At the second turn of the Belmont, when American Pharoah opened up his stride and pulled away from the pack, I burst into tears. And I wasn’t alone. In the room, on the screen, over Facebook and Twitter, people were sobbing. Yes, the horse ran a glorious race, but why did we cry? I’ve often wondered the same thing about books. Unlike movies, where the image of people crying stirs a sympathetic response, characters blubbering on the page can make readers detach. Mere sadness isn’t enough. Something more complex and nuanced is required. Books need to earn our tears.
Tears mean the body is involved as well as the mind. Crying comes out of a physical need for release. As readers, we have to care so deeply about the character that the struggle feels like our own. We need to be surprised in a way that gets past our defenses. The character has to want something with primal resonance so the stakes grab us viscerally. Most of all, the writing must stir our souls. Our conscious brains have little to do with it: it’s our bodies that break into tears.
To care so deeply that the problems feel like our own, we have to know and identify with the character. Knowledge comes out of the character being specific and seeming real to us. For this, the writer needs to believe in and care about the character first. Backstory – what brought the character to this point – may be critical to the writer’s connecting with the character, but how much of that to include and when is up to each writer. The important thing here is to write him or her as vividly as you can out of your own deep connection.
Identification is built up through showing a specific character in scene. Even if characters are very different from us, we put ourselves in their shoes when things happen. As they react to events, so do we. This is how identification begins. The reader thinks: if I were her, I’d react that way too. When people talk about a character being sympathetic, it has more to do with our relating to their reactions and desires than it does with lengthy character descriptions.
Readers also need time with a character if they’re expected to care. Writers are often advised to dive into a problem at the start of their book, which can generate a lot of interest and energy, but not usually tears. I’ve been hooked by the tragedies that open some books – such as the death of the mother in The Secret Life of Bees and Swamplandia (these aren’t spoilers: if you flip through their first few pages, you’ll know this before you buy them) – but they don’t make me cry.
The Goldfinch comes close by telegraphing the mother’s death early on, then dropping back to build up to the event in scene, letting us get to know both son and mother before the loss. But this early reveal is more effective at engaging us with the main character – we open up to a more intimate and serious level with him right away – than it is at getting us to cry. We know about the death, so we defend ourselves from caring too much. That takes an element of surprise.
The stakes also have to be big enough. In Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder tells writers to root their plots in primal drives such as survival and hunger – urges so basic they connect with all of us in a visceral way. What the character wants, we feel ourselves wanting too. This is how our identification becomes complete. Add to that obstacles, setbacks, trying and failing, trying again, courage in the face of bad odds. Achieving these wants can’t be easy. Struggle gets to us. Often it’s not a loss, but the sudden success despite everything that moves us to tears.
Finally, the way you tell the story matters. The beat of words, the rhythm of sentences, the infusing of image with meaning. The storyteller’s art. If you want tears, you need to make these moments count. Poor writing can leave readers cold even if all the other elements are there. Beautiful writing almost seems to pull tears out of readers.
I cried about American Pharoah because it had been so long since anyone took the crown (stakes and surprise) and the way he ran showed me that he had heart and that he cared (character). The other horses running meant that he could still lose (struggle). The race even had a kind of rhythm to it – the pound of hooves, the reach of muscles – that stirred me inside (akin to good writing).
I’m also a sap when it comes to horses, but that’s just me.