Last week Michelle wrote a great piece about torturing your characters. It ties in very well to my topic today. On the heels of finishing Kristin Cashore's debut novel GRACELING, I am devastated. And yet relieved. It's similar to the way I felt at the end of HUNGER GAMES or ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. These authors achieved the perfect level of reader trauma. In the case of Across the Universe, the trauma began in chapter one and took turns lying in the shadows while we got to know the characters, only to return later in another form. This made the book unputdownable.
There are many ways to devastate a reader, so let me be clear about what I mean here. I don't mean gratuitously introducing us to lovable characters and then slaughtering them. Your reader will be devastated by that, but not in a good way--more likely in a way that hardens his skin against anything else you can throw at him. This will make a compelling climax very hard to achieve. Don't decimate for the sake of decimating.
I've been taking notes on the things that make me cry, or fall silent in tearless shock, or laugh out loud. All of these reactions are part of the devastation. If you don't make me smile, you won't be able to make me cry, either. For instance, if a character loses his left arm, I'll be sad (and maybe a little grossed out, depending on the way he lost it), but if a charming artist who is finally gaining attention for his work loses his painting hand at the cruelty of debt-collecting thugs, that will devastate me. Especially if that character is the love interest, main character, or best friend character. Often you can get away with devastating me without maiming--with the mere threat of maiming. But other times, you'll have to follow through on whatever horrible thing you've promised or I'll just know you're pulling my leg.
And then there are the surprise attacks. When I'm sure a character is dead and I'm so relieved to find him alive that I almost don't even care that he's not whole (brainwashed, or blind, or terminal). But how do you pull this off? What exactly is it that separates a horrible novel from an incredible novel in which horrible things happen?
I've narrowed it down to a few ideas:
- context, like the artist who loses his painting hand
- cherished or light-hearted moments precede the chaos
- the trauma seems preventable so the reader is thinking, "If only she'd stayed behind like she was supposed to," or "If only he hadn't hit the water exactly that way."
- interiority: I want to talk about this one for a while because I think it's key:
See, when the first horrible thing happens, I'm already upset. But it's the narrator's summing up of the facts in an emotional way that does me in. The heroine spelling out that her artist's magnum opus will now lie in the attic unfinished because he's lost his zest for art and life. How the most sensitive, endlessly optimistic person she's ever met is now cynical and depressed. How the one person she let into her heart left it an icy, unwelcoming place in the wake of his disaster. And how, without his hand, there's no way he'll be able to pay the loan shark, and the money will be extracted from those he loves.
You don't have to spell everything out, but definitely keep the natural thoughts--the things it would be bizarre not to lay out there. Your character's parents are getting a divorce after 41 years of marriage. He's having an internal reaction. He must be. So whether you show us by his behavior to his own wife, or sum it up in the narration or dialogue, you've got to lead us toward the consequences of his parents' choice.
What are some ways you've been devastated as a reader? Why did it work? Did you get a feeling of closure after the devastation?