Monday, May 17, 2010


"Don't cry for me,

Yes... tears on my keyboard (rather than my pillow). "It's not a good movie unless you have a good cry." (but same person will be bitter if there is not a kissy happily-ever-after ending.) Here is my basic contention - truly great books need to upset you emotionally, or at least stir you emotionally. And sometimes as an author I feel like one of those people who pull heartstrings to make the character - and reader puppets dance. The fault with this metaphor is that I dance with them, only moreso. Yes. I have ended up crying on my keyboard. Signy killing her dog in A MANKIND WITCH, (which I found almost impossible to edit, because I couldn't see the screen), the despair and courage of Vlad's sister down in the dungeons beneath Elizabeth Bartoldy's castle... somewhere in most of the books I have written (OK not Karres so much). I find I am so involved with my characters it hard to be dispassionate (which is possibly why I rationalise that it would be a bad thing.) I rage against the wrongness of it, I am torn by the pain. It is very, very hard when you are being god-in-author form not just to leave out/edit away these tragedies (as you can only do in books) because you'd haave to be... odd not to want to fix them. But I think that... would be a mistake. Because without the tragedy that resolution (which is very different from 'it didn't happen') cannot happen. Mind you, I think there is sometimes a desire in readers (and maybe editors?) to be entertained without that. Sort like a book being a hooker that gives pleasure without any of the other strings. I dunno. I can't write that.

So: if we need to do it... leaves us with how does the writer achieve that heart-string dance? I am really not sure how to do this for other people (I am not even sure if I do, or if I am right that it is a good thing. Angst is plainly considered good, but sentiment? Out of fashion, methinks.)
There are obviously evocative words. Powerful themes, love, loyalty, pain... And then there is taking your reader with you into those...
I've always found this is the antithesis of transitions. You MUST show.
But what works for you? Do you want to be emotionally involved? Do you fall for the hero/heroine? Do you want the disaster/misery/ heart-tear fixed?
How do you make yourself (or your reader) care that much?


Brendan said...

On this subject I am reminded of Ethel Turner's Entry in her diary when writing Seven Little Australians. The entry when a key character dies was something like "Killed Judy while listening to Mozart". Probably the most traumatic death in the history of Australian literature and it warranted a single line in Ethel's diary. Such a cold, cold woman.

Dave Freer said...

Yikes... but that DOES make a terrifying impression, Brendan. The sheer...callous mundanity is shocking too, I suppose.

Kate said...


Youch! That entire sequence is utterly heart-wrenching. To dismiss it like that...

Although without context it's a little difficult to be sure that's how it was. I can see myself commenting like that, simply because I can't bring myself any closer to the tragedy again.

I recall when I was writing a particular death scene in a recent piece, I needed information on how long it would take and what the symptoms would be. I had to distance myself while I was asking about that, because I went through quite a few kleenex in that scene and the aftermath - but I don't refer to it in a sympathetic way. I can't.

I need the distance you get by talking about "offing" a character to be able to stay distant.

It's a weird kind of multiple personality thing, I think.

Dave Freer said...

You might have a point Kate. When I was a young conscript Medic - a 17 year old kid, I found myself dealing with things which even now I have nightmares about more than 30 years later. Burns particularly, and the sheer fragility of human life. At the time it was 'wall that off' or crack up. So I did. I was able to be dispassionate and quite effective, and so where most of the other lads tossed into this. I think humans - even sensitive ones can partition themselves, even if it is only temporarily.

Synova said...

My theory is that it's worse for the author on account of you've got to wallow in it for the duration and writing is slow. I'm not good at making myself do that so my writing suffers.

I remember when Rowling said how traumatic it was killing a character in a Harry Potter book (I think it was Black, but it was pre-release and she didn't say who died) that some people were saying that if it was bad for her, think of how much more awful this was going to be for kids to read. But I think it's the opposite because I read the book and it took me a while to even figure out who died and then I'm thinking, "But that wasn't traumatic. He fell through a mirror."

I do like a good cry in a book or movie if there is a happy ending. I don't usually cry when people die, and "killing off" a favorite character is a risky thing to do because it can't be resolved.

Usually I cry when the protagonist contemplates giving up something he or she wants badly but is being brave or resolute about it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I think it's worse for us because in a way we know these characters. We know them deeply and intimately.
Because they are in a way sparks from our fire, if that makes sense, and because I was raised in a culture in which you didn't show you were hurting, you just didn't (for those raising eyebrows, I truly realize this is for males, mostly, in Latin cultures, but in my family women also weren't supposed to cry, whinge and carry one. You could show decent joy or pride, but NEVER pain) I realized in the course of writing Darkship Thieves that I was "pulling back" and not wanting to hurt the characters in public. I wanted to mention they'd been hurt, but not show them bleeding, etc, because that would be "childish." I turned the book in convinced that it was what my dad called a "knife and basin" (for the blood) book and everyone would be repulsed by the naked hurt-comfort sequences (naked in the emotional sense.) Do you know that not even those who do NOT like it have complained about that? How odd is that? And now that I'm writing a book which involves QUITE a lot of sex which matters for the plot and which is not always consensual, I keep thinking "this is just too shocking" but when you strip it down to what happened PHYSICALLY almost nothing happened. It's the emotional response and the echoes in me which are unbearable in the context of a character (think, for instance, though this is not even vaguely the case but it is the easiest to understand without long explanations, of a Regency maiden being forcibly kissed. To the reader it could be "oh, it's JUST a kiss" but if the writer is doing his job, he would understand the emotions of the maiden. OTOH the author who is for the moment in that time and society will feel it ten times more.) So am I showing enough? Too much? Is this unbearably raw, explicit and twisted sexual content all of those adjectives to someone coming at the book without knowing the character as I do and living with him for two years? I don't know. And damned if I know how to find out, even though it's essential for the success of the book that the reader be shocked/horrified and just a touch titilated. I wish there were instruments to measure this.

