The Art of Eliciting Emotion

Because I'm a complete sucker for dog stories, the other night, I picked up Garth Stein's thoroughly-engaging novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain and started reading. And reading. And reading. Before I knew it, it was well after midnight and I was sitting in the crumpled forest of damp tissues. Yep, I'd read it straight through, and like just about every dog book since Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller, I ended up bawling my eyes out. What is it about dog books and their gut-wrenching endings? Even The Story of Edgar Sawtelle left me with the sniffles.

But that's not all bad, is it? When a story tethers itself to our hearts and elicits genuine emotion, it's succeeded on a primal level, whatever its other flaws may be. And surprising as it seems, it's the genuineness of the emotion, rather than the pleasantness, that really sucks in readers. As much as I love to laugh, a good cry is not only cathartic, it makes me feel more connected to my humanity. (Pretty ironic, since I'm speaking of dog books at the moment.)

Still, it's important that an author doesn't go too far. If a tearjerker comes from your heart and you never talk down to the reader, it can work well. Yet when an author deliberately attempts to emotionally manipulate the reader, it will hack off a large percentage of the audience and leave the author vulnerable to the appearance of words such as "sappy," "melodramatic," and even "cloying" in reviews. (The appearance of those criticism is more likely if you're female. If you're male -- a couple of well-known authors of unapologetically-sentimental stuff spring to mind -- you'll probably have mass appeal and make a pile of money.)

I find a lot of early-career novelists err on the side of excess in the emotion department. But often, readers love it one heck of a lot more than the excessively restrained (i.e. boring) stuff that can come of being "too" stingy with sentiment.

My philosophy is to write fearlessly, with plenty of emotion, but pay attention to my critique partners', agent's, and editor's gag reflex. You can always edit out some of the emotion, but it's really tough to shovel it back into the manuscript.

Question for the day: What are the very best books you've ever cried over? Do you sometimes enjoy a good tearjerker, or do you avoid unpleasant emotions in your reading material?

And by the way, I highly recommend The Art of Racing in the Rain. If you want a great example of an author emotionally engaging the reader, this is it. Just make sure you have some Kleenex handy and a solid block of time.


Joni Rodgers said…
"Out of Africa" -- both the book and the movie leave me in smithers.

Also "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" because it reminds me so much of my wildly funny and creative son, who struggles and soars on alternating days.
Suzan Harden said…
The Bridges of Madison County and John Jakes' Love and War.
I loooved Out of Africa, both the book and movie. I've read Bridges as well, Suzan, and well remember the emotions.

Let's keep the good suggestions rolling.
Tessy said…
Watchers...Dean's one of his old books, and a thriller at that, but has this dog and this killing monster that were raised together...anyway, at the end the monster is fixing to be killed...he is holding this vcr tape that he and the dog used to watch together...cried my eyeballs outs...for a killing monster! Yes, evidently I'm strange.
Karen Kelley said…
Waving Hi,
Just about anything by Sharon Sala--Love, Love, Love her books!
You're right, Karen. Sharon Sala is a master at putting emotion into romance/romantic suspense.

Linda Howard's Cry No More really got to me, too.

Koontz's Odd Thomas is one of my favorites, and Odd's undying love for his girlfriend gets me every time.
BinnieB said…
The movie "An Affair to Remember" with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Another movie - Ladyhawke. And Robyn Carr's latest (Feb 09) Virgin River novel, Second Chance Pass. And I second Karen Kelley, who said, "Anything by Sharon Sala."

Binnie Syril Braunstein
Elen Grey said…
Hmm. Julie Garwood's Saving Grace. Diana Gabaldon's Outlander, Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry, just off the top of my head.

Out of Africa. Sigh.
Dorothy Hagan said…
I guess the book I cried the hardest over was Gone With the Wind. After going through that epic story with every kind of emotion possible, I was just devastated when Rhett left. I mean, can't you two EVER get it right???

Personally, I don't like books with gut-wrenching endings. I have been labeled a wimp for this a time or two. But that doesn't bother me like it used to.

