Monday, October 15, 2012

Make 'Em Cry


I've made it clear that I'm a fan of angst in books, but after watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower, wondered why I'd enjoy something that makes me feel anxious, nervous, and eventually heartbroken. These aren't feelings I'd invite in my real life, though I've experienced my share of them first hand, so why do I enjoy them in fiction?

Two statements must be made here. One, I highly recommend this movie. If you are a teen, ever were a teen, will someday be a teen, or are the parent/grandparent/aunt/uncle to a teen, you'll totally relate. In other words, everyone will understand these kids and what they're going through.

The second statement is that I have no answer for the question I pose above. I really have no idea why I enjoy angst so much in stories. I do know there are kinds of angst I do not like, the least favorite being humiliation. Not that a character being humiliated is angst, but as a reader, you almost always see it coming. I dread it because I have to "watch" it, even if only in my head.

Personally, I can't stand to read about or watch a character be humiliated. If the story is good enough, I'll deal with it, but it makes me very uncomfortable. I'm sure this is from humiliation in my own past, but this isn't a psychology session so let's not go there.

The Wallflower movie does not have a sad ending. All the characters problems are not magically solved, but he's better off than when the movie started and the ending is rather hopeful he'll have a positive future. But I still sobbed for the last ten minutes (or more) of the film. Why did I cry?

Because the lead character was hurting so badly. The kind of pain that makes you feel like your body will blow apart into tiny bits, and not in the good way. The kind of pain you think can kill you and while you're begging for it to stop, you wish it would just slice you in two and get it over with.

To be clear, no physical pain comes to Charlie. No one shoots him or beats him up. No horrendous car crash or debilitating disease. Just endless angst that grows into gut-wrenching pain.

I realize this is turning into a review of the movie, but this does tie into our writing, promise. There were light moments to this story as well. Laugh out loud moments even. Which is why I loved it so much. The movie took me on an emotional ride from joy to triumph to heartbreak and back.

This is what I want to accomplish with my books. Sounds terribly mean, but in addition to making readers laugh and cheer for my characters, I want to make them cry. Now I know how to do that, and it's not easy. We've often heard the advice to make our characters miserable. Take away that job she wants. Jeopardize his inheritance and standing in society. But we must go deeper.

Find the old wounds. The scar that looks healed over but isn't. Rip them open. Mentally and emotionally. Make them go there. It's hard because that means we have to go there. Tap into those moments in our lives when we wished someone would slice us in half and get it over with.

Do you do this in your writing? Do you even want to make your readers cry? (Perfectly legit to have no interest in pushing Kleenex with your books.) If you do, how do you do it? As a reader, do you enjoy stories that rip your heart out? Avoid them? (I avoid anything in which a child is in danger or hurt. Just can't go there.)

23 comments:

quantum said...

Emotion is the playground of a writer. If the reader feels nothing for the characters or situations then the writer hasn't done a good job.

I don't like excessive violence, of the torture variety, in books and even less in films. But the towering emotional highs of a love story are brought into sharper relief if the angst of disappointment and and pain is experienced first.

Like a photographer perfecting an image, a writer should exploit contrast, light and zoom when appropriate, all to enrich the emotional landscape. Readers can then complete the book feeling that they have been on a real journey through life, and experienced things that though desirable, may not be possible in actual existence.

Given personal experience of particular lows or highs then a writer should exploit that to the full. A teaspoon of real experience is worth a bucket full of theoretical imagined stuff when trying to describe emotions.

Thus spake Q from the mountain top! (Have you read Nietzsche's Zarathustra?) LOL

TerriOsburn said...

And you spaketh well, Q. Though you forget to whom you spaketh to. Nietzsche is not for me. :) Love the idea of playing the contracts. Not much of a journey if it's all on one level, boring road. You need the ups and the downs. The twists and the turns.

MsHellion said...

I don't normally admit I like angst, but clearly I do. I like the sadness and regret kind of angst, but the humiliation I think strikes too close to home and I can't bear to watch or witness it. I've heard if there is something you couldn't bear to write about, you should write about it. *LOL* I'm guessing the raw feelings associated with it would be great fodder for it.

As for why we like it, I'm not sure either. One of my guesses is that we feel compassion for this person (even if they aren't real because this is a very real situation and reaction) and we're really glad we're no longer in this kind of situation. Maybe we're crying in relief that our lives aren't as humiliating and sad anymore--that time does change everything and heal old wounds. God knows when you're in the moment, you can't imagine ever being beyond it--but now we're watching it and realizing it's so far in the past, we're fine now. I don't know. Relief. That's my guess.

TerriOsburn said...

