Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cue the Violins: Emotional Triggers in Literature

I cry at movies. All. the. time.

Just before the birth of my second son, I went to a movie with a group of moms and our toddlers: Madagascar 2. It was a free matinĂ©e, and you really do get what you pay for, unfortunately. Between old ladies getting punched loudly by cartoon lions and sultry romance scenes involving wet hippos (yeah, it really was that bad), there was a scene that made me cry.

It had to do with the lion and his dad. And it should NOT have made me cry.

(In my defense, I was pregnant.)

Tracing back through my past crying-in-movies behavior, there's one common link that threads these incidents together:


Usually violins, but it can really be anything that's lyrical, legato, and swelling. My brain knows without me even thinking about it that whatever accompanies the music is going to be touching, tragic, or joyful--and my body reacts.

At various times, I've felt a little angry at how easily I'm manipulated by movie scores. After all, I don't wear mascara for nothing! And I don't want it dripping slowly down my cheeks, defeating its whole purpose.

But I really can't help it. Since I was a child, I've been watching movies--lots of movies. And they all use the same tactics to manipulate (or if you'd rather, evoke) emotion. So it makes perfect sense that, just like Pavlov's salivating dogs, I'll cry every time I hear the swelling, power ballad whistle.

But it got me wondering... can the same effect be achieved in literature? Not that I want to go around making people cry for nothing! But emotions trigger memory recall, and if you want your readers to remember the story you're telling them (and the point, because every story has a point), then it's worth thinking about emotional triggers.

So what sets the stage for an emotional connection between a reader and your characters?
Here's what I've come up with based on my reading. Add your insights to my list in the comments.

Setting the Stage for Emotional Triggers

-signs of stress, like hearts pounding, tongues swelling??, stomachs fluttering

-prolonged longing finally actualized (the back-and-forth couple realizes at last that they're perfect for each other, e.g. Twilight, Pride and Prejudice)

-threatening death and then letting a conflicted character's decision to do the right thing save the day (mouthful, e.g. Harry Potter a million times over)

-"Please Mia, don't make me write a song." (from IF I STAY by Gayle Forman) aka inside joke made tragic

-"You love me. Real or not real?" 
I tell him, "Real." (from MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins) aka tearing the reader's heart out with tender manifestations of vulnerability

Now you know what makes me cry. What triggers your sob reflex?


  1. Awesome post! I agree. Music is key. I go to Myrtle beach a lot. I see a lot of weddings on the beach. Only one has made me cry. It was one where they played Enya as the wedding party emerged. I bawled from my balcony for the first time. All weddings are beautiful, but the song + perfect setting made me cry.

    Great post! :0)

    How to make music on paper . . . . hmmmmm . . . . .

  2. Wow, NICE post!!!! LOVE this! It's so true--musci scores always bring out emotions in me. I love the points you make on how it happens in literature. Well done. *applauds*

  3. Christy, that's such a sweet example. That happens to me at (yes, I am lame) graduation ceremonies. Yep. Pomp and Circumstance gets me teary.

    'Music on paper' is the perfect vision for accomplishing emotional triggers. I'm right there with you wondering about how to do it. Maybe some incredible author will stumble upon this post and write a blog about it. :) Suzanne Collins? Gayle Forman? Anyone? Anyone?

    Laura, thank you!! And may I just say, excellent use of exclamation marks! I am a fan. :D


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