I used to LOVE Larry McMurtry but he seemed to get really depressing with his story endings.

So far my novels end well for most of the characters. This may sound real silly, but I hate to bring my readers down on the way out.
Barbs said…
I'm with Dorothy, I'm a wimp! I can't have my books not have a Happlier Ever After Ending. The emotion can be in the beginning and middle but I want the heroine/hero with the happy ending LOL I love Sharon Sala books, can't read animal stories -- it seems the animals always die - it just breaks my heart. I can read blood and guts, love mysteries and thrillers--people can die in them and I don't seem to care. I do like romantic suspense--waving to Colleen

Every time I think of animal stories I think of my daughter watching a Benji movie, been some years, she cried tears and was so upset when Benji cried out after someone kicked him -- while I was trying to explain that it was a movie, not real, Benji was fine.
The books I write certainly have their sad (and scary) moments, but by the end, you know that everybody, good and bad, is pretty much going to get what's coming to 'em. Since I can't mete out justice in the real world, I've chosen to do so for those I create. But I do love a bittersweet ending on occasion. Who can forget Casablanca? *Sigh*

Thanks for stopping by, Dorothy & Barbs!
TJ Bennett said…
Linda Howard's "Cry No More." I had to hold a crumpled tissue to my face through the last three chapters of the book, I cried so hard. I've never sobbed while reading a book before, but I did for that one. And okay, I have to say it: "Bald in the Land of Big Hair." Wow, what an emotional rollercoaster ride that was. I recommended it to my dog groomer today as she is going through cancer, and just hearing the title made her laugh. What a wonderful book you wrote, Joni!

Of course, anything by Colleen, who always manages to make me want to read with the lights on...
Hi, TJ,
I loved Bald in the Land of Big Hair, too. It's an amazing book, that can make you tear up on one page and laugh on the next.

And thanks for the kind words!
Christie Craig said…
Okay...I'm not big on tear jerkers. I don't mind a sad scene here or there, but the sadness better go away when the happily ever after hits.

I have read two of Nicolas Sparks and sobbed like a baby.

Great post.

Teri Thackston said…
Friends and family know to warn me about sad endings--I've got to have a HEA.
Jo Anne said…
Most of mine have been listed already. Old Yeller and Gone With the Wind on the top of the list. Out of Africa, Bridges of Madison County and yes, most of Sharon's books.

I agree with the folks who can't read animal stories. Unless I know that there's going to be a HEA for the critter, I avoid them. Jan Freed killed off a horse in a Superromance back in the 90s - the name of the book was "The Texas Way" or something like that. I still haven't forgiven her. :-)

I haven't read Bald in the Land of Big Hair yet, but I intend to pick up a copy tomorrow.

I want a HEA, which is why I avoid Literary and Eastern fiction. If I want a tragedy, I can read the news.

But I do enjoy a good cleansing sob with a story that pulls at my emotions.
Jo Anne, I'll give you a hint about Joni's book.

***Spoiler alert***

(…She lives.)
Jo Anne said…
That's why I can't WAIT to read it, Colleen. :-)
Lynne said…
I had to read a Paul Gallico short story at school ... several decades ago now. "The Snow Goose" set on the East coast of England and focusing on the rescue of thousands of trapped soldiers by ordinary English folk off the beaches in Dunkirk. It was so incredibly heart wrenching and I became more and more distressed as we were reading it in class. Then came the awful moment when the teacher chose me to read the next chapter out loud. This was the chapter where one of the main characters realises that the other main character is not coming home. In front of the entire class of 15 year olds I gulped and sobbed my way through paragraph after paragraph until the teacher took pity on me and chose another reader. It still has a special place in my heart as one of the saddest stories ever written. Paul Gallico was a true master of the written word!
That sounds like an amazing story.

I taught for many years, and it always reassured me to see kids emotionally moved by stories. Once they've had a gut-level connection via the written word, there's real hope they'll never get enough.

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