That never occurred to me, Hellie. And for some of us, no matter how much time has passed, it's still a sensitive area. But maybe being reminded of how far we've come since then is a form of relief. I can get behind that.

Do you want to make readers cry with your stories? I'm guessing no, but I've been wrong before. :)

MsHellion said...

When it is time to cry, I wouldn't mind people crying at my stories. I want them to feel at least very, very sad the story isn't going to work out, but I'm not sure I'm into full all-out weepers.

Though in my original Lucifer story, I killed the heroine.

In the Grecian Urn story, I tried to kill the hero.

I think there's a place where you can cry for Broderick in this one.

I'm not against crying, but it's not the most important thing either. Laughter and happiness and joy is also very important to me. Kindred spiritualism. There are lots of things to feel in stories--angst and weeping is just one of them. *LOL*

MsHellion said...

I think you equate crying with "feeling"--and it's not the only time I feel. It's not even the most important time I feel.

TerriOsburn said...

Don't start that. I'm not passing judgment or giving weight to one feeling over another. But I do know that one of my most favorite books of all time is the one that made me cry the hardest. And kiddo cried countless times while reading the Wallflower book, then declared it one of the best books ever.

Just seems like a contradictory thing. LOL! This book made me SOB and OMG I love it!! So I was just pondering why that is and incorporated the "Oh, so that's how you do it well" I learned from the movie. And there's something else completely different I watched recently that used a similar technique. Now if I could just remember what that was...

MsHellion said...

My favorite HP book made me cry--still makes me cry every time I read it--and it's my favorite book. Possibly of all.

The Betina Krahn THE LAST BACHELOR was a book that made me cry (odd for a romance) and it was one of my favorites ever. As was WHISPER OF ROSES (TM) and THE PERFECT RAKE (Anne Gracie). It's possible.

But all those books also made me laugh uncontrollably too. Maybe we remember heartache better. *shrugs*

I think I'd rather be known for making someone laugh than cry, but I'm not against having both.

Haleigh said...

This is a fascinating conversation. I love angst. I love books that make me cry. Interestingly, when I first start writing fanfic, I would get constant complaints that it was too-angsty and readers weren't properly warned, when I couldn't see any angst in it at all.

The movie took me on an emotional ride from joy to triumph to heartbreak and back.

For me, I think the key here is and back. I know, know, know, no matter how much I cry, that there will be a happy ending waiting for me. How many times can you say that in real life?

Now, if I'm not reading romance, and I don't know for sure if there will be a happy ending, then I can't take the tension of major angst. It doesn't offer the catharsis that "look what we overcame" has for me. I remember one book I read years ago that was a mystery, and there was this phenomenal romance, they hit the black moment with all this great angst, and bam. The book was over. It was a mystery, so it was a well-written, solid ending, but because the romance ended on such a depressing note, I was depressed for days. It *really* bothered me (I'm apparently very easily influenced by the books I read :)

Haleigh said...

I should clarify - I can handle a non-happy ending in books with little problem. What I'm trying to say is that if I'm going to invest myself in really feeling the angst, I need it to pay-off with a happy ending. Otherwise I'm just depressed, because the angst never takes you on that upswing at the end that leaves you thinking, "Wow, what a journey!"

TerriOsburn said...

Hal - Since this book/movie is not a Romance, I couldn't be sure I'd get that "and back" relief. In fact, kiddo kept telling me about it as she read and I still got angsty because I was afraid it would end badly. I had second hand angst!

I think this also changes over time. I read Lovely Bones back when it came out, but I wouldn't watch the movie when it came out a few years ago. Loved The Secret Life of Bees, but still don't like to watch the beginning of the movie. Catch it a quarter of the way in and I'm good.

My tolerance seems to change over the years.

P. Kirby said...

The beginning of "UP" always makes me sniffley. I don't usually gravitate toward weepy angst, particularly in movies, because I often find it too contrived, too obvious. But, when it comes to movies, I prefer action/adventure/SF/F/H.

If you extend the definition of angst, then, yeah, I likes it. I spent the whole of Hunger Games (books) gritting my teeth, torn between, "I can't read any more of this; something dreadful is going to happen," and "Can't. Stop. Reading."

I'm more tolerant of the sad in fiction, which is why I sometime read Alice Hoffman, who often writes stuff with wrenching emotion.

As a writer, I don't necessarily go for "crying" kind of angst, but I like messing with deeper themes that carry angst. Two of my WIPs have war and its impact on the soldiers and their families as underlying themes. Given my fondness for heroes who are sometimes betas and rather emo, angst probably goes with the territory.

I think my style of writing is sort of M.A.S.H.-like, in that I'm a "funny" writer, but I like to punctuate the humor with angsty moments.

Maureen said...

