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David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—Read it and Weep!

"The story that makes them cry the most, wins!"
KamiMMcArthur
3/4/2013
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.


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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 dwolvert@xmission.com.


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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.

3 Comments

Donna55
3/4/2013
8:36 AM
I think I know what you mean about making readers cry. While I'm not a published author, I have written a few (children's) stories. The one that had the tear factor was written for my nephew who has autism. I'm pretty sure that was the reason that it made my sisters cry, but still, it's the story that I've shared with friends and family that gets the most response. Be that as it may, I have to say that most of the stories that I love have made me cry. When an author pulls you in and makes a character so believable and then proceeds to either kill that character, or have them face a hardship ... Well it makes for a very compelling read! I love to care about the characters in the books that I read. It makes the stories more enjoyable as well as unforgettable!
dahayden
3/4/2013
11:21 AM
Great advice. Difficult to do sometimes as a writer. Can be torturous to stay in the mood that allows emotional writing. Payoff worth it, of course.

I had a brilliant poetry instructor who always said that the best poems were the ones that came closest to being sentimental but never quite crossed the line. I think sometimes we fiction writers fear we're going over that line when in fact it is much farther away than we think. Or at least, I know I do that.
SamReeves
3/6/2013
6:42 PM
I think the benchmark of any story is its ability to create an emotion on the page. I would certainly be interested in hearing more about how to construct emotional scenes.

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