Read it and Weep!

4 March 2013

From author and former writing professor, Dave Farland:

A few years ago, a young man won a short story competition for Reader’s Digest—two years in a row. This was a remarkable accomplishment, given the size of the contests. When asked how he had done it, the writer responded with something like, “It’s easy. The story that makes them cry the most, wins!”

He’s right. I’ve spoken to many an editor who will admit that the story that has the strongest emotional payoff is the most likely to be chosen for publication or for awards. You see, a tale should not be judged “objectively.” It’s meant to be a subjective experience, to arouse emotions.

Yet as writers we are often trained to back away from situations that honestly elicit tears. We don’t want to be accused of being maudlin.

I’ve seen the value of drawing tears myself. With my novel In the Company of Angels, when I was having my editors read it, I got several calls from my final editors. These were people that I was paying, and they both pleaded for more time to finish the edit because they were “crying too hard to see the page.” The problem was, they weren’t even near the end. So I watched my wife; sure enough, I kept her crying continually during most of the last 140 pages. I don’t think that it was coincidental that the novel won the Whitney Award for Best Novel of the Year, when competing against many other fine books. The story that makes ‘em cry the most, wins.

. . . .

You will notice that at the “climax” of a story, very often we have a “reversal,” a moment where it appears that the villain has won, but where the protagonist finds a way to turn the tables and pull victory from the jaws of defeat. I used to wonder why those reversals felt so necessary, until it struck me: a good reversal multiplies the number of tears that the reader must release. We may cry tears of frustration, shared agony, dread, relief, and joy—all within a few pages. When that happens, we as readers feel cleansed inside.

Link to the rest at David Farland

David Farland, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

28 Comments to “Read it and Weep!”

  1. So true! I love emotional books or anything really. It’s no secret that the Budweiser commercial with the baby Clydesdale was a hit because it tugged on the heartstrings. I showed it to a coworker the day after the Superbowl. Her eyes welled up and she had to brush away tears. I would have laughed, but it almost did the same to me. It would have if I hadn’t been distracted the first time I saw it, so kind of ruined the emotional impact.

    That said, I don’t know if my books have made people cry. They have made people feel emotionally invested in the character and feel the emotions he was feeling. I think I should have given my character a dog in the beginning of the book, so that when he finally returned home from his hardship, the nail in the coffin would have been the death of his beloved canine companion. That would have been sure to draw tears. Hindsight and all that…;-P

  2. The fact that I do this is what stops me from writing really popular stroke books, I think. I don’t always do it, but I do it often enough that my books don’t always fit in the stroke book category and they have too much adult content to fit in any other category.

    I shall have to build my *own* drawer.

  3. There is even a trope for this:

    “At the end of the story, this very special best friend is abruptly killed off, usually in a clear-cut case of Diabolus ex Machina. This trope is so pervasive, some readers expect that the most lovable character won’t get to see the end of a critically acclaimed work of fiction.”

    In short, if you want to win awards, kill off the cute puppy. Because why the hell would anyone read happy books? They are clearly commercial sellouts. We all know that True Art is Angsty:

    “In the given story, the experts have spoken! Only the grimmest of tragedies can effectively explore the fragility of human life, the crushing agony of love and regret, and other life-defining themes, such as why mommy never really loved you and the ultimate futility of happiness. Anything with an unambiguously Happy Ending is a piece of cheap boring commercial tripe or even propaganda.”

  4. Heh, it’s probably why I get stuff thrown at me when people read my stories. I don’t like happy endings. People cry. I win awards. I knew there was a reason!

  5. Well, then it sucks to be me. Because while I will absolutely kill off a character if the story demands it–I did in my current novel–I’m a sucker for happy endings. No awards for me!

    • I like happy endings too!

      Tense and difficult and maybe even sad in the middle, yes. But not the end. 😀

    • Me too. And I really don’t enjoy cry-fest types of stories. Some of them are good, but most strike me as fake, and without any real heart.

      I can handle a sad ending more easily if there’s some humor and balance in the rest of the story. I don’t find those often, though.

  6. It’s too easy to kill a dog as a plot point.

  7. I love that article from Dave. I’m crying right now.


  8. This is so sad, but true.

    Sometimes I write humor. Occasionally, I even write humor that’s funny. But I’ve come to the sad realization that even if I reach the pinnacles of hilarity, no awards will be there waiting for me.

    It’s sad. So very, very sad.

    So, instead I’m going to write a book about the terrible sadness of the humorist. Then I’ll win the Pulitzer.

  9. And yet romance, with its required happy ending, outsells every other genre. So you have to ask yourself which is better: accolades for writing a tear jerker, or laughing all the way to the bank.

  10. Mira is right.
    I stopped reading anything that could be considered an animal book for over 20 years because the dog or other animal always got killed or might as well have for all the happiness they managed to get. Finally after about 3 years into my post college library life I had gotten in the nominees for our state children’s book award and thought ok things are bound to have changed. Opened the book, the first thing that happened was this “quality” brand new book fell completely out of the binding but I checked the ending before sending it back in – sure enough the dog bit the dust. It was another 20 years or so before I read another – Marley and Me (death after a long and happy life equals lots of tears but thats ok)

    I am an end of the book checker – which drives friends crazy – I want reasonably happy endings and refuse to waste life reading a book I will want to toss in the garbage. This doesn’t mean I don’t bawl my eyes out getting there. But I do like HEA whether that means the nitwit chooses the right guy or that a character I particularly hate comes to a really inventive and nasty end.

    • Books can make you cry because you’re sad or because you’re happy. I don’t like sad endings but I’m sure that a happy ending that makes readers cry happy tears is one that will stick in their minds.

      However, I’m not sure you can set out to write that deliberately. It has to be the natural end to a really good story so readers really care what happens to the characters.

  11. Bartholomew Thockmorton

    “Lizard, you have no idea how much this confession saddens me…bailiff, release the Wizard…guards, kill the lizard…”

  12. I refuse to read books that would make me cry – just as I refuse to watch tv or movies that would make me cry – because I consider it a cheap manipulation of my emotions for cash, and I’m not about to buy into that.

  13. One of my favorite books from childhood was the Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Peterson. That made me cry then. Upset my mother, who couldn’t understand why the book had upset me so much.

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