Anonymous said...

Yeah. That's what we need. A computer program that will analyze scenes, combinations of scenes and entire books and graph the readers' responses.

Then we'll know that we really do have to do what the outline says, not veer off into Silly Land, which seems to be my subconscious's favorite escape-from-too-raw-emotions.

See? Right there. It says "raped by evil wizard" It does not say "day long eight person orgy/romp through the woods, everyone having a great time."

Anonymous said...

Dave, I've got to agree. People who are capable in a crisis do have the ability to focus and be dispassionate. I come from a family of nurses and cops, and although I hate the thought of cleaning a bad cut, I've done it very calmly when I had to. Reality and anticipation are two different things.

Some people can do this, some can't. Personally, I think it's genetic.

One quibble though: string-pulling. Let's call it by something nicer: compassion and empathy. What's wrong with sharing suffering?

Kate said...


Often that partitioning happens because you have to be able to get through something. So you push everything back for a while and just get on with it, basically delaying the crash.

I suspect a lot of PTSD involves that kind of mechanism - and so does a lot of the Oz colloquialism of using harsher terms than the official ones ("karked it", and "kicked the bucket" for died, for instance - yes, I've heard people say things like "Grandma kicked the bucket last week and the funeral's tomorrow." It never meant that the speaker didn't care about Grandma).

I've found that the most effective writing I do is when I'm so completely inside my character's mind it's difficult to get out again - because then I'm feeling what they are. It hurts, too - rather like stabbing yourself in the heart and bleeding onto the paper.

THEN I get my long-suffering first readers to check I haven't gone maudlin or worse, sappy on them.

Chris McMahon said...

Total sucker for the heroic journey. As for my own books, I have to follow my own story - and that is an emotional journey that I hope other people want to take with me. I tend to really go on instinct when it comes to story line - that and the hope that I know what a good story is!

Stephen Simmons said...

Do I think that degree of emotion is necessary/desirable? Well, my absolute favorite piece of prose is the "Of Turin Turambar" passage of The Silmarillion ... and there aren't many more painful journeys than that one.

How do I do it? I have no idea if I do it well, or even effectively. It feels effective to me, but I already know what I wanted the reader to get out of it. But I'll muddle through. :)

Anonymous said...

Dave: I need a really engaging character and it needs to be a compelling story to boot. The last time I remember crying during a book was either Watership Down or Where the Red Fern Grows. Both great stories, both compelling characters. Somehow both authors managed to get me to care enough so that the loss of certain characters really hit me hard.

Dave Freer said...

Synova, you're undoubtably correct - it goes on longer and you're more involved and deeper into it. But I don't believe you can shy from it without compromising your book.

The end of SAVE THE DRAGONS fits your definition of cry-making

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, you lay bare a common problem here. Just how do we ever guess if we're getting it right? I think we're more typical of our audiences than say your average mongolian or NY editor - so all I can suggest is judging by own response - which is tuly difficult as we are intimately involved... a conundrum.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - my favorite escape is to either gloss over it or make it less bad... could use that computer.

Dave Freer said...

Linda -I think it's Linda under anon e mouse :-)- but without being disingeneous it is string pulling - the puppeteer may be as upset as the puppets but he/she needed to elicit a response from them.

Dave Freer said...

Kate -I think we worry too much about our anglo-saxon/colonist worldview. Sometimes sappy is good. :-)(hard though this may be for us to admit)

Dave Freer said...

Chris, I suspect a lot of us (guys anyway), want to believe and invest quite a lot of emotional capital in believing in noble ideals. It's um, our redeeming feature. It also means books do get through to us at that visceral level - the level of those ideals.

Dave Freer said...

Stephen I'll take that as a yes, shall I? :-). Put it this way, if didn't work for you, then it would certainly not work for anyone.

Dave Freer said...

warpcordova - it is notable that you must have read them a while back... and yet the experience marked you enough to remember. That's why i feel emotionally stirring books get remembered.

Quilly_Mammoth said...

The thing that has stood between me and writing is the absolute inability to cause pain to my characters. I love them and so I refuse to give them pain. Therefore there is no conflict.

If there is no conflict there is no plot. And it is boring.

And I can tell you that the story that Eric bought for Ring of Fire is not what I would normally write; in many ways he (my character) failed at his prime mission...but there is hope.

Failure, redemption and hope. I guess I know the how of it; it's getting it all down that seems to be the problem.

It involves opening one's heart...with the crying and such that goes truly produce something worthwhile.

If you don't cry....who will?