When your characters start to cry in your story, you want readers to be able to sympathize with them. When your characters are pouring their heart out, overcome by grief, or overjoyed at reconnecting with someone who they thought had died, the last thing you want is for your readers to be bored—or worse, rolling their eyes.
And yet, most writers fall short when trying to convey such strong emotions. If you want to write truly powerful emotional scenes, you need to be able to write them in ways no one has ever heard before. Language like “tears welled up in his eyes” or “his voice cracked” just isn’t going to cut it. You need to use language that allows readers to feel exactly what the character is going through, and you can’t do that by relying on plain language or clichés.
How to Avoid Writing Clichés when Describing Crying
The first method for making your crying scenes more dramatic is to cut out the clichés, but first, you need to be sure you understand what a cliché is. A cliché is a phrase, idea, or story element that has been overused to the point of being annoying. Some examples are:
- When a character screams “noooo!” up at the sky.
- When a character cries in the rain.
- The phrase “crying a river of tears.”
- When a character’s heart “hammers” or “pounds.”
- The phrase “a blood-curdling scream.”
I’m sure you get the idea. However, traditional clichés aren’t the only things you’ll need to be on the lookout for in your own writing.
There are certain gestures and physical descriptions that aren’t exactly cliché but are overused to the point that they have a similar effect on readers. For example, take the gesture “she wiped at her eyes.” Wiping tears away is a common reaction to crying. It’s something people actually do, and often. So why is it a problem?
When a writer uses gestures like a character wiping at their eyes or chewing on their lip, they are attempting to “show” how the character is feeling without explicitly telling readers “she is crying.” In theory, that’s a good thing, but by relying on the same phrases that every writer utilizes, their character will feel like a cookie-cutter copy of every other character who’s ever cried. How many times have you read any of the following?
- She wiped at her eyes.
- He sniffled between words.
- She sighed heavily, letting her head drop.
- Tears welled up in their eyes.
- A single tear rolled down his cheek.
- He felt his throat closing up.
- Tears streamed down her face.
- He looked close to tears.
In general, if you’ve read it before (especially more than once), it’s probably a good idea to find a more creative way to write what you’re trying to convey. Use metaphors and similes to create more visceral feelings, and don’t be afraid to describe things strangely. You can always work backward to make weird imagery more relatable.
For example, instead of saying that a character’s throat is constricting because they’re about to cry, say that it’s like they’re struggling to swallow down a still-beating heart.
That imagery is slimy, visceral, and uncomfortable, but it likens itself quite well to the sensation of anxiously forcing down tears. Emotions can be uncomfortable, so don’t be afraid of using uncomfortable imagery to describe them.
Writing Different Types of Crying
People don’t just cry when they are sad. The situations in which characters can shed tears are wildly diverse, ranging from receiving a thoughtful gift to watching a horrible tragedy unfold before them. Characters can cry because they are joyful, frustrated, angry, disappointed, confused, relieved, and a number of other emotions. The tone of your description should match how the character is feeling.
Not only are there different emotions behind a character’s tears, but there are also different levels of intensity to each emotion. The words you use should be reflective of that too. The words “weeping” and “sobbing” are not perfect synonyms for the word “crying.” If a character is sobbing, they are going to be gasping for air, overcome with emotion—they may even curl up or heave.
If your character starts sobbing after a minor inconvenience, readers aren’t going to feel bad for them. Rather, they’ll just be annoyed by the character’s overdramatic reaction. Take that same reaction, however, and apply it to a scene in which another character dies, and suddenly, it becomes powerful.
However, human emotions are complex and varied, so your characters could have many other reasons for breaking down besides just “sadness.” In addition to that, emotions are rarely expressed as separate experiences. Rather, emotions overlap and twist together, making them much harder to portray in the written word.
If you want some quick tips and pointers for portraying complex emotions, I cover the topic more in-depth in another article: How to Describe Facial Expressions in Writing. For now, let’s dive into how different emotions can alter a character’s behavior as they cry.
Sadness is a broad emotion, so the context for why your character is crying is important for understanding how they are crying. The way someone cries when watching a sad movie is going to be very different from how they cry after receiving sad news.
In general, when a character cries out of pure sadness, with no other emotions influencing their behavior, they are likely to cry quietly. Sadness is a numbing emotion, so characters who cry out of sadness would be rather subdued. Common responses include curling up in a ball, chewing on their lower lip, and prolonged periods of simply not moving. Tears may be wiped away, or allowed to freely flow down the character’s face.
