You know, I really hate it when someone catches me crying over a book.
I surreptitiously dab at the corners of my eyes with a finger. I turn away from anyone else who might be in
the room. Darn it! Why was I born such an emotional sponge?
The good part is, of course, that the author has succeeded admirably. I am really involved with those
characters. When bad things happen, I'm aghast. I can feel their pain. I want things to get better for them -
as soon as possible! I can't turn those pages fast enough to find out what happens next.
We'd all love to think that our prose is powerful enough to have readers reaching for the tissues. But how
do we do that? What's the secret to putting words together to make our readers cry?
If We Don't Know Them, We Don't Care
Some of you probably sob regularly over sad stories on the nightly news. Others are more hard-hearted - it
really takes a lot to make you cry.
Let's imagine you're sitting down in front of the TV set. You're only half-watching the news; flipping
through a magazine at the same time. Then up comes one of the night's big stories - a major road accident. You
gaze at the mangled wreck and shake your head. There are some awful accidents...
Then the announcer gives a name. You sit bolt upright, and take another look at the car. Your heart sinks
like a stone. Oh no... oh no. That's Janet's son they're talking about. That road fatality - that STATISTIC -
is the youngest son of one of your neighbours; so proud of his first car. Your hand flies to your mouth, and
tears spring to your eyes. Oh, poor Janet...
There's a lesson here. Bad luck is infinitely more tragic if we know the person concerned. We put ourselves
in the place of his/her family members. We start thinking about the repercussions.
How can you apply this knowledge to your writing?
Give The Reader A Chance To Get To Know Your Character
You've probably been advised many times to plunge the reader into the story right away. Start at the point
of change. Dive into the action; involve the reader.
This is good advice - to a point.
I've read far too many books (published and unpublished) in which the author has begun with Something Bad
happening to the main character. The idea is to get the reader hooked from the first sentence. Oh my
goodness... how will Jane get out of this?
The bad news is, it doesn't always work. And almost always, the reason it doesn't work is because we're
reading about strangers. To become really involved you have to 'become' the viewpoint character. Then you will
feel her pain!
Let's dig into this a bit more. Living in your own skin, you have a whole slew of background experiences to
call upon. If 'something bad' happens to you, there's a history all waiting.
You support a talented child all the way through to Olympic success. You've lost count of the sacrifices the
family has made. Then at the crucial moment - that child loses his balance on the swimming blocks at the
Olympic selections meet and is disqualified. Years of training down the drain. (OK, it happened to Ian
Thorpe... but it could have been anybody: the years of training and sacrifice are the same.) How does a parent
feel? How does the athlete feel?
You scrimp and save for years, sometimes working three jobs, and finally build a successful business. At
last, you are financially secure - you can have anything you want. Then your partner, having siphoned off all
the money, leaves the country. You're bankrupt. At nearly sixty years of age, you have nothing.
So? you're saying. Wouldn't either of those two scenarios be good openings for a novel? Losing your balance
at the crucial moment? Going to work one day to find you'd lost everything?
Yes. Both could work. BUT... hold on a minute.
To make us really care, why not take a little bit of extra time? Get into that character's mind. Help the
reader to slip into his skin... to settle in, finding out some of the history. This is what will make us
It need not take up much story time or space: sometimes just a few extra paragraphs. Sometimes a couple of
pages. You don't have to go into flashback or spend pages telling the backstory. A few hints are enough.
Don't start with the explosion - show the happiness of the victims a few moments beforehand. THEN have the
big bang, when we know enough about them to care. Foreshadow the danger, or the approaching disaster, while
we're getting to know the characters. THEN show things going wrong.
Here's an example from a published book: Demolition Angel by Robert Crais.
Code Three Roll Out
Silver Lake, California
Charlie Riggio stared at the cardboard box sitting beside the Dumpster. It was a Jolly Green Giant box,
with what appeared to be a crumpled brown paper bag sticking up through the top. The box was stamped GREEN
BEANS. Neither Riggio or nor the two uniformed officers with him approached closer than the corner of the
strip mall there on Sunset Boulevard; they could see the box fine from where they were.
"How long has it been there?"
One of the Adam car officers, a Filipino named Ruiz, checked his watch.
"We got our dispatch about two hours ago. We been here since."
"Find anyone who saw how it got there?"
"Oh, no, dude. Nobody."
The other officer, a black guy named Mason, nodded.
"Ruiz is the one who saw it. He went over and looked in the bag, the crazy Flip."
"So tell me what you saw."
"I told your sergeant."
"Tell me. I'm the sonofabitch who's gonna approach the damned thing."
Ruiz described seeing the capped ends of two galvanized pipes taped together with silver duct tape. The
pipes were loosely wrapped in newspaper, Ruiz said, so he had only seen the ends.
Riggio considered that. They were standing in a strip mall on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, an area
that had seen increasing gang activity in recent months. Gangbangers would steal galvanized pipe from
construction sites or dig up plastic PVC from some poor bastard's garden, then stuff them with rocket
powder or match heads. Riggio didn't know if the Green Giant box held an actual bomb or not, but he had to
approach it if it did. That's the way it was with bomb calls. Better than ninety-five percent turned out to
be hairspray cans, some teenager's book bag, or, like his most recent call-out, two pounds of marijuana
wrapped in Pampers. Only one out of a hundred was what the bomb techs called an "improvised munition".
A homemade bomb.
This introduction of Charlie Riggio takes up roughly one printed page. The author spends another three and a
half pages letting the reader get to know Charlie. We see how careful he is; how much experience he has. We are
led through the procedure of checking out the bomb prior to its disposal.
And when the bomb detonates at twenty-eight thousand feet per second and kills Charlie, do we care?
You better believe it.
Let the reader get to know your character before you wield the axe... and the tears will flow.
(c) Copyright Marg McAlister