Why some books make readers cry

Crying while reading a book isn’t something anyone should be ashamed of – it is just proof that a writer has crafted a piece of writing that has touched you emotionally. But how on earth do writers make their readers cry – that is, why do some books have us blubbering into a box of tissues, while others that should be just as sad don’t have us shed a tear?

Books don’t have to try very hard to make me cry but to really make me Fault-in-our-Stars blubber does take some skill.

Here is the top ten list of books that make readers cry according to Goodreads.com users:

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
  2. My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult
  3. Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
  4. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling
  5. Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls
  6. The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks
  7. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
  8. The Time Traveller’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
  9. A Walk to Remember, by Nicholas Sparks
  10. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling

Whether you agree with any of this list or not (it does seem heavily influenced by Harry Potter fans), there are a few reasons why certain books make us cry. Surprisingly, just killing off a major character won’t make someone cry!  There is a lot more to it.

We feel a sense of loss.

Particularly when a main character dies.  After going through the novel with these characters, when one of them dies it’s like you have lost a friend yourself.  At least, this should happen if the author has succeeded in creating a strong reader-character relationship.

We are emotionally connected with a character and their pain.

Sure, a lot of books are sad because a main character dies, but it is possible to make a reader cry because of a minor character’s death, or simply a sad event.

What happens here is that we feel the main character’s pain over their loss, rather than the loss of a loved character.  For example, a character might loose one of his parents, and they may not have had a major part, but we are so emotionally connected with the main character that every grieving emotion he feels, we feel.

This can also occur when a main character dies, but you didn’t particularly like that character anyway.  If the main character feels pain, you feel pain.

Foreshadowing.

The sad event is built up to so you spend the whole time worrying about it, and when it does, crying is a cathartic release.  This was the case in John Green’s Looking for Alaska.  The book is set up so you are pretty sure about what is going to happen, so when it does it’s almost a relief and you want to cry to let out all the pent up emotion.

We cry out of shock.

Sometimes an event can happen in a novel that we were not expecting (either because there was no foreshadowing, or because the foreshadowing was so subtle that you don’t click onto what it meant until after the event) and its so much of a shock that we cry, even if the event is not something that would normally affect us.

The sad event touches on something that has happened in our own life.

This is probably the most difficult for an author to plan to be tear-worthy, as it will only make certain readers cry, however we have all suffered loss at some point, and sometimes certain situations bring that back.

Why some books don’t make you cry.

You are reading a book, and something that should make you pull out the tissues happens in the plot, and… your eyes are dry. Some books seem to be set up for the reader to have a good cry session, but don’t succeed like others do. There can be a variety of reasons for this, but most often the problem lies in the characters experiencing the grief of the emotional event. If the author writes this emotional scene from a point of view that is outside the grief, or from the point of view of a character who feels disconnected from the events around them, the reader will find it difficult to connect to the grief. Other times a character might be emotional, but it doesn’t feel authentic. Grief is difficult to write about unless you have felt that keen sense of loss yourself, and an inauthentic character experience won’t bring tears to a reader’s eyes.

What books have made you cry, and why?

Let us know in the comments.

5 comments… add one

JJ is a writer by night, & a Product Manager by day. She loves young adult and children’s fiction and is the co-founder of NZ Booklovers. She has a Masters in Creative Writing, and is an ex-English tutor. She lives in Auckland with her husband, daughter, and two chihuahuas.

  • Sarah March 7, 2014, 8:33 am

    Its hard to make me cry but I couldn’t stop crying when I read my sisters keeper!

    Reply
  • linda blackwell March 20, 2014, 10:55 am

    message in a bottle,by Nicholas sparks,made me cry,it was such a beautifull love story,that man knows how to write a real love story,you climb right into his books.

    Reply
  • maia October 3, 2017, 12:04 pm

    Life before me (wattpad)

    Reply
  • KennA October 3, 2017, 4:24 pm

    I don’t cry, I rarely EVER cry. But once I read song in the silence by elizibeth kerner I couldn’t stop the tear flow.

    Reply
  • Drew October 5, 2017, 2:52 pm

    Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck left me bawling my eyes out.

    Reply

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