasn’t when (spoilers) Augustus died, instead it was the scene where he tried to buy some cigarets, but were unable to. I found the scene very sad, because of the cruel irony that despise his wish of leaving an imprint on the world, and die saving someone, he couldn’t even buy a pack of cigarets. And that’s just a really sad, but also very true point in life: we don’t always get what we want.

  37. This rang so true for me!!! Just yesterday I finished a fiction on the Titanic. It was from the Dear America series of children’s books. It was very easy reading, and I checked it out from the library on a whim. I’ve always had a fascination with the Titanic, and it had old pictures printed in the back.
    Long story short, the main character falls in love with this cabin steward named Robert. She escapes on the lifeboats, but Robert drowns along with all of the other people at the end of the story. The main character’s grief for him made me so sad- I still feel so sorry for her.

    And it was a book for nine year olds!!! Seriously!!

  38. If I read my own work and it chokes me up, is that good or bad? Just kidding. I’m finishing reading a novel that I refuse to let go of. I almost don’t want to read the last fifty pages because it’s so beautifully written. When I open the pages I fall into it and just soak in the prose. I know tears are coming at the end. Try this one: All The Light We Can Not See. It’s a mater’s work. Hopefully I’ll climb a few rungs of this ladder.

  39. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Always a good thing! I think it was Frost who said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”


  1. […] The 5 Secrets of Grabbing Your Readers’ Emotions – Helping Writers Become Authors. […]

  2. […] can honestly say that, as a reader, the best novels do just that. They evoke such emotions from me—unexpected emotions—that I am stunned by my own […]

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