Monday, February 27, 2012

Tears on the Page

At a chat with fellow writers the other day, a friend mentioned that The Hunger Games almost made her cry. The five or six of us there all went on to list books or movies that had made us cry. I’m a crybaby so the list was long for me. Unsurprisingly, we agreed on a lot of titles. One other thing became pretty clear, movies have an advantage. As they say: seeing is believing. Or in this case, seeing is sympathizing. Plus, the visual art form also gets to weave in sound effects. How can you resist joining in a tear-fest you can both see and hear? Just like a yawn, see someone cry and you respond in kind. Hardly fair for writers, you might say. Writers have words on a page. Black against white.

But writing can run the gauntlet of emotion from the ultra blah, how to program your DVD player, to that tear-jerker novel you can’t put down. So how do the successful writers do it? Think about the scenes that made you cry, or maybe made you wish you could. (Come on, tough guys cry too.) They all have some things in common. The writer created a world or a character so real that it didn’t matter that none of it ever existed. Isn’t that what happened? You just wept over something that is complete fiction. It happened only in one person’s imagination. Yet, you felt for that fictional situation maybe even more than for a story you’d hear on the news. Emotional writing involves fully alive characters in a believable world.

And it should go without saying that, the character has to be a likeable character, not the antagonist. We should cheer when the villain gets theirs, not cry. Another given: the writing also has to be clean and have a good flow.

So why don’t writers try to provoke tears in every chapter? Obviously if writers killed off characters left and right, they would stop getting a proper reaction. Readers would give up on the book altogether or become deadened to being jerked around. So trauma must be a situation called for in the plot. You can’t just throw in a scene without reason and expect readers to react. It has to flow with the rest of the book and not stick out like a sore thumb. In other words: use super-emotion sparingly.

So what kinds of situations cause the most sorrow?

I can only speak for myself, but I boiled it down to a few situations I’ve noticed in multiple novels. The biggie: Anytime an animal is injured or killed, especial if a child is attached to it, look out. Think Black Beauty, or that staple of elementary school reading, Where the Red Fern Grows. Boy loves dogs, dogs die in tragic fashion. Not one, but both dogs. Tears galore. My personal record for crying is with the books by James Herriot, the Yorkshire veterinarian. Pets put down. Yikes, those chapters still make me break down.

Next most weepy: death of a beloved favorite character. Anybody remember Beth from Little Women? You knew it was coming, but you couldn’t help yourself anyway. Another example: Tonks and Lupin from Harry Potter. They just had a baby, sob. (Hope this isn’t a spoiler, but everybody who was going to read Harry Potter has probably seen the movie.) The list could go on and on.

There is a third shorter category of tear-jerkers: when a favorite place/setting is destroyed. The place has to have a mystic kind of perfection in some fashion to make this work. In the end of Return of the King, when the Shire is burned and enslaved. The Shire represented peaceful co-existence, a utopia that didn’t go untouched and so tore your heart to see it reduced. The rampage that wrecked Hogwarts at the end of Harry Potter is another example. Hogwarts should have been a place of safety; it was a beloved castle where loyal friendships were forged. Thus the hurt to see it torn apart.

And lastly, perhaps the hardest to pull off: the heroic sacrifice. A character makes a sacrifice out of love and loyalty to protect another. (Often this doesn’t have to end in death, thank goodness.) My favorite example is in Lord of the Rings when Merry and Pippin jump out, exposing themselves to the orcs in order to draw the orcs away from Frodo. Frodo gets away, Merry and Pippin get taken. Foolish, brave little hobbits, makes me cry every time. Another probably unknown example from Patrick O’Brian’s books. The main character was sentenced (unjustly) to the pillory as a form of public humiliation. You might remember the pillory scene from A Knight’s Tale, your head and wrists are locked in place, making the victim helpless. O’Brian’s book is similar, but written before that movie came out. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of loyal sailors came to the square to protect their Captain from being pelted with garbage or slapped around while he was helpless. A real emotion scene of pride and love. And then, there’s Dobby from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I can’t think about it with dry eyes. Dobby frees his friends, but takes a knife. “Here lies Dobby: A free elf.” Just try not to cry at that one.

So that’s my thoughts on the subject. I probably left out many important points as there are so many possibilities. Please feel free to list your favorite tear-jerkers in the comments, or any ideas you have for what makes a good sad scene.


  1. Hi Michelle,
    I'm a big cry baby. There's this commercial that comes out during Christmas about a little boy who thinks a soldier is Santa Claus and gives him a list of things he wants. I ball every time. My hubby teases me so bad. I'm a wimp.

  2. *hugs* You need one after writing this post. =)