Sentimentality is Unearned Emotion

Sentimentality in fiction is generally considered something to be avoided. I’m thinking, for example, of the advice Laurie Alberts gives in her book Showing and Telling, though I’m sure similar advice would be given by any writing instructor. Sentimentality is cheap, and particularly if used at the end of a book, gives it an overall saccharine feel that detracts its impact.

This much is obvious, but what isn’t is how to actually deal with it. In this regard, Alberts’ advice is surprisingly shallow. We’re told to avoid sentimentality. Ok, how do we do that? Alberts doesn’t really say.

That’s the question I want to address here. But first, I believe the problem needs to be reframed. I will attempt to define sentimentality in a way that I believe leads to greater insight about its nature, and then having done that, suggest a way forward to avoiding it in our writing.

Sentimentality, in my view, is most helpfully defined as unearned emotion. Let’s unpack those words, starting from the end and working backwards:

Emotion is pretty much what you’d expect: happiness, anger, sadness, fear, etc. But note that in the context of sentimentality, we usually mean the extreme forms of emotion. A hint of sadness does not qualify as sentimental. But extreme sadness, such as at the death of a loved one, might.

What does it mean for emotion to be unearned? I think the best way to show this is with an analogy.

Suppose I write a book that ends in a climactic fight scene. In it, the plucky protagonist defeats the evil overlord by using their agility and strength to (barely) outmaneuver the villain. Ok, fair enough. But now suppose that in the first 90% of the book our protagonist is a couch potato. They’ve never actually exercised a day in their life. They never lift weights. They never train. If this is the protagonist who goes on to defeat the villain, then the ending of the book will feel like a massive non sequitur. It will feel fake because it wasn’t earned.

Here’s the thing: whatever climax you choose for your book, you need to earn it. That means showing the protagonist making progress towards their goal. There can be backsliding. There can be setbacks. But for the most part, there should be some sort of regular progress, showing the character improving along the axis that you need for the ending to feel real.

I would suggest that the same basic principle applies to emotion. Emotion is the reward you give the reader for finishing the book. If it’s a tragedy, you show the character finally succumbing to their circumstances. If instead the book has a happy ending, you show their joy and elation. Both in the physical circumstances as well as the emotional ones, you can’t simply jump to the end. You have to show how a character gets there.

So for example, if someone dies at the end of the book, that death should be foreshadowed. Foreshadowing is the promise you make to readers about what’s going to happen later on. It allows readers to feel the continuity of the story, to feel that the story has structure and is not just a random sequence of unrelated events. If something tragic happens at the end of the book, readers generally like to be prepared for that so it doesn’t come on them (at least entirely) by surprise. That could be a smaller setback that occurs earlier (but is somehow representative of what is to come), or a reference to a tragedy that happened in the main character’s backstory, or perhaps an “unrelated” tragedy that occurs to a secondary character, or a “chance” discussion about a dangerous possibility that the main character fears.

It may be tempting to skip foreshadowing to make the ending “unexpected.” After all, you’re telegraphing what’s going to happen in advance. But I think this doesn’t actually work—instead, readers will think your ending comes out of nowhere and therefore feels like a non sequitur, rather than clever. Good authors manage to foreshadow, even when the ending feels unexpected1.

Foreshadowing is good but it’s not enough. The emotional ending, whatever it is, needs to be developed. Think of the way you’d develop the plot for the book. The character sets a goal, makes an attempt, and fails. Rinse and repeat. Each time, they get a little bit better, and build skills that contribute toward that final confrontation with the villain. In the same way, emotions can be developed. In Hamlet, Shakespeare did not simply jump from the initial foreshadowing to the end. He developed the plot, showing Hamlet’s struggle escalating before we reach the tragic ending.

And this brings me to a final point. It is ok to write highly emotional endings. Emotion is fine, even good, for an ending. But it needs to be earned. Hamlet works as well as it does because of the masterful skill Shakespeare uses to earn the emotional ending. Most of us are not, of course, anywhere near as skilled as Shakespeare, but we can still strive to earn the emotions in our books and deliver satisfaction to our readers.

To summarize, sentimentality is unearned emotion. Emotion is one element of the ending of a book that needs to earned. As with other elements of a climax, it is earned by foreshadowing and development.

  1. While I still need to do more research, I have a theory about how authors pull this off. The key is distraction. Like a good magic trick, a plot twist may get paraded out right in front of readers’ faces. But they don’t expect the twist because something else occurs to distract them at the moment the twist is initially revealed. This creates a deeper continuity later on when readers realize the twist, because it’s been there the entire time. The final reveal of the twist is more of a reminder to readers of what was already there, rather than a presentation of something entirely new.↩︎