Previously, I had no difficulty in showing a scene like that, and as for me, to show a crying scene I'd write something like "then a teardrop rolled by her cheek". However, I had read an article from a respected writer (I can't remember who) saying how sentimentalism is bad for a story, and used as an example a crying scene, and said that writing something like "then a teardrop rolled by her cheek" is too sentimental, however, this writer didn't tell how it should be written without sentimentalism, which is hard, because the act of crying is itself something sentimental, making it not sentimental I would be telling, not showing.

And that's what I want to know: how to show (not tell) a crying or sad scene without using sentimentalism?

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    Tears of despondency slowly cascaded down my cheeks leaving me so weak and frail.
    – Valerie
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 2:27

9 Answers 9


The problem with sentimentalism is not that it's sentimental. But that it often results in cliche.

This is a sample of non-cliched sentimentalism:

"Once that first tear broke free, the rest followed in an unbroken stream. Naoko bent forward where she sat on the floor and pressing her palms to the mat, she began to cry with the force of a person vomiting on all fours."

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami.

As you can see there are tears in this passage, but the part that says "she began to cry with the force of a person vomiting on all fours" (not sure about you, but I've never seen crying being described like this before) removes the cliche and instead of sentimentalism, we have a very strong image.

So, sentimentalism isn't bad. In fact, the main reason we read stories is to feel sentimental, to let our feelings take over.


This is another example:


(I was going to explain what Final Fantasy is but then I saw your profile photo.)

This is a scene from FFVII: Crisis Core. Cloud's friend Zack dies and gives him his sword. It's sentimental. And cliched. The part that removes the cliche is Cloud's scream. It's not your typical "Noooooo!" or "Whyyy?!". He screams like he's being ripped off or murdered (again, this is the first time I see something like this). And that, in my opinion, is what makes it a good scene.

  • Well, as I can see, the writers/scriptwriters that write a sentimental scene but don't want it to be a cliche scene, they accomplish that by putting something unusual to this type of situation, either words, or the reactions of a character (as in Cloud's case, screaming as if his arms are being cut off).
    – Yuuza
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 21:34
  • So now I understand, the problem isn't the sentimentalism itself (that is impossible to prevent in some cases), but the cliche that comes along. The quality of the scene, or even the whole story, is determined by the writer's skill to manage this.
    – Yuuza
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 21:34

There are three questions you can ask yourself when writing a scene where you intend to convey emotion:

1) How often have I seen this phrase used?
If it's something you've seen a lot of, it's probably a cliche and is likely to be read as overly sentimental. If too cliched, it can even distract the reader from what you are trying to convey. (If I NEVER read about how 'a single tear rolled down her face' again....)

2) Could this description be used to convey a different emotion or different context?
Your character just 'sniffed and wiped her eyes, while trying to smile.' Is she reminicing about an old flame? Watching Beaches on her DVD while telling a friend how much she loves this movie? Did she just win an academy award and is thanking all the people who supported her? Or is she glad that someone just gave her more medication for hayfever?

And in my opinion, the most important:
3) Is it 'pretty'?
Sentimentality is pretty; strong emotions rarely are. Imagine the difference between the female lead crying in a movie, as compared to someone crying in real life. When someone cries, their face gets red and blotchy, their eyes bloodshot, and their eyelids puffy, none of which are attractive. They get a lump in their throat; their voice cracks when they try to speak. They scrub or blow their nose so they don't end up with snot running down their face. Their breath stutters when they try to take a deep breath. While an adult's reaction is likely to be more subdued in most cases (1), it can be helpful to use a search engine to look up images of babies and children crying (or whichever emotion you are trying to convey). It may also help to consider how an adult is subduing a strong display of emotion, rather than trying to 'emotionalize' a subdued display.

(1) Does not include events such as Superbowl or World Series victories by the adult's favorite team.

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    +1 for #3. Make it ugly, it would add some real feel to the narration.
    – Lew
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 22:18

The probem with a cliché is not what happens but how you describe it.

People cry. Even protagonists cry. And tears do roll down people's cheeks when they cry. This is not a cliché, it is a fact, and it is not rare either but a frequent occurence.

