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.