Emotion In Storytelling: Catharsis and Crying

Does a story (especially a movie) that makes us cry really offer an audience cathartic healing? Researchers say not. Studies show no improvement in mood after this kind of crying.

Professor Jennie Hudson is the director at the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University in Sydney, and told Jesse Mulligan at RNZ that after this kind of crying, most people report either no change in mood or a slightly worse mood than before. So much for catharsis.

Slovenly Peter, or, Cheerful stories and funny pictures for good little folks illustrated by Hoffman Heinrich
“The Cry-Baby” is a ‘humorous’ story from Slovenly Peter, or, Cheerful stories and funny pictures for good little folks illustrated by Hoffman Heinrich. In this country, in this era, even girls are discouraged from crying.

So why do others report an improvement in mood after crying, in general? Professor Hudson explains that it’s all about what you do during and after your crying session. If the crying leads to increased connection with others, then your mood will improve accordingly. Crying has the evolutionary function of improving social bonds, so long as the people around the crying individual respond in a helpful way to the expression of vulnerability.

Another factor in reported improvements of mood after crying: Holding the tears when all you want to do is cry definitely makes difficult emotions feel worse. The research is clear on that.

Marianne Stokes - A Tearful Child
Marianne Stokes, Austria, London, “A Tearful Child”


The gender gap is especially interesting.

Women cry on average 2-5 times per month. This wasn’t surprising to me, as the cultural narrative shows that women cry often.

Men cry on average once every two months. This statistic surprised Professor Hudson, and also surprised me.

A few years ago I read the first of Larry McMurtry’s Houston novels, Moving On. (Terms of Endearment is the most famous of that series.) What really started to irritate me as I ploughed my way through this gigantic novel: A few of the female characters were constantly crying, especially Patsy Carpenter. It really is constant. It feels like a writer’s tic, like Stieg Larsson and his coffee drinking characters.

I am far from the first to notice McMurtry’s tendency to write female characters who cry. When asked, he said that as far as he was concerned, when he writes women who cry frequently he is writing social realism. Growing up, he was surrounded by women who cried.

By the by, McMurtry has also said this:

What is guaranteed to make you laugh? Human foibles.

What is guaranteed to make you cry? Women.

What does this mean for storytellers? I put it to you that readers don’t have much time for characters who cry on the page. Most storytellers have heard a variant on the following advice:

When the character cries, the reader doesn’t have to. … That is, if all the emotion is spelled out in the scene, then there’s nothing for the reader to DO, no interaction, no addition. The reader becomes a spectator, not a participant.

Harold von Schmidt (American, 1893 - 1982), Forgiven, Cosmopolitan illustration 1926
Harold von Schmidt (American, 1893 – 1982), ‘Forgiven’, Cosmopolitan illustration 1926. The title of this piece changes my read of it. Who is being forgiven here, and for what?

We are scared of inadvertenly writing melodrama (despite the fact that melodrama is far more common and popular than most are prepared to admit). Also, as film critic Roger Ebert noted in himself, it was most often kindness that made him cry in a story, not simply watching a character be sad. So there is definitely an element of truth to this writing advice.

That aside, is it really true that people cry in shifts? If a character is crying, do we really think we don’t have to? Is there another evolutionary adaptation going on here, in which people rallying around a crying person spring into action rather than sympathy crying (in the same sense as ‘sympathy vomiting’)?

Arthur Hughes - A Passing Cloud
Arthur Hughes – A Passing Cloud


Although Larry McMurtry’s Patsy Carpenter annoyed the hell out of me because of all her on-the-page crying, research findings suggest McMurtry was in fact writing social realism. Unlike most writers, he chose to include the crying. Storytellers always leave things out — going to the toilet, travelling from A to B. It should be noted that McMurtry has also written men who cry, especially in his book from the same series, unsurprisingly called Duane’s Depressed. However, the macho men of McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove do not cry. (None of them are on-the-page queer either, another unbelievable omission.)

After learning that men cry once every couple of months I conclude that fictional male characters cry nowhere nearly enough. If men really are crying this often, and if writers put male fictional characters through their paces, as they always do, then we should see a lot more on-the-page crying, especially from our masculo-coded characters, and especially in stories reaching for realism.

Before that happens, we need to have a few cultural reckonings about crying and empathy and likeability. Alain de Botton points out that we love people when we know their vulnerabilities and accept them regardless, not because we admire their strengths. Do we apply this to fictional characters, too?

Captain Awkward offers the following, relevant to this discussion because crying is an expression of strong emotion in general (not just sadness and grief):

The assumption that whoever cares the most or feels the most strongly about something can’t possibly ever be the most right about it has got to go.

Header painting: Sorrow 1912 Theodor Kittelsen

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