If you want to give your readers insight into how the character is feeling as they are crying, focus on the numbing aspect of sadness. Your character may feel physically and mentally deadened, tired, and even nauseous. They may also feel isolated from others as if they are alone in their suffering and no one understands, even if that isn’t necessarily true. Depending on the character, they may seek comfort from others, or withdraw to compose themself alone.
When a character is crying out of happiness, their response is going to depend on the context as well. Crying after receiving a big surprise, such as an expensive gift or an acceptance letter to a great college, is going to look different from a character crying on their wedding day.
When a character is crying happy tears, they are likely to gasp frequently, cover their mouth with their hands, and speak in a high-pitched tone. They are also likely to emote exaggeratedly with their body, such as bowing over, bouncing up and down, fanning their face with their hands, or clapping. In more subdued settings, such as a wedding, the character may restrain their emotions and simply cry openly with a sincere smile on their face.
Feelings of happiness are difficult to describe, but that doesn’t mean you should shy away from giving readers insight into the character’s mind. When a character cries out of happiness, they are likely going to be overwhelmed with joy, excitement, or even disbelief. Characters are also much more likely to cry happy tears if they think they don’t deserve whatever is making them happy.
Anger doesn’t always lend itself to tears, but when it does, it has specific and predictable effects on a character’s behavior. A character may cry angry tears when they are being treated unfairly, are arguing with someone, or have been hurt emotionally.
When a character gets angry, that triggers an adrenaline reaction (their “fight-or-flight” response to stress or danger). Adrenaline drives how they behave while they cry, and it may cause them to tremble, raise their voice, become red in the face, sputter, and breathe much faster than normal. Depending on the character, they may wrap their arms around themself defensively, curl their hands into fists, or lash out with aggressive gestures.
If you want to describe how that feels from the character’s perspective, a good theme to focus on is temperature. Anger is often described as “searing” or “boiling,” and it can feel as if they are burning up inside. When anger drives a character to tears, it is usually because their emotions have reached a breaking point and must be released.
For more tips on writing about anger, take a look at Writing a Character with Anger Issues.
Embarrassment by itself is often enough to motivate a character to cry. Whether they have been humiliated in front of their friends, made an embarrassing mistake, or said something stupid without thinking, embarrassment can result in a strong emotional response. If handled well, you may also allow your readers to feel your character’s pain, through the phenomenon of second-hand embarrassment.
A character crying out of embarrassment is, above all else, going to hide away from others. They may cover their face with their hands, curl up as small as possible, and try to withdraw from other people. Though it depends on the character’s personality, most of the time, they will seek to be alone out of fear of being judged for whatever caused the embarrassment.
To give your readers insight into how the character is feeling, you should allow your character to overthink how others would respond to witnessing the embarrassing event. They may feel shame and fear, and they are likely going to feel quite self-conscious about themself and their abilities. They may even feel ashamed of their reaction to the embarrassment, and try to hide the fact that they are crying.
Not everyone cries when they are frightened, but it is not an unusual response. Some characters may cry after being spooked for a prank, while others may only break down when they genuinely fear for their life.
When a character cries out of fear, they will experience a rush of adrenaline (just like with angry crying!) They will experience tears along with the typical reactions to adrenaline, like increased heart rate, a flushed face, and faster breathing. They are also likely to freeze in place, stammer, tremble, and whine.
Fear is a powerful emotion, and it can dominate a character’s thoughts and actions. When a character is afraid, they might not even be aware of their tears until after the danger has passed. Rather, the character is going to be focused on what they are doing to eliminate or escape from whatever they are afraid of.
Pain is another common reason for characters to shed tears, and it is often unavoidable even for ordinarily stoic characters. For some, crying might be their response to any amount of pain or discomfort, while others may need to be pushed to the point of agony before they shed tears. Either way, pained crying can look different depending on the type of pain and the character affected by it.
When a character is crying because of acute pain, such as a sudden wound, they are likely to cry out or groan loudly, curl up in a ball, or exhibit reactions similar to scared crying. However, when a character has been experiencing chronic pain for some time, they may simply break down from the exhaustion of having to put up with that all the time.
It can be tough to get into the head of a character in pain. Pain can overshadow other thoughts and feelings, or intensify negative emotions like anger, fear, or sadness. If your character is afraid for some reason, either of whatever hurt them, for the safety of their friends, or for their own survival, now would be a good time for them to hyper-fixate on that fear—and their own inability to do anything about it.
