Are You a Tear-Jerking Hack?


Contrary to my cynical expectations, I was surprised to see a sizeable backlash against the plot of recent film release/original book "Me Before You" - a story involving a have-who-loses-all and a have-not-who-loves-life.  I was pleased to see this backlash because the story is ACTUALLY HORRENDOUS.

DO NOT AVOID THESE SPOILERS: THEY WILL MAKE YOU A BETTER WRITER

How sweet is a story of a cynical paraplegic falling in love with his quaint, vibrant caretaker?  Um, basically very.  Cue me, reading the Wikipedia synopsis and HAVING ALL ILLUSIONS DESTROYED.  Thank you, modern writing, for crapping so thoroughly on such a cute premise.

PREMISE IN BRIEF  |  Will(iam??), rich young have-it-all, loses everything in an accident and putts around in a wheelchair.  He wants to go to Switzerland where assisted suicide is legal.  His parents convince him to stick around for six more months, during which time they hope he will change his mind.  Enter Louisa (probably pronounced "Loueesur," 'cause British), who has nothing but a joy of life, and signs on to care for Will.  He thaws, they fall in love, how awesome...  AND AT THE END HE STILL DECIDES TO COMMIT SUICIDE.

WHAT.  THE HELL.  Floored.  Disgusted.  Outraged.  My reactions + apparently the reactions of many readers/viewers.  This, my friends, is stupidity and tear-jerking at its WORST.

1.  There is NO point to Will's death.  Unlike stories built around the premise that one of the characters is terminally ill yet still forms a blossoming attachment with another character, Will did NOT have to die.  He chose to succumb to the idea that his life was worthless because he could not longer ski/ride a motorcycle/get it on with the ladies.  WOW.  What a shallow son of a bitch.

2.  Despite the fact that he CLEARLY HAS SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR NOW AND NOTHING IS STOPPING HIM, he chooses death and breaking Louisa's heart.  AND THIS IS COMMENDABLE HOW??

3.  Author Jojo Moyes said in a radio interview that she LIKES making readers/viewers cry because it shows her that she has made an emotional connection with people.  (Kind of like a woman screaming tells the dominant bondage individual that he has inflicted pain on the subordinate.)

I WOULD BREAK YOUR FINGERS IF I COULD

This is an insult to the following:
  • human life
  • human connection + affection
  • basic storytelling
  • people who actually have disabilities + rock their life, choosing to be awesome instead of pathetically dead

IF I COULD, I would take away your ability to make readers cry.  I would do that.  I would force you to engage your readership in other ways, make them connect with your characters in ways that define BEYOND mere pain.
  • make them love
  • make them hate
  • make them angry
  • make them ecstatic
  • make them fight with their whole soul for the attainment of the storyline

Yes, DO THAT TO YOUR READERS.  Put away tear-jerking for a season.  It has its place, but it is FAR TOO EASY TO ABUSE.  It's a hack.  It's an amateur's crutch.  It's a narcissist's mirror.  Stop making your readers cry.  Make them CARE.

DEATH IS THE ALIEN GOD

Every time someone dies, we hurl ourselves into the task of making their death MEAN something.  Death does not belong here.  Death is wrong.  Death destroys all purpose we have as living, breathing, busy, creating HUMANS.  Moyes' portrayal of Will's voluntary suicide as a good thing is a lie, and I will not let that slide.  We live before God, and our lives have meaning.  To surrender ourselves to the false god of death and annihilation is an abomination and idolatry.

WHAT YOU WILL FIND IN MY FICTION

My characters tend to be bigger-than-life, red-blooded folk, who live coolly, roughly, and often dangerously.  Their words are calculated to threaten and push back against anything that tries to impinge on their egos.

but they respect human life

They are not quick to kill.  Nor do I craft painful or sad storylines for the sake on getting a rise out of my readers.  No, that's absurd, that's abusing the writer's privilege, and it needs to stop.

if you want to improve yourself as a writer, stop leaning on the tear-jerk hack

image via pinterest

19 ripostes:

  1. Yes! It bothers me (makes me angry even) when authors kill and mess with the plot just to get a reaction out of their readers. They're abusing their power and it's just wrong.
    As for Me Before You, I was similarly shocked when I heard how it ended. It's pointless and it sends a dangerous (and false) message.
    Authors can take killing far too lightly (how you do it sends a message, folks!) and I think it's high time that is addressed. Thanks for this post!

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    1. You are welcome! I think a lot of people were plain disgusted with the plot of "Me Before You," and that gives me a glimmer of hope for writers. XD

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  3. Didn't there used to be a phrase for that called...cheat ending?

    I'll admit upfront, I want to reach my readers' emotions. I'm still working on how to do this. But I totally agree, there is a right and a wrong way to do it, and deliberately crafting tragedy with that aim in mind seems just plain mean.

    I personally don't cry very often when reading fiction, but on those occasions when I do end up with a lump in my throat, a good deal of the time it's because of a happy emotional moment, or at least a bittersweet one. That's something to think about.

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    1. Probably one of my top goals in writing is to communicate to my reader the expanse of emotions I feel //while// I am writing - to induct them into the mess of attachment //I// