By Kathy Lipscomb
One of the best writing advice I have received was a few years back at a Wifyr (Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers) writer’s conference. I signed up for the week long intense course where a class of 10 shared the first 20 pages of our manuscript with each other and with a published author.
After we had all had our first 10 pages critiqued, our mentor author, Kristin Chandler, told us: No tears.
As in, don’t have your characters cry or near tears or anything close.
Honestly, I thought she was crazy. I mean, we’re writing young adult fiction here, and most of our main characters were females. I don’t know about you, but I am an emotional wreck way more than I’d like to be. Crying is my go-to emotion, not because I want it to be. It just is.
So, how come having our characters cry is a bad thing? Isn’t it realistic?
Kristin Chandler taught us two important things. 1) It comes down to how we portray emotion and what we want the readers to feel. Crying is a release of emotion. When our characters cry and release that emotion, so do our readers. The emotion and tension that we worked so hard to build vanishes. If you want or need tears, make it happen at the right moment. And only once.
2) Look at the writers you love that have amazing emotion. You’ll notice that most of them don’t use tears. J K Rowling is notorious for killing her characters (I believe for good reasons), and Harry Potter doesn’t cry when he witnesses it happen. Each scene is intense, but the release of that tension happens later or not at all, depending on what the ending result needs to be. Does the character need to hold onto that sadness? Will the character turn that emotion from sadness to anger or frustration or a false sense of humor? If so, they probably won’t mourn, because they need that emotion to stay inside them.
After mulling around on this lesson of no (or only one time) tears, I started to see it in other books. I saw that when a character (my own included), burst into tears, I became less sympathetic. Less intrigued. Less wanting to continue reading. Rather I wanted to skim to the next part. The emotion didn’t drive me to read anymore, just as Kristin said. I also noticed that there were a lot of tears in books. It seems to be our fallback as writers.
Getting rid of the tears makes us better writers. It makes us dig deep and learn how different emotions make us react. And those reactions make our scenes more intense, and build tension for our readers. It may sound crazy to get rid of tears. It may sound like it shouldn’t make a big impact. But it does.