Disappointment is an emotion that includes elements of sadness, anger, and even embarrassment. When a character was looking forward to something, such as a gift, a trip, an event, or something else, and is let down, they express disappointment that the situation doesn’t go as they envisioned it. They may be angry at whatever messed up their plans, angry or ashamed at themself for being so let down, or simply sad that they didn’t get what they want.
A character crying because they are disappointed is likely to be pouty and subdued, but they are also likely to exhibit many of the same behaviors as angry, sad, or embarrassed crying. They might hide away, start yelling, or seek comfort from others. It all depends on the character, the situation, and what went wrong.
After being disappointed, a character is probably going to be thinking about what happened long after the situation is over with. Disappointment is a slow-burn emotion, and your character is probably going to feel pretty bummed out for a while even after they stop crying.
Frustration is an overwhelming emotion, and crying because of it can often worsen that initial frustration. Often, frustration is the result of a character getting fed up with their own inability to achieve something, whether that’s beating a hard stage in a game, convincing someone of something in a debate, or being able to overcome their personal struggles.
Characters become frustrated when something they worked hard for isn’t working out. When this pushes a character to tears, they might start behaving angrily, or their behavior could mirror that of sad crying. Often, a character who is frustrated will lash out violently, hit or throw things, and then sit down to cry. This pattern is almost always followed: the character lashes out to release their initial frustration, then gives up and begins to cry more passively. It is also common for a person to harm themself when they lash out, such as by pulling their hair or hitting something too hard.
Frustration can feel like an eruption of emotion. It builds up over time and is then released all at once. This can lead characters to start crying suddenly, with very little warning before it happens.
Panic can bring a character to tears in the blink of an eye. When a character loses something they treasure, finds themself in an unsafe place, or encounters a person who has harmed them in the past, they may begin to panic. Past trauma is a common reason many characters have for breaking down into panicked tears, but characters with anxiety and panic disorders can experience panic attacks with no clear triggers.
When a character is panic crying, they are going to be hyperventilating, and they may have a frenzied look, pace around wildly, rock back and forth, or clutch onto someone or something for comfort (or protection). They are also likely to scream, shriek, or whimper. In a lot of ways, this type of crying manifests very similarly to scared crying, but with much more restless energy.
Panic is an emotion that can overshadow all other emotions and rational thought. A panicking character will feel numb and lightheaded, and they may have a difficult time staying upright without someone or something to lean on. They may have a difficult time stringing words into a coherent sentence, and they’ll likely have a much harder time thinking of solutions to problems, formulating complex thoughts, and rationalizing their behavior.
Panic isn’t just experienced; it takes over a character’s thoughts and behavior completely.
Hopelessness is a straight path to tears. When a character believes that nothing matters, they cannot save the world (or their loved ones), or that they simply cannot go on the way they have been living, they may begin to cry hopelessly.
Hopeless crying goes beyond sadness. When a character is feeling truly hopeless, they may become lifeless, apathetic, or even downright catatonic. They will not bother to wipe away tears, so make a point to draw attention to the tears dripping off the end of their nose or splattering on different surfaces. Many surfaces, such as clothing, wood, and concrete, change color when they are wet, so if your character is crying onto a surface like that, you could also comment on the dark spots that appear with each tear that slips off the character’s face.
A character who is feeling hopeless may feel as if they are alone in their struggles, and they can’t do everything themself. They may feel as if they have been abandoned, let down, or held back, and that they are powerless. This sense of powerlessness can cause a character to simply give up and shut down, leading to hopeless crying.
Writing Dialogue when a Character is Crying
When writing dialogue for a character who is crying, it is important to remember to not go overboard. Once you have established that the character is crying, you shouldn’t have to do much extra work with the dialogue to further convince your readers of that. With that said, if you just type dialogue completely normally, that may come across as jarring if the tone doesn’t match how the character is feeling.
The best way to indicate that a character is crying as they are speaking is to break the dialogue up to slow it down. One way you can do that is with the use of ellipses, like this:
“I don’t know… Maybe it’s just… better this way.”
However, this is really easy to overdo. Make sure you read your dialogue out loud to ensure that the pauses sound natural for the character who is speaking.
Another option is to break up the dialogue with narration that reflects the other things the character is doing as they are speaking. These interruptions are called “action beats,” and they are a helpful little tool for controlling the pace at which your readers move through dialogue. Here’s an example of a beat in dialogue, using the same example as above:
“I don’t know,” Nate sighed, pausing to wipe his nose on his sleeve. “Maybe it’s just better this way.”