Any advice that tells you not to write about what happens frequently in real ife is bad advice.

Cliché happens when you use an image to describe something that has been used so often to describe this that we are tired of it.

What you need to do, to avoid cliché, is not find uncommon events to describe, but uncommon descriptions to common events.

Look at those aspects of crying that have not been described before. For example, instead of the tear, describe the trace it leaves on the skin: like the trace of a slug on a leaf, or like rain on a dusty pane, etc. (Use an image that tells us more about the character or situation.) Or describe how the person seeing this feels about this or what they think: e.g. how they are surprised that while they are sad they still enjoy the feeling of the tears running down their cheeks and the taste of salt on their lips. Be creative with this.

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    Or, when a clichéd description is used because ti seems expected and not because it lends any useful description for the event or scene. Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 4:08

I'm thinking it would be kind of easier if it was the protagonist experiencing someone else in that situation. In that sense if they were in a situation (for example) where the protagonist was the best friend, of a girl who had just been dumped, not only would you have to describe her crying but the gestures she makes as well as the gestures the protagonist makes ( Oh, and metaphors help HEAPS .)

For example:

It was painful to see her like this. All I could do was embrace her and let the torrent of her tears to soak through my shirt. I could feel her clench her fists, not knowing whether to be mad or to give up hope all together. I could hear her silently screaming, suffocating with each breath she took holding onto her pride. I ran my fingers through her hair, time and time again, in an attempt to calm the silent war within her mind.

(That's not necessarily much good; I just wrote it in the spur of the moment.)

You need to take into consideration the type of character this person is. It sounds a little weird but everyone cries differently... like, they might be annoyed that they're crying, so they try to stop, but it makes it worse. Or in this case, they're angry, so their tears are described as a "torrent" because, well, a torrent or (if you want) an avalanche is destructive - a natural hazard which, if you get what I mean, seems "angry"... (I'm sorry if that doesn't make sense)

Also know that:

A person doesn't just "cry," so the way you describe how their tears fall needs to in some way reflect the situation they're in.

Someone may be crying out of happiness, crying out of anger, crying out of disappointment...

I'll give an example for each to make that easier to understand:


It was the best day of my life. My tears overflowed with joy and fell just like the bouquet that I had thrown.

Anger: (just like before)

She tried to hold back the seething torrent/avalanche of tears that had been building up since the moment she had been angered.


Mot even the steady stream of liquid trickling down my face could cure my thirst for her. After all, she loved him, not me...

anyways yeah...I hoped that helped :)



in an embarrassing situation, for example a bully at school, you could say "I had to blink back tears"

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    Helen, welcome to Writers beta. You may want to have a look at our site tour if you haven't already. We prefer answers that are longer and more comprehensive; would you care to expand on this? If not, I can change this into a comment for you. (New users can't leave comments, but keep answering questions and you'll have enough rep to leave comments yourself in no time.) Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 1:29

It depends on whether it's the protagonist or non-protagonist is crying. I wouldn't think it's effective to have the protagonist crying.

I haven't done a lot of crying scene, but the ones I have done I have underplayed so much in order to emphasize the inner pain. Crying works best when the protagonist is observing someone else cry. In my opinion the sad or tragic dimension can be revealed by attitude, not by explicitly saying that a character is crying.

If you think about it, every story has its own dose of sadness. You don't need crying to call attention to that fact.

If the crying is interrupting a dialogue, I would make the dialogue really short, have the cry interrupt things, and then switch to third person limited omniscient to get reactions. The scene with the crying needs to be short and use as little dialogue as possible.

I did one particularly effective crying scene. Boyfriend and girlfriend have a serious fight; the girlfriend is incredibly angry, but then they step into a bar with a talented blues player singing. I describe the girl's feeling of isolation during the show and how the boyfriend can see the pain on her face and feels helpless about it. I never say that she is crying, but the reader must surely realize it.

By the way, a lot of the pitfalls for crying scenes apply to sex scenes. You don't need to show the outbursts. You just need to present the sequence of events and if you do it right, the readers will already be in the same emotional state and you won't need to say much about crying because the reader will already feel it.

