David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—Read it and Weep!
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.
So how do you make a reader weep? Readers can weep for many reasons:
• A joke can be so funny that it elicits tears.
• Readers may sob in frustration as a character struggles to overcome a problem.
• A reader may weep in sympathy as a character endures tremendous pain, especially emotional pain.
• A reader may suffer for a character’s loss—say the loss of a loved one.
• Readers can cry in sheer relief when a conflict ends.
• A reader may weep for joy for at the good fortune of a protagonist.
• A reader may cry at the sweetness of an incident.
• Readers may shed tears when a protagonist makes a significant breakthrough.
• A reader may weep at a feeling of “revelation” as something important is learned.
I’m sure that I could go on, but I think that you see the point. As you place your characters in conflict, look for opportunities to draw real tears. This may require certain things of you. For example, to get your reader to sympathize deeply with a character, you may need to find ways to make the character likeable by doing such things as giving the character a worthy goal, inner decency, noble intentions, or other attractive characteristics.
You might also find it desirable to boost the tension in a story, or to look for ways to deepen the pain that your character suffers.
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.
Just remember, a tale that does not sustain a good, long, cathartic cry will always feel weaker than one that does. In most cases, a story that doesn’t make the reader cry is a failed story.
Note: David Farland is going to do a little blog tour for his books Million-Dollar Outlines and Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing. If you have a writing-related blog and would like Dave to do a guest blog, email him at email@example.com.
Best “Kick” Ever: Over the past five years, I’ve sent out well over a thousand kicks. Often I get notes saying, “That was the best kick ever!” So, if you have a kick that really helped you, let me know. I’ll be happy to try to dig it up and send it out again.