Monday, November 2, 2015

Guest Post: Let the Reader Do the Work | September C. Fawkes

Today I'm honored to have a guest post from September C. Fawkes. She has some fantastic stuff over on her blog -like Writer's Tips and analyses of popular shows on why they work- so definitely check it out.

As a warning, this post does contain some Harry Potter spoilers. So if I'm not the only one in the universe who has neither read all the books or seen all the movies, beware!

Now, without further ado, September C. Fawkes, ladies and gentlemen! 

If you are like me, there are a couple (or ten) books you've cried in. There may be a couple (or ten) books you've wanted to throw across the room because you where so mad at the villians. And then there may be a couple (or twenty) books that left you feeling empty, bittersweet, and satisfied all at once.

As a reader, I love and yearn for books that make me feel powerful emotions. Sometimes I'm surprised how one book can deal with big conflicts but leave me feeling apathetic, while others deal with small conflicts but make my heart ache or my spirits soar.

In books, a lot of the emotion we feel has to do with how the writer handles that emotion. I'm a writer myself, and I have the opportunity to read a lot of unpublished fiction. Today I'm going to talk a little bit about why some books hit us in the feels and others . . . don't.

There is a writing rule I heard that states that "If your character is crying, then you reader doesn't have to." When I first heard that, I wasn't sure I agreed with it, but I thought about the books I'd read, and I talked to a few other readers and realized there was some truth to that statement.

I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, went to midnight releases and everything. In the books, Harry is on the verge of crying several times, but he never actually does. Fact: I cried more in those books than any other book I've ever read! And loads of other people cried too. In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Jean Valjean weeps several times just in the first 200 pages. I never cried once. (And anyone who knows the story, knows how heart wrenching it is.)

If Harry ever broke down and bawled, I don't know that I would have. I may have still gotten teary-eyed, but I don't think I would have sobbed like I did. There is something about having ther character cry that takes the tension out of us, the readers. The character is doing the emotional work, so we don't have to.

I soon realized this applied to more than crying. In one unpublished story I read, one of the characters was often worrying about a mystery. She asked all the questions, did all the wondering, the worrying, and I found that I, as a reader, didn't have to. And you know what? I wasn't as engaged. The author didn't let me do that part. So instead of participating in the story, I was merely "watching" it.

I Open at the Close by Yume Dust
I'm not saying authors can never have their characters cry etc. (there is a time and place), but it's best if kept minimal. As a writer, you want to build up those feelings in your reader so that they experience the story, not just read about it. Just because you didn't write that your characters were crying, or worried, or angry doesn't mean they weren't.

In fact, I've come to accept that those passages where I was bawling my eyes out were moments where I was vicariously crying as Harry. And frankly, that's what readers want. As a reader, I want to be in the character, in the story, because only then can I reach that deep, emotional plane where the story leaves an indelible mark on me.

So for writers, when their characters are sad, anxious, fearful, embarrassed, or angry, instead of focusing on how the character feels and reacts emotionally to it, they should focus on how to elicit those emotions in the readers, so that we become part of the story. This is often done by focusing on the event that caused those emotions and rendering it in a way that amplifies those emotions. For example, how much emotion do these sentences conjure?

Harry watched Sirius fall through the archway to his death. Harry couldn't believe it. He was upset and started crying.

How much more emotion does this passage conjure?

It seemed to take Sirius an age to fall. His body curved in a graceful arc as he sank backward through the ragged veil hanging from the arch. . . .

And Harry saw the look of mingled fear and surprise on his godfather's, wasted, once-handsome face as he fell through the ancient doorway and disappeared behind the veil, which fluttered for a moment. . .

Harry heard Bellatrix Lestrange's triumphant scream, but knew it meant nothing--Sirius had only just fallen thought the archway, he would reappear from the other side any second. . . .

But Sirius did not reappear.

"SIRIUS!" Harry yelled, "SIRIUS!"

[Harry] sprinted to the dias, Lupin grabbed Harry around the chest, holding him back.

"There's nothing you can do Harry--"

"Get him, save him, he's only just gone though!" . . .

Harry struggled hard and viciously, but Lupin wouldn't let go.

The second example is more likely to give the reader that vicarious feeling, the sense that they are experiencing the story firsthand. That's the kind of writing I like to read.

So as readers, what books made you feel a lot of emotion?


September is also hosting a fan-tastic giveaway on her blog! The prizes include a Fullmetal Alchemist pocket watch, a Time Turner necklace from Harry Potter, and a key to 221B Baker Street.

To enter, just click here!

About September

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting. September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. Today she works for a New York Times best-selling author, is penning a novel, and sharing writing tips on her blog, which you can find at

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