What Makes a Reader Care?

Have you ever read a book that made you cry? If so, what was it about the story that moved you? I would bet that, on some level, you fell in love with the characters and those characters were put in a difficult, perhaps impossible, situation. How did the author make you fall in love with the characters? How did she weave the story to make you feel like you were IN the story? How did she make you care?

This is my challenge at the moment as a writer. After the recent Frankenstein edit to my memoir, I gave it back to the reader who initially told me the draft didn’t hold her interest past the mid-point. Last night she gave me notes based on the new edit. The good news is this draft held her interest through to the end, and there were parts that made her laugh out loud. The bad news is the draft didn’t make her cry. Considering the story is about a couple who falls in love, then one gets sick and dies, and the other mourns him, this is very bad news indeed. Crushing, actually. It means she wasn’t emotionally invested in the characters. It also means the conflict wasn’t clear or compelling enough.

Herein lies the difference between real life and the written word.

In real life, the conflict was really clear and super F’ing compelling to the people involved. Kaz, an otherwise healthy young man in the prime of his life, the man I loved, was dying of a terminal disease, and there was nothing either one of us could do about it. I once told my therapist that being his caregiver felt at times like being on a ship that keeps getting hit by torpedoes. “I’m running around frantically trying to plug the holes, but as soon as I plug one another two show up, and the ship is slowly sinking.” 

The flip side of that nightmare was that we bonded as a couple at the same time we were being ripped apart by his illness.  In pictures taken shortly after his death, I am beaming, not because I’m happy but because I had never felt more in love or empowered. On the one hand, I felt full. On the other, I felt as if a part of me had just died, because it did. I set out to write about us because I wanted to capture the incredible journey we had taken, and the way in which that journey changed us and especially me, the survivor.

Translating all of that to the page is no small task. I’m a screenwriter by nature, not an author. I use language to describe action, setting, dialogue and transitions, not necessarily how the air smelled, the color of the sheets, or how the sun glinting off the car hood reminded me of a childhood scene. My reader picked up on this. “This would make an awesome movie,” she said. “We would be seeing and feeling the nuances without your having to describe them.” But it’s not a movie yet. It’s a book – a novel really (even if it’s true) – which is arguably the most difficult type of writing to master.

I recently posted about losing steam and not finishing projects. Here is a prime example of a “losing steam” kind of moment. I’m tired of writing this book, both mentally and emotionally. But I’ve come too far to stop now. I must push through my fatigue and do another pass. I must return to the sinking ship and remember what it felt like, what it sounded like, what it looked like… then try to describe it so the reader will hear, see, feel and taste the details. I must go back and remember who Kaz and I were, the beautiful moments, the snapshots of love… then shape those memories into characters that the reader will love, and moments the reader will want to experience. My goal is not to make the reader cry. My goal is to make the reader care.

To answer the opening question, the last book that made me cry was The Disappearance by Genevieve Jurgensen, a memoir about her losing both of her young daughters to a drunk driver in one afternoon, and her subjequent recovery from that loss. It’s quite sad but also inspiring. I highly recommend it.

22 Comments

  1. I wish you luck? Is that the right word? Probably not…but I know that sense of writing something that emotionally involves the reader is hard. As a reader myself, it is a rare book that has made me cry. Although, lately I’ve tried to avoid those sorts of books

  2. Why a novel and not just straight memoir?

    Much as your story is tragic and moving, maybe making someone cry is setting the bar too high….or maybe just not what some readers want! I almost never cry and a book that was pushed on me as something guaranteed to make me weep would turn me off. The greatest writing about truly miserable shit is often so understated and restrained that we hold our breath in awe and horror.

    Trying to elicit emotion in someone else is a very very tricky endeavor!

  3. I understand avoiding those sorts of books, even though I was the opposite. Different strokes, right? Thanks for the well wishes. I’m not looking forward to this pass. I’m looking forward to being on the other side of it. 🙂

  4. True. I also hate sappy, overly emotional books and the best memoirs I’ve read did make me cry but not on purpose (if that makes sense). It’s more about creating characters, scenarios, sensations and settings that feel real, that we can picture in our mind. Maybe I didn’t describe it well enough in my post.

  5. I have a slightly different take on your question. I don’t think it’s that you have to fall in love in the characters – I think you have to become at least one of them, or feel that you are there right next to them, which is different than loving them.

    The books that have impressed me the most and stayed with me the longest are those where at some point the boundary between me and the story goes away. When this happens it really doesn’t matter anymore if the book is written in 3rd person or 1st person, because I am now a part of the story. I’m no longer just reading it; I’m living it. I don’t know what magic writer tricks it takes to make that happen, and why it works for me in some books but not others, but that’s how it is for me.

