My former mentor, Hester Kaplan, taught a wonderful lecture on how writers can get their readers to feel the characters' emotions without being sentimental about it. What's the difference between sentiment and sentimentality? Namely that sentimentality makes you feel something through the use of the narrator's voice not through the characters/events of the story, and sentiment means you feel something legitimately through experiencing the characters/events of the story. Sentiment creates a thought or view that arises out of good descriptions and characters, whereas sentimentality manipulates the reader's emotions through highly charged imagery that ellicits unearned feelings.
How do you avoid sentimentality but ellicit sentiment?
1- Use specific images and situations, not general/abstract ones.
2- Don't rely on adjectives
3- Don't rely on cliches or hackneyed subject matter
4- Don't tell the reader what to feel, let him/her experience feelings along with the character.
5- Use events/images that surprise your reader.
An exercise: Write about falling in love in a way that is not sentimental. I will tackle this in a future post.