“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
This famous quote has pushed many an aspiring writer to improve their work. It is a perennial piece of writing advice, simply because it’s true: you can’t impart on others what you don’t feel yourself. Even a liar must be convinced of his own lie if he is to persuade others to believe it. And what are fiction writers but professional liars?
A convincing story is delightful because it feels real. But that conviction comes at a price – for both the writer and the reader.
The key to understanding what makes a story convincing is understanding why this conviction works.
Strong emotions originate from the part of the limbic system (primal brain) called the amygdala. This gland is responsible for inciting strong and uncomplicated emotions such as fear and euphoria. When we get scared, it pumps our body full of chemicals that trigger cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones enabling us to fight or flee.
This stress response is either on or off. The amygdala is triggered, or it’s not. There is nothing in between. A biologically perfect system that has ensured the survival of animal life for millions of years.
However, it has one significant drawback:
“But the exact same stress response kicks in when you imagine danger, also producing cortisol and adrenalin and pushing blood around the body. The same chemistry is produced regardless of whether the danger is real or imagined.”
This is why you wake up sweating and panting after a nightmare. Your brain can’t tell that it was all inside your head. The human brain isn’t capable of distinguishing between reality and imagination.
When the amygdala perceives danger, you can’t convince it to ignore that perception. Likewise, when the amygdala does not perceive danger, it simply won’t trigger the corresponding chemicals and you don’t feel a thing.
Now while you can’t trick the amygdala, you can convince it. After all, the amygdala can’t tell if something is real. If you can make an imaginary scene so convincing that it might be real, the amygdala responds with those delicious hormones. And that reaction is what writers aspire to induce.
Bringing Tears in The Writer
It’s thanks to our brain confusing reality and imagination that we can become fully immersed in a book or movie. We feel as if we are there, living those adventures, facing those dangers – because our amygdala is convinced that we are. Is your amygdala is not convinced, then the story will leave you completely unperturbed.
The threshold of what does or doesn’t trigger the amygdala varies from person to person. Some readers are creeped out by Stephen King’s stories, but they leave me woefully indifferent. I can’t say why, but they just don’t do ‘it’ for me…pun not intended.
The only gauge a writer has of whether their stories will achieve the immersion effect is when their creation has that effect on themselves. Hence Frost’s quote. If the writer is emotionally involved by their own writing, then chances are other readers will experience the same involvement. (No guarantees, though. That is what beta readers are for.)
To bring their readers great stories, writers habitually twist their own innards with the words they commit to paper. Small wonder that other author quotes equate writing to masochistic torture that no sane person would inflict on themselves.
Yet writers do just that. We type with fingers that are crooked with tension and ram at the keyboard to keep up with the high-speed car chase. We hold our breaths so the monster in the story won’t hear us. The ink spelling out freshly written words gets blotted by our own tears…
This may sound dramatic, but for many writers, the days this happens are the best writing days.
Inside Their Heads
To make matters worse, we don’t just transport ourselves to the time and place of the scene we’re writing. We get inside the heads of our characters. When the character in question is someone we can relate to, that can be a pleasant getaway from your own life. But the villain is a character, too.
When their worldview and moral compass diverges wildly from your own, that can cause true psychological distress. Our brain can’t tell it’s just our imagination at work. A storyteller must step into the characters’ minds and see the world through their eyes. Be convinced of what s/he conveys to the audience. Even when a part of him/her is beating on a glass wall and crying for those characters to stop doing all the wrong things.
The other day, I spend a few hours in the mind of a medieval doctor treating a patient. His methods are horrifying to our modern standards, but he is convinced that he is doing the right thing. And so I must be the liar who is convinced of what she knows to be a lie if I’m to make this scene convincing to my readers.
It’s like acting. The stage may be made of paper, but you’d better get into your role if you want to capture the audience!
The Price Writers Pay
As you can imagine, emotionally involved writing is exhausting. The more complex a story, the more details need to be checked and matched consistently. The larger a story’s cast, the more heads the writer has to crawl into without losing themselves. At times, writers may feel that living so many lives so intensely challenges their own sanity. The price for a good, involved story.
Not all writers go that deep. Formulaic action or romance novels are meant to be entertainment, not to incite strong emotions. Often referred to as ‘pulp fiction’, these stories don’t require their writers to delve into a deep emotional state. That formula method allows pulp fiction writers to complete multiple titles per year. What such stories lack in depth, they make up in quantity. That is that genre’s strength.
But sometimes tears in the writer are too high a price. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front is heavily based on the writer’s own traumatic experiences in the trenches of WWI, yet the story feels oddly distant throughout. The same happened in certain passages of Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That. Involved writing no longer serves a purpose if that would keep a story from being written at all.
The Price Readers Pay
As Frost’s quote suggests, there are two parties to this game. While the writer pays for immersing stories with tears and frustration, the reader pays for it in patience.
Writing a 275-page formulaic romance novel requires less time and emotional involvement than completing an 800-page epic fantasy novel with eight interwoven plotlines and a cast of dozens. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Authors like G.R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss don’t publish a new book every year, simply because their stories and writing style won’t allow it.
Even novellas and short stories might take months to complete. Some scenes are so intense, it is impossible to write more than a few lines or one paragraph per day. That may not be all the writer is working on, but those individual stories won’t be finished in the course of a few weeks.
Besides, authors need reality checks as part of their work routine. Coffee, tea, light reading, a walk outside: anything to assure the amygdala that the danger it perceived while writing has now gone. Sometimes a few minutes or hours suffice, sometimes a writer needs a few weeks or even months.
So when you are eagerly awaiting the next publication of your favourite author, be patient.
This should go without saying, and for most people it does. But too many creatives get harassed by fans. Some supposed fans get so aggressive while hunting for their ‘fix’ that the creators leave the industry all together to escape the duress.
Don’t be that ‘fan’. Have patience and support your favourite storytellers. That way you can be certain that their next work will be everything you hoped for.
What book brought you to tears – reading it or writing it? Leave the title in the comments!