You might be tempted to misspell words as the character is speaking to emphasize the fact that they are slurring words together as they cry, but do not do that. Either state that the character is slurring their words, or that the other characters had difficulty understanding them. Misspelling words to look slurred is awkward, and it almost never feels authentic. Not to mention, that can make it difficult for readers whose first language isn’t the one you’re writing in.
How to Describe a Character Trying Not to Cry
Sometimes, a character who feels compelled to cry may want to hold it in, either because they are afraid of what others would think, too proud to be seen crying, or because it isn’t socially acceptable in a particular setting. If you can show your readers how your character is fighting back tears, instead of simply telling them that, the scene will be much more emotionally charged.
When a character is trying not to cry, they may employ several techniques to try to keep the tears from coming. Here are some options you can use to indicate that a character is trying not to cry:
- They could avoid eye contact with others, or look upward or downward. Alternatively, they could close their eyes.
- They could focus on keeping their breathing steady and slow, so much so that they miss what others say to them.
- Their face may become red.
- They may avoid speaking, out of fear that their voice could crack.
- They may bite their lip, fidget with something, or seek other sensory distractions such as chewing on something, picking at their nails, or humming.
- They may try to hide their sadness by expressing a different emotion, such as anger or happiness.
- They may try to think of something else to distract themself.
Remember to keep the character’s personality, and their reason for being upset, in mind as you are writing this scene. No two characters are going to react to the same situation in the same way. In addition to that, the same character who would ordinarily stay quiet in one situation may lash out violently in a different one.
How to Describe Fake Crying
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may have characters who aren’t upset, but want (or need) to shed tears anyway. People have many reasons for wanting to fake tears, including connecting with others, expressing remorse, getting attention, or getting themself out of trouble. However, the most common reason people have for fake crying is manipulation. It’s much easier to get someone to do something for you if you shed a few tears first.
Here are some quick examples of things you can include to show that a character is fake crying:
- They may squeeze their eyes shut tightly, trying to force out tears.
- They’ll likely scrunch up their face, and exaggerate their expression to look sad (such as pulling down the corners of their mouth, pulling their eyebrows closer together, and potentially pouting their lips).
- Their nose will not be running, and they won’t have any difficulty with breathing. If they want to be convincing, they will have to consciously sniffle and force their breathing into a more irregular pattern. However, their sniffles won’t sound the same without their nose running, so keep that in mind.
- They are likely to hide their face with their hands since it will take them much longer to produce tears—if they can manage to do that at all.
- They are much more likely to wail, cry, mumble, or make any other distressed noise than someone who is actually crying.
- They will be working harder at keeping their performance consistent, while someone who is actually crying may express a variety of other emotions as they try to get a grip on themself. It’s not uncommon for someone who is genuinely upset to express nervousness, fear, anger, and even a smile.
- They will exaggerate everything they do to try to be more convincing.
- They will be able to stop “crying” suddenly, whereas someone who is actually upset is going to need some time to pull themself together.
If your story is told from the perspective of the character who is faking tears, or from an omniscient perspective, then you have an additional advantage. You could give readers insight into what the character is thinking, which you could utilize in a couple of different ways. You could be explicit, and simply show readers that the character is thinking of how to be more convincing, or you could simply show that their thoughts are clear and unrelated to what they should be upset about. Even if you don’t state it, your readers should be able to figure out that the character is faking if you give them enough clues.
Write Crying Realistically
The most important thing to keep in mind when you are writing about characters crying is that strong emotions are not pretty. No one looks good when they are crying—they just don’t.
Here are some examples of things that happen when a character cries:
- Their face will be red and scrunched up.
- Their nose will be running.
- They’ll be sweaty.
- Their eyes will be bloodshot and puffy.
- They’ll produce more saliva.
- Their glasses may fog up.
- Tears (and snot) will get on everything.
- Their voice will crack, change pitch, and rasp.
- They may stutter or become incoherent.
- They may drool.
When you’re describing a character crying, don’t be afraid of making your readers a bit uncomfortable. Crying is gross, so that’s how you should describe it if you want to do so realistically. If you want more tips about portraying emotion (or anything else) realistically, you should check out Show, Don’t Tell: What it is and How to Write it.
Finally, I’ll end with one last piece of advice. Your character’s reactions to different situations and events can reveal a lot about them. If they overreact in a particular situation, such as encountering a rude stranger, getting lost, or misplacing their phone, you can use that to reveal more about the character’s past. Their reaction to a rude stranger could reveal that they were hurt by someone in the past, while breaking down at the notion of being lost could suggest that they struggle with anxiety. Utilize those reactions to help you tell their story.
Best of luck with your stories, writers!