Have you ever plunked yourself down in a plush theater seat to watch a Nicholas Sparks’ movie, knowing full well that a sad ending might turn you into such a splotched-face mess that you’ll slink to your car afterward, hoping you don’t encounter anyone you know along the way? I have.
Why do I do it? After all, I’m a fan of romances, where there’s a guaranteed Happy Ending. The best answer I can come up with is that I enjoy watching movies that move me.
When you think of an author who makes you reach for a tissue—or two or three—who comes to mind? I’m sure you can come up with several.
The first one I thought of was Katie Ganshert. When I read her debut novel, Wildflowers from Winter, I reached a point in the story where I wept. No. That’s not true. I bawled my eyes out and sported a Rudolph nose afterward.
Since Katie is my friend, I arranged a time to talk about her story. I was eager to tell her how powerfully it had impacted me. And—I’ll confess, since Katie already knows—I wanted to find out how she’d done it.
We spent an hour on the phone. Being the nice person she is, Katie didn’t seem to mind. Now that I’m a published author myself, I can understand. But I didn’t have a book out at the time and didn’t want to bother her. I’ve wised up since then. Readers rock! Readers who take the time to gush about our stories can send us soaring so high we have to look down to the see the mountaintops.
When Tina offered me the opportunity to visit Seekerville again, I suggested tackling the topic of stories that lead to tears. When she accepted my idea, I contacted Katie to see if she’d share some of her wisdom with you. She agreed, so you’ll get my thoughts coupled with a bit of her brilliance.
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Katie and I have come up with six ways to evoke emotional engagement in your stories.
1. Create characters so real and so sympathetic that we care deeply about them.
If we’re invested in the main characters of a story, we’ll be eager to see good things happen to them. When tough stuff comes their way, we’ll hurt for them. When they suffer, we’ll suffer along with them.
Keli ~ To make my characters as real as possible, I endow them with some good traits—along with a flaw or two. I can’t relate to perfect people, so my characters are works-in-progress, just like me. Throwing some past wounds into the mix can help, too.
The hero of my March Love Inspired Historical, A Home of Her Own, was injured in an explosion and left with a scar on his face—and a chip on his shoulder. James has endured a number of losses and turned his back on God, believing He doesn’t care. To his credit, James loves his ailing mother deeply and would do anything to make life easier.
Katie ~ I confess, sometimes my characters aren’t super likeable when we meet them. Readers were split on Bethany, my heroine in Wildflowers from Winter. Same with Ivy from A Broken Kind of Beautiful. The key, for me, when it comes to creating characters that move readers is creating a sympathetic background. And then, of course, finding a poignant way to reveal that background to the readers.
In Wildflowers from Winter, this revealing came in the form of short first-person vignettes sprinkled throughout the story. In A Broken Kind of Beautiful, the reveal came through the eyes of another character. Arguably one of my most beloved characters amongst readers—Ivy’s stepmother, Marilyn Olsen.
2. Create high stakes. Give you characters something (or someone) to lose.
I don’t know about you, but I find it’s often easier to sympathize with someone who is going through a tough time than it can be to rejoice with someone who is enjoying success, especially when I’m not. When I encounter a character with a lot to lose, I can empathize. While I have no idea what it feels like to win the lottery or be handed the keys to a brand new BMW, I do know what it feels like to love someone and have that person’s life on the line or to cling to a dream, only to have my hopes of achieving it dashed.
Keli ~ While it’s obvious from the beginning of A Home of Her Own that James is
concerned about his mother’s declining health and is terrified at the thought of losing her, I quickly established a connection between his mother and the heroine, too. That gives Becky an emotional buy-in from the outset of the story. Both have someone to lose. In addition, Becky, who is on the run, is concerned about losing her freedom—and possibly even her life—if her abusive brother finds her.
Katie ~ In Wishing on Willows, Robin is trying to save her café. That’s all well and good, as the café is her livelihood and livelihoods are important. But what makes the stakes higher—what really taps into the readers’ sympathies—is what the café represents. It’s the dream she and her late husband shared. If Robin loses the café, not only does she lose her job; she loses another piece of her husband.
3. Take away something or someone your character cares about deeply, or withhold something your character wants.
When characters I care about suffer loss, I feel their pain. Tapping into my grief brings the emotions I experienced to the surface, and I ache along with the grieving character.
Keli ~ James has suffered one loss after another. He lost his career and his looks as a result of the explosion—along with the woman he was seeing. Not long after James fought for his life, his father passed on. Learning that his beloved mother has cancer and that he could lose her, too, is a crushing blow.
Katie ~ Sometimes, we don’t even have to take anything away. We can simply withhold something our character wants. Just as most of our readers will be able to empathize with loss, they will also be able to empathize with longing. It’s what I did with Carmen Hart in The Art of Losing Yourself. She yearns for a child—a common desire amongst women. It was a longing I withheld, and one of the reasons why Carmen strikes such a deep chord in readers.