    It’s that critical bounce from reader to participant that makes it possible to get totally involved in a story that has no real relationship to your personal life; because at that point it is your story, even though your investment is solely through the pages of the book (or the screen; or stage). I think that may be what makes some books live long beyond the period of their cultural relevancy. When Rick was in the hospital I read a ton of books, most of which I forgot as soon as I was finished. I was in the middle of reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities when he died. I never finished that book and doubt I’ll ever be able to; but boy was I sucked into it. That book was written over a hundred and fifty years ago, about an event that was a generation old when it was written; and yet I can still see characters and recall conversations and feel like I was right there with them.

    I think your writing is good, really good. I will tell you, as a reader of your blog, I feel that I know you, and that when I read many of your posts it is as though you’re sitting next to me and we’re talking. That’s a gift. If you’re best at doing scripts, maybe this should be a movie instead a book. If the reader you used didn’t cry, maybe that is more a reflection on the reader than the writer. Perhaps you need another test driver.

  6. Thanks for the kinds words. Yes, my reader said the same thing, that I should have another person read it. The next person on my list is my mentor. I’ll probably post about that soon because he’s a big deal and he read a VERY early draft. I’m going to do this next pass before giving it to him.

    About becoming one with the character, I totally agree! That actually sums it up better than I did in the post. It’s about identification. When we identify with the narrator or main character, we are emotionally invested in what happens to them because at some point we start feeling like it’s happening to us. I love that feeling!

    We’ll see about movie vs. book. My mentor is both a successful filmmaker and the son of a famous author, so I’m hoping he can give me some guidance in that respect.

  7. Honestly, as a budding blog writer, I can’t imagine how hard it must be to seriously attempt a novel in which you have to make characters worth caring about. Thanks for sharing this struggle to birth a story, it’s pretty grounding. 🙂

  8. “Struggle to birth a story” – nicely put. That’s what it feels like. In this case, the story has happened and I’m attempting to write a memoir that captures and does the story justice. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  9. “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger. It’s a novel but reads like a memoir. I enjoyed it as an audiobook and came to love the characters. I openly wept at the ending while sitting in Atlanta traffic — well, maybe it was the traffic.

    Inspiring post. Keep at it and everything will fall into place.

  10. I agree…have someone else read it. I am an avid reader and it is rare a book moves me to cry. I will share that the first book that made me cry was Louie Anderson’s Dear Dad. Yes, you read that correctly. Simple book, family, drinking, pain. Holy Moly, it moved me to tears. You have a story to tell. Share it with us in a memoir.

  11. “The Time Traveler’s Wife”… I’ve heard the movie is quite good, but haven’t seen it or read the book. Now I will! Thanks for the suggestion and encouragement.

  12. It’s wonderful when a book, or any piece of art, moves us in that way, isn’t it? Such is the power of the imagination. Thanks for sharing.

  13. I highly recommend book first on this one. Another great tear-jerker was “Snow Falling on Cedars” by David Gutterson. This one too belongs in the book first, then movie category.

  14. I know exactly what you mean. Turning memoir to real life is not easy, which in my opinion, separates the bloggers from the writers. What I love, and what I think a lot of people love about blogging, is this shot at being a memoirist. And there is something appealing about reading and writing blogs. That said, there is a huge leap from blog to memoir — and it’s one I struggle with personally, as I’m working on a memoir. I appreciate your perspective. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Not sure yet, but leaning towards the idea of self-publishing to start with. By the way, I watched The Vanishing last night. T-e-r-r-i-f-y-i-n-g. Very good movie. Thanks for suggesting it!!

  16. I know. I love the movie. That story is so compelling. That movie is AWESOME. 😉 You get totally drawn in … just like the guy trying to find his girlfriend. And I love the illusion of the eggs to light, and all the opposing forces at play. The pulling you in by sharing that sense of curiosity with the main characters. The filming, editing. The antagonist. All of it. I could analyze that movie to death. 😉 So much great stuff. AND…chills your right to the blawdy marrow. Glad you liked it ….had a feeling you would. 🙂

    And self-publishing very interesting. Such a compelling thing to have such control…hard work, but so much freedom I would imagine. And, you have already began to gather your readers. Also you are on the “leading, bleeding edge” of the new incarnation of the publishing industry. 🙂 And pioneers always have stories to tell.

  17. This is a very interesting topic and one for which there is no simple solution. From a creator’s point of view I think your primary objective should be to tell your story. That’s it. As you write perhaps you should be continually asking yourself what exactly you are trying to convey – what is the underlying element that is most resonant to you? If your words can capture that perhaps your readers will respond to the same thing.

    Don’t try and second-guess or anticipate your readers because it will take you off course. We all have different triggers that hit us in our ‘soft spot’. For me it is often the revelation or acknowledgement of love that sets me off but that might be too obvious or conventional for some. I cry at movies all the time, at books not so much but what is true for both is that you generally only want to go on journeys with characters you either like or find interesting.

    That said, I recently found myself sobbing several times as I read the closing chapters of a book called ‘Cutting For Stone’ by Abraham Verghese but that was largely about fathers and sons – another one of my triggers!

    Good luck and keep applying heat and water – then you’ll never run out of steam.

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