Oh, God. Spare me humiliation, in movies, books...everywhere. A perfect world would be one in which the young are never subject to humiliation, ever. Firstly.

Would be nice if adults didn't suffer it also, but the young need the immunity first.

Do I want to make people cry with my writing? Not really. I want to make people think and consider. The best books I can remember reading left me with a slight smile on my face and my mind open to wonder and possibilities, wanting to explore where the writer had led/taken/revealed to me. I guess I'd rather trick a reader into learning something or opening themselves to possibilities, personal or whatever.

Yup, one of those horrible writers with an agenda.

I would also much rather make people laugh than cry. I'm always a bit bemused when someone writes me that I made them cry at this part of the book, or that story... Almost embarrassed that I did that to them.

Movies that made me cry, like Glory. Fabulous movie. I saw it twice on the big screen. Own the DVD. Never watched it at home. It's phenomenally gut wrenching, almost magically so, but I know the emotional wrenching I'm going to go through and generally, I just don't have time for it.

TerriOsburn said...

There are movies that make me cry that I'll watch over and over (The Notebook, Steel Magnolias) and others that I can't watch because it's too much (Stepmom.) No idea why my mind draws the line where it does.

Marnee Bailey said...

I am aiming for a book that both makes my readers laugh and cry. I have no idea if I do either. When I think about my current hero and heroine, I feel that emotional choked up for them sometimes. I could see how their journey could be both if I do it right. But will I do it right? That is the question. Jury still out.

And I know this movie is about bullying and I don't think I've got the fortitude to do that to myself right now. LOL

TerriOsburn said...

It is about bullying, Marn, but there's a lot more to it too. Kiddo's favorite line is the one they keep showing in the commercials. "We accept the love we think we deserve." Major life lesson in that one little sentence. And applies to all ages.

Marnee Bailey said...

Oh Wow. That is pretty heavy stuff. :) I love Emma Watson too. Hmmmm....

Nancy Northcott said...

Terri, of course I want to make readers cry! And I don't even own stock in a facial tissue company. *g*

Old wounds frequently lie at the heart of romance novel conflict, and the deeper, the better. Anna Campbell's wonderful, heart-wrenching books are a prime example. I don't avoid stories like that, but I do have to wait until I'm in the right frame of mind to read them.

I don't like sad endings, though. The h/h can suffer incredible torments without driving me away as long as they end up living HEA. In other genres, I need an upbeat ending, the good guys on top, even if the protagonist isn't entirely happy. I'm especially okay with that in a series.

TerriOsburn said...

But do you find those scenes harder to write, Nancy? I know and Marn will attest to the fact that I have a habit of pulling my punches when it comes to the real emotional scenes. I don't mean to, but I think it's likely a survival thing. I'm protecting myself from having to go there as much as the characters.

And Anna is just torturous! LOL! (In a good way, of course.)

Nancy Northcott said...

I do find them harder to write. Like you, I find going there painful. But the reward is in readers who share that pain and get a corresponding lift out of the HEA to follow.

One thing that helped me was pushing into a really dark, agonizing episode in one heroine's past. I ran it by some friends who said, "Too dark. But it shows us why she's so skittish." It showed me, too, and with that in my head, I was better able to give her depth, I think.

Yes, torturous in a GOOD way, as I frequently tell her. :-)

irisheyes said...

Wow, very thought provoking! I like some kinds of angst but not others and I'm not sure how to characterize what I like against what I don't. I know exactly what you mean about the humiliation thing, though. I've read that done well and not so much. I think if the H/H are humiliated, especially by their love interest, there has to be tons and tons of grovelling or exposition letting me know they aren't total creeps. In other words, the writing has to be exceptional.

SEP did the humiliation thing in Ain't She Sweet and it was extremely uncomfortable for me to read it. I even skim over parts on my re-reads.

I do agree with the others who said that it is rather cathartic to read something that could have or has happened to me and see it work out okay in the end. Everyone who was ever a teen can relate to the pain and heartbreak of first unrequited love. Reading so many stories of it all working out years later is very rewarding. Any trope you can come up with that includes all the pain, regret, hearbreak and unhappy writing on the wall can rejoice when things turn out in the end. I suppose the greater the angst the greater the joy when it works out.

I have seen that backfire, though. I've read 1 or 2 books where the author had the characters do downright mean things that there is no coming back from. The result being me not really buying into the reformation of the guilty party. Then it's not a HEA but a "Wow, those 2 are really dysfunctional and their relationship won't last a year, if that!" LOL

Maureen said...

Funny how they never write the logical follow up book, Irish!

irisheyes said...

That would be hilarious, Maureen! Let's catch up with these two and see how seriously they screwed up their lives! LOL