4. Don’t be afraid to tackle tough subjects.
Tough subjects evoke emotion because we put ourselves into the character’s place. Even if we haven’t experienced what they’re going through, we can sympathize.H
Keli ~ Choose an emotionally charged topic or situation. There are plenty to chose from, such as an abandoned or neglected child, a victim of abuse, a difficult diagnosis, an injury. Becky arrives in California bearing bruises she received at the hands of her own brother. But it’s worse than that. He falsely accused her of arson, and she was forced to flee. Forcing our characters to deal with challenges as great as these puts them under intense pressure and shows us what they’re really made of.
Katie ~ I agree with Keli. We shouldn’t be afraid to tackle tough subjects, so long as they arise organically from the story. My editor has taught me a lot about this. If we’re throwing in tough circumstances just for the sake of having tough circumstances, we’re dipping into melodrama and we should proceed with caution. This was the case with A Broken Kind of Beautiful. Originally, there was a thread about a hereditary neurological disorder that lent itself to some really weighty scenes (my favorite kind to write). But my editor saw what I couldn’t see for myself. The disorder wasn’t necessary. Taking it out made the threads that were necessary for the story stronger and more poignant.
5. Tap into your own emotions.
If we write with authenticity, readers will sense that realism in our stories and be more invested in them as a result.
Keli ~ We’ve all experienced loss of one kind or another. We might not have lost a loved one, but grief is grief. If we’ve lost a job, a pet or a friendship, we can tap into that those feelings and use it to evoke emotional reactions in our readers.
Katie ~ They say write what you know, which is lousy advice, really. I don’t know what it’s like to take my husband off of life support. I don’t know what it’s like to be a single mom or a teenager with an alcoholic parent or lose a loved one to Alzheimer’s. But I’ve written each scenario. The key—as Keli said—is tapping into those universal emotions we’ve all experienced. Fear, loneliness, heartache, confusion. You don’t have to live on planet earth for very long before you become acquainted with one of those. Start with a seed of truth and expand from there.
6. Have your characters fight their pain as long as possible before finally being overwhelmed and giving way to the emotions that have been welling up inside them.
When characters are fighting to keep their emotions under control, we often experience the emotional responses in their place, which can draw us even more deeply into the story.
Keli ~ Being a strong man, James struggles to contain his emotions. But a person can only keep feelings inside so long. I wept when I wrote the scenes where his self-control finally fails him, and I have a hunch readers might be moved to tears at that point as well.
Katie ~ I think this is a great way to evoke emotion. The longer our characters keep those emotions bottled up inside, the more tension builds in our readers. And the more tension we build in our readers, the more emotionally charged the moment will be when we finally hit the release button.
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Stories such as Katie’s can move me to tears. You’ve seen why and how we work emotion into our stories.
I’d wondered why Nicholas Sparks does the same, and I got my answer—from the man himself. He grew up in the Sacramento area not too far from where I live and returned for a book signing at a Barnes and Noble a few years back.
A friend and I attended the event, along with some five hundred others. We got to hear Mr. Sparks field questions from his enthusiastic fans during a Q&A. One of his devoted readers asked him a question that had all of us on the edge of our seats eagerly awaiting his response: Why do you write stories that make readers cry, and do you have any plans to change that?
Mr. Sparks smiled and said that he writes what his readers want. To paraphrase, they like sad stories that make them hurt along with his characters, so he writes them. And, no, he has no plans to change unless his readers ask for something different. Since his books continue to fly off the shelves, it’s evident many readers want to be moved to the point of tears.
I’m curious. Do you like to read stories that have you reaching for tissues? Why, or why not?
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My thanks to Seekerville for hosting me and to my talented friend Katie Ganshert for sharing some of her wisdom with you. You can learn more about Katie by visiting her website at www.katieganshert.com, where you’ll learn about her amazing inspirational romances and young adult novels.
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Award-winning author Keli Gwyn, a native Californian, transports readers to the early days of the Golden State. She and her husband live in the heart of California’s Gold Country. Her favorite places to visit are her fictional worlds, historical museums and other Gold Rush-era towns. Keli loves hearing from readers and invites you to visit her Victorian-style cyber home at www.keligwyn.com, where you’ll find her contact information.
A Home of Her Own
A Blossoming Love
Becky Martin knows that she can't stay at James O'Brien's apple farm forever, but she wishes she could. After her brother framed her for arson, she flees Chicago, traveling cross-country to California and finding work caring for James's ailing mother. Beneath the apple blossoms, it's almost as if she has a real family…but her secret won't stay buried forever.
James, scarred from an explosion, didn't expect to connect to the pretty young traveler. Could she really love someone damaged like him? He knows she's hiding something. If only she'd trust him. Can she let go of her past and believe in the possibility of a future amid the apple trees?
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