Offtopic: I'm trying to think about crying scenes which are effective. I'm thinking of the scene in My Antonia where Antonia's father dies a terrible death, and young Antonia is certain to be heartbroken. Willa Cather devotes an entire chapter to telling how the news spread and how funeral arrangements needed to be made. In a way Willa Cather was preparing the reader emotionally for the encounter with Antonia and her distraught family. In the next chapter http://www.gutenberg.org/files/242/242-h/242-h.htm#link2H_4_0018 Chapter 16 (which just breaks my heart -- and I encourage you to read it because it's short), we have the protagonist meet Antonia for the first time since the father's death. Willa Cather mentions crying in just a single sentence!

When grandmother and I went into the Shimerdas' house, we found the womenfolk alone; Ambrosch and Marek were at the barn. Mrs. Shimerda sat crouching by the stove, Antonia was washing dishes. When she saw me, she ran out of her dark corner and threw her arms around me. 'Oh, Jimmy,' she sobbed, 'what you tink for my lovely papa!' It seemed to me that I could feel her heart breaking as she clung to me.


Dr Salinger's approach shadowed over Maria, who was more than ready to shake him for answers. She'd waited over two hours of silence and growing dread for anything on Dad. But when the man hesitated and the lines on his face deepened, she froze in her tracks. Yet, she heard herself ask, "Is he..." Then the words sunk down into her chest at the pitiful shake of his head. The "I'm sorry" that followed choked her breath from her lungs, and suddenly he towered over her.

What did he say?

She clutched at the gold cross hanging from the chain. It pressed white-hot against her skin. Each gasp tore down her throat and her mind raced even as she lost herself in the storm. But Dad was just fine last night! Didn't Salinger see it? Didn't he see Dad eager to get up and go? She watched the game with him, laughed when he spilled Ginger-ale at a touchdown of his favorite team.

No. He couldn't be gone. Not when he promised her he'd fight, dammit! She pounded the cold floor. Hissed a breath through clenched teeth. But the strength left her, even as she attempted to stand. Her throat held back something between a sob and a shout. She had to see him. Through the blur of motion and color she followed the doctor. She would see him. And say goodbye.

(what you want to do is basically set the scene and describe the event in your character's view point. Use enough detail to convey what's going on without going too detailed. Hope this helps.))

  • Hi, welcome to the club. Unlike the most sites devoted to the craft, this one favors "telling" (and explaining, why) over "showing"--just for future reference. "set the scene and describe the event in your character's view point" is pretty much how most of the fiction is written, you have to be a little more specific :-)
    – Lew
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 22:30

Find a non-cliche way of showing that she was crying. I always think back to Updike's comment about Salinger:

"In an ardently admiring piece on Salinger years back, Updike confessed a misgiving about the Glass family that is difficult to gainsay. He quoted Seymour quoting R. H. Blyth's definition of sentimentality: 'We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.' There is Salinger's error, said Updike: he gives to the Glasses more love than God does." [New York Times 09/13/98]

Crying doesn't have to be sentimental. You just need to find a new way of describing it.


Andy vaulted onto his bed, the pillow hugging his face accepting his torment. Once the first tear got away, the rest followed it, creating a huge pool on his pillow. His lungs rummaged for oxygen, and his sobbing had the same force of someone drowning. The flesh under his ribcage throbbed, his cheeks burned, and his mind created memories and scenarios that made the tears continue.

  • Heya Karack! Welcome to Writers.SE :) We're a little unusual for a writing site, in that we're all about Q&A - the site takes a little bit of getting used to. I wanted to comment because you've given a fine example of how the original poster's scene might be rewritten -- but there's a larger question in the original post that Bruno's asking about. You've given an example of how one might write, but you don't really explain what you've done, why it works, what Bruno can do in the future.
    – Standback
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 8:35
  • That doesn't make this a bad answer - it demonstrates some good advice! But if you take a look at other answers here, they usually have examples and advice, which can make them more helpful.
    – Standback
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 8:37
  • So, welcome! Hang around a bit, browse the site, get to know it, and you'll catch on to the nuances as you go along. We've got a fairly complex system here, but don't be afraid to make mistakes - that's fine, and part of learning the territory :)
    – Standback
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 8:38

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