Home » David Farland, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice » Three Rules of the Crying Game

Three Rules of the Crying Game

7 March 2013

From NYT best-selling author and former writing professor, Dave Farland:

Recently I wrote about the importance of creating powerful emotions in stories, but with that comes a caution: don’t get maudlin. Here are a couple of rules.

1) Protagonists don’t cry. If your protagonist does cry, then it frees the audience so that they don’t have to. Hence, if you’re trying to draw genuine tears from a reader, your characters shouldn’t be crying.

2) Let the emotion come naturally. Many authors will begin to fall into “purple prose” when they want to elicit emotion, and so they write in heightened, flowery images. Don’t. If you say something like, “In that moment, his love for her erupted like crocuses, touched by the sun after a long winter,” you’re working too hard.

Nor do you need to talk about an emotion that a scene elicits in the protagonist. In fact, be wary about even naming an emotion. For example, your protagonist sees a dead body, and you want to have her reel away in horror. So your first impulse might be to say, “She gagged and reeled away in horror.” But all you have to do is create the dead body—using sight, smell, touch—and then have her reel away. We shouldn’t need the words “in horror.”

So simply create the scene as completely as you can and let the emotion arise naturally from the incident.

Link to the rest at David Farland

David Farland, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

23 Comments to “Three Rules of the Crying Game”

  1. Very good advice. I was guilty of the “purple prose” early on in my career, but soon realised that I wasn’t doing a very good job if I had to wax lyrical to guide the reader on what to feel.

  2. I like the 2nd and the 3rd one (let the reader pace). I think the third one especially is brilliant.

    But I’m afraid I don’t agree with the first one. I think that the protagonist should cry when it’s appropriate, so that the writing rings true. I also think a great writer can have the reader crying along with the protag.

    Example: Jo cried buckets when (spoiler, spoiler, spoiler)……her sister died, but so did I.

    As a mental health pro, I’ll also say that crying is a wonderful git – it’s incredibly healthy and healing – as well as natural, and it’s important that crying not be shown as a bad thing, while stoicism be seen as heroic. That’s not actually emotionally healthy.

    I know that men in this culture are intensely pressured not to cry. It’s the worst of all the gender oppressions done to men; it’s a terrible thing to take crying away from any human being, especially young boys. My heart goes out to men on this issue. And I can’t help but wonder if male writers may be more likely to have their protags be stoic than a female writer might be, because women are allowed to cry in our culture. That’s not a critique, more a thought about the topic.

    • Add me to the party of people who disagree with #1. I don’t really have a problem with my male protags showing emotion. Mostly it’s rage, but even my resident zombie-killer has shed a few tears.

      Then again, I know that several reviewers cried during the climax of ORPHEUS, but there were no tears involved (that I can recall). That **** was just wicked sad. I misted up writing it.

    • I disagree with point 1, too. And while I like Dave Farland and his writing tips, I remember that he advised against having characters cry before and used the example of a small boy who was not allowed to cry because cowboys don’t cry or some such crap. So I suspect that Dave Farland got a big dose of “boys don’t cry” conditioning as a kid and it still affects him.

      Though it can be interesting to put characters who believe that “real men don’t cry” through an emotional wringer until they finally do break down.

  3. I think tears in the right place are capable of eliciting tremendous emotion in a reader. It’s all down to the story, the style, the voice, what the reader knows of the character, and the skill with which the scene is written. Tears that come after all the brave suppression of tears, when all defenses have fallen, are the most powerful of all, IMO.

  4. I’m trying to imagine scenes like these being better if the characters had remained stoic and not cried…and I’m just not seeing it:


    I’ve been in movies where an emotional scene culminated with a main character suddenly crying – and there was a simultaneous response from members in the audience in a collective choked snuffle.

    I suppose if a character is prone to weep at the drop of a hat, that might be something to be cautious with. And still, one who comes to mind who wept a lot (and did so effectively) was Lestat from Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Lestat” – he was an emotional character from page one, and honest at expressing his emotions. It worked well for him and the story.

    I just find it a little strange that a reader would invest emotionally in a character (especially a protagonist) and yet when things reach a breaking point, the character maintains their composure which is somehow supposed to free up the reader to cry on the character’s behalf.

    To me, that almost rings as unauthentic.

    As a reader, I’d probably wonder why the character did *not* respond emotionally and it would impact my connection with the character.

    • To be fair, movies work differently from written fiction. In a movie, you can see the character crying, and most people will have a visceral reaction to that: they will either be moved to sympathy (and possibly cry themselves), or they will feel that they are being manipulated by crocodile tears (and hate the crying character for being manipulative). A good film — that is, good writing, acting, and directing — will always make sure to present any given bout of tears in one light or the other, so that the audience will have the correct kind of reaction.

      In fiction, you have only the author’s description of a character crying, mediated through language. This is inherently less moving, and more likely to seem manipulative. No matter how well it is done, there is always the fatal possibility that it will be perceived as manipulation, after which the author has lost access to the reader’s emotions. This is why Oscar Wilde was able to say, ‘It takes a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.’ A much trickier game for a writer to play and win.

  5. I agree and disagree with 1. The protagonist shouldn’t cry easily or most of the time, but when they finally do break down in tears after long auffering, that’s some powerful stuff.

  6. It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to
    cry if I want to etc.

  7. I disagree with point 1 as well, and have a feeling that this might be because Dave Farland is a guy. Tears show up much more often in YA girl books, and they are still moving scenes. I did an analysis of male and female reactions to grief in literature recently, and there are quite a few differences in reactions. http://blog.liviablackburne.com/2013/02/operation-chest-hair-part-ii-grief.html

  8. I also disagree on #1. There are far more factors involved in reader emotion than just the character emotion and action. It’s perfectly possible to build a scene so your character emotion and action be two things, intending for the reader reaction to be something else entirely. That technique probably works best in “close” first person, though.

    Now, character weeping shouldn’t be used as a crutch in order to try to make the reader cry, but it needs to fit the story, character, and situation.

  9. The “reeled away in horror” bit? Whether that is good or bad depends on the genre and what you are trying to elicit from the reader.

    Frankly, when a writer makes ME (the reader) reel away in horror, I actually do reel away from the book and never pick it up again.

    It is sometimes necessary (say in a cozy mystery or a light romance) to submit the character to experiences that the audience shouldn’t have to go through. And when a character goes through something, like finds a body, the character should not be an insensitive automaton. But the purpose of the book is not horror, so what do you do?

    Simple: you show the effect on the character with well placed details. You suggest. And, yes, sometimes you just say “reeled away in horror” and draw the curtain.

    As with the crying thing, sometimes a black hole in terms of audience information speaks loudly. Silence speaks louder than words. (Ask Jack Benny. Not answering a question like, “Your money or your life?!” says a whole lot more than answering it.)

    I do disagree with those who say a character’s weeping can be powerful. Yes, the fact that a character gives into tears can be powerful, but not in the sense of a powerful climax to a scene. That high emotional power only sticks around if the author draws the curtain, or at least recedes into some sort of distance.

    If you want the audience to cry, let the character suffer and hold back.

    However, very often, you don’t particularly want the audience to cry at that moment. Having the character break down is a plot turn. The audience might already be crying, or be ready to cry next, but at that moment where the character breaks down — that’s a plot point, because it means the character loses control or gives up.

    And THAT makes something happen. (If it doesn’t, draw the curtain before it gets awkward and boring, but if it does make something happen? Bring on the waterworks, baby!)

    What do I mean by “something happens”? A good example might be suspense comedy — the heroine has been kidnapped and escaped, and re-kidnapped and accused of murder, and finally arrested, and when the handsome cop tries to question her, she breaks down and and confesses all her sins, which don’t amount to much and therefore convinces the cop that she didn’t do it.

    It doesn’t have to light and funny like that. It can be tragic too. The key is that crying has a specific meaning: it means giving up. It’s not a climax, it’s either after the end, or a new beginning.

    • I think it’s the words “in horror” that he was complaining about. I’m constantly removing those kinds of phrases when I do editing jobs. It’s over explaining. I tell writers “just the action, not the why”. It’s sufficient to say “she reeled away” (because the reader will understand–without you saying it–that it was in horror). Same with something like “she turned away so he wouldn’t see her tears.” It’s sufficient to say “she turned away”, if the preceeding setting, descriptions, character development, etc. would lead the reader to understand (without the author having to explain it) the “why” behind the character turning away. It’s a tiny, picky little thing, but you’d be surprised how much it impacts pace and tension when you start cutting out the “telling” of emotions and just let the actions stand on their own.

      • Two editorial thumbs up for this, Kat. When a writer internalizes this it means they’re finally getting it.

        • Suburbanbanshee

          But you have to be careful. A lot of times, when a character turns away, I have no idea whether he or she is grossed out or just doesn’t care. The writer and the editor seem to assume that I know, because they know the story and the character already. But I have no clue yet, and so it tells me nothing.

          Of course, sometimes it’s okay to leave the reader guessing. But not if it’s supposed to be the character’s big emotional scene.

      • No, I actually meant the use of the stock phrase “in horror.” There are times when all the showing and artful writing we work so hard to learn simply adds baggage.

        Sure, I do agree with his point over all, but there are times, when telling is the right thing to do.

        (For some reason everything I wrote didn’t show up – let’s try again:)

        At the same time, just leaving things out very often does leave an unnecessary hole. It depends on the situation and the effect you want to have. Excessive editing just obfuscates meaning.

        Sometimes it’s best to just say it.

      • The trouble with ‘she reeled away’ is that ‘reeled’ is used for two other stock purposes (to indicate dizziness or drunkenness), so that by avoiding one cliché, you commit two others. If you’re not going to reel away in horror, then you’d better go hunting for a better verb. Reel is just about ready for the knacker’s yard.

        • When the knackers come for “reeled,” will you make sure they take “swirled” with them too? Thanks.

          • ‘Swirl[ed]’ has a vital place in the English language. It is the perfect word to describe how fecal matter circles the toilet bowl before going down the drain.

            That said, it’s a wonder anybody has the nerve to use it for any other purpose.

  10. Count me in as disagreeing with point 1 too. It depends. I gave my protag a breakdown at the end, and it was not put there to elicit tears from the reader. Based on how it was set up, the reader should be cheering at this.

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