Wednesday, 14 December 2011

M is for Moving

It's high praise when someone says a book moved them to tears. But what, exactly, is it that makes us cry? It isn't just a sad situation.

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, for example, is about people in a very sad situation, and yet it left me cold. I was furious at the father's fecklessness at drinking away any money he got instead of spending it on feeding and clothing his children, appalled at the pious self-righteousness of the Church, and irritated by the spinelessness of the mother.

You need four elements for people to feel moved.

1. A sense of the struggle.
If everything falls into your characters' laps, tiddley pom, without them having to make any effort for it, then I'm afraid most readers will switch off fast. A character who struggles and is then rewarded, however, we engage with. The bigger the struggle, the bigger the problems, the more we engage, and the more we feel moved when they finally achieve their goals. (BTW big, in this context, means something that matters to the character big time. It doesn't necessarily mean 'big' by any other standards.)

2. The darkest moment
The struggle will be highlighted if it looks as if the character is going to lose whatever it is they are fighting for. I'm not a fan of the Hero's Journey formula when it comes to being a useful tool for actually writing a novel, but it does remind us of important features such as the darkest hour, when the character hits rock bottom. Seeing them struggle out from the pit gives us readers hope that we too will be able to get out of our own darkest moments. That's why happy endings often have us crying away.

3. Character identification
Characters need to be like the readers in some ways. They need their good and bad points. If they live in places that are far from the reader's experience (the past, the future, another planet...) then their humanity mustn't be forgotten (even if they're actually aliens).

4. Specific characteristics
Certain things are guaranteed tear jerkers....

Triumph over disaster
Self sacrifice

Examples for me include A Tale of Two Cities, The Incredible Journey, Children on the Oregon Trail, I Am David, Lord of the Rings among many others. Films are too numerous to mention, but perhaps a less obvious one is An Officer and A Gentleman, in the bit when he gives up his chance of winning the top prize (self sacrifice) to enable his class mate to succeed (loyalty). And of course the end scene - endurance, love conquers all, triumph over disaster and virtue rewarded.

And the film that inspired me to write this blog, about the rescue of the Bonita by the RNLI 30 years ago. Astounding bravery, endurance, self-sacrifice and triumph over disaster - please watch.


Cathy said...

This is great. It's like my blog but - better. (Weeping gently as my keyboard fizzes.) Cathy x

Philip C James said...

The Bonita film: very moving; made doubly so by the contrast to the coda concerning the loss of the Pen Lee.

I remember reading many years ago about a naval rescue. In those days warships had several ships boats and the cox'n was given the choice of a motor launch or a sea-boat manned by a crew of rowers. In stormy seas he chose the latter. When asked why later he explained that the motor of the launch can only ever give 100% (if that, and could be swamped and break down) whereas a crew struggling against the odds could often give 110% or more to save lives - others and their own.

Angela's Ashes is one of the books on my shelves I haven't read yet so cannot comment.

Does 'moving' have a broader definition than just 'makes one cry'? I found both STAR MAKER by Olaf Stapledon moving intellectually in the sweep of its narrative and books by Dostoevsky moving in a different and darker way.

If I had to choose one film that moved me, it would be BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, the 2007 version based on the 1977 novel by Katherine Patterson (which I have not read). Ostensibly a children's film it strikes a chord with adults too. I won't spoil the plot but halfway through something happens that forces a child to confront loss and grief. That I found very moving; the event dividing the story in two is especially interesting as a device.

Sarah Duncan said...

Love the idea of your keyboard fizzing away Cathy.

Phil, that's a wonderful anecdote about the cox'n. Moving will mean different things to different people, and affect them differently. I have neither read nor seen the Bridge to Terabithia, but will look out for it.

penny simpson said...

Angela's Ashes moved me only to rage. And not just with the characterisation and the writing but my inability to understand how such a banal book could be successful. Plot: Feckless father drinks housekeeping money and family suffer. Repeat ten times. Collect cheque from publishers. Bah!

Sarah Duncan said...

Angela's Ashes may not have been a laugh, but your comment was, Penny! I'm def in your camp on this one.

Anonymous said...

Thsnks for the Rescue of the Bonita weblink.

As a Jersey woman, I felt so proud of these fellow islanders, thier accents, their familiar accents and attitudes. It moved me to tears, at the immense heroism of course,but also for the wonderful modesty of these terrific men. Jacky