Make your reader feel something

Writing with a good degree of sentimentality is a tricky thing for any writer to do well. There is a fine line to walk between being sickeningly sweet and turning your back on emotion altogether. These two pitfalls, which we see regularly, are:

  1. Writing for sentimentality’s sake. Here, the writer seems more concerned about the effect on the reader than the content of the story. The images used to convey emotion are carefully constructed, yet the reader is aware of the construction. The danger is they feel that the writer is trying to ingratiate themselves. This can cause a negative reaction to scenes that the writer has expected to have a certain emotional effect. One common example is in scenes which are clearly intended to be tearjerkers, when in fact the audience may roll their eyes at the blatant attempts to pull their emotions this way and that, and in the most extreme cases turn them off the plot and characters altogether. This all sounds very bleak, but let’s not forget the other side.
  2. Being so plot focused that you forget characterisation. Here we have the two-dimensional pieces that are too involved in plot, when in fact it could take a crazy turn but the reader couldn’t care less. This may be because we are propelled into bizarre scenarios where details are necessary for the reader’s understanding (for example, describing another world). Still, even in plot-driven stories there needs to be a connection with the character. Very often this is created through comedic or solemn frustrations that are universally identifiable, even when the event being described is fantastical. An excellent example of this is in 'The Barber of Mars Base 1' in our upcoming Issue 8, where the character is on Mars (which none of us can relate to) but he is frustrated with a computer not doing what he wants and needs it to do (which I am sure many of us can relate to). In other cases, this is through sentimentality which forms a close link between the reader and those characters they care about.

A story we published in Issue 7, ‘Like Art’ illustrates sentimentality written at its best.

There may be some spoilers coming up so, if you haven't already, you can read the story in the digital edition of Issue 7 here.

'Like Art' illustration by Aurélia A in Issue 7

'Like Art' illustration by Aurélia A in Issue 7

This piece achieves a lot in a short word count and makes the reader feel strongly for three characters: the protagonist, his ailing wife and his daughter.

On first approach, it may seem like the theme of illness and familial relations would verge on the first pitfall above. However, in writing this Shaun Bossio walked the line between content and emotion carefully and deliberately.

He did this by focusing on the setting and the loving memories this created, rather than on feelings of sadness. The content picks up on many iconic landmarks that are part of their lives, mentioning them in a casual way which adds to the romance of the story. This was subtle and it did not feel like he was trying to shove romance down our throats. Rather, his focus was on life, love and vitality.

Love and vitality were carefully constructed through his relationships, moving from wife to daughter and back again, and the subtle link between the beginning and end of these relationships. Throughout the story, the daughter did what her mother had done years before with the energy and vigour of youth. The contrast with the situation surrounding her mother’s current illness was stark, but Bossio did not explicitly state that the reader should draw this comparison; he just laid his story out clearly, which guided the reader towards it.

In turn, this made the instability of life all the more poignant and bittersweet. This was especially true as the transitory nature of the vitality of the daughter was highlighted by her mother’s situation, and the strong parallels drawn between mother and daughter throughout. In my opinion, the ultimate demise of the energetic and innocent daughter was all too clear. Likewise, the repetitive use of ‘Like art’ to encapsulate beauty in different contexts creates a strong bond between mother and daughter.

The illness was a backdrop to the story but it was not all-consuming. Much stronger was the pattern of life. By recreating the moment when he and his wife met, he and his daughter ensure the story goes in a complete arc from beginning to end. The fact this end (of his wife’s life) mimics the beginning she had with him is extremely moving in its own right.

So this story was carefully structured to tie many themes together, involving both hope and sadness, and it was only 470 words long. A lot can be crafted in a small space, and few words can stay with a reader for a long time to come.

We realise it is not easy to get this right and every writer, even the most successful, will sometimes fail to get the right balance. The first step to mastering the art of sentimentality is to realise the pitfalls. The second is to find a piece that you find particularly powerful. Take a step back and be analytical to assess why it worked for you, much like I have tried to do here with ‘Like Art’. The best techniques can be used across genres. So use them! Be creative, let others – people who are likely to be honest – read your work and ask them what effect it had. And remember, to fail at first is the one way to progress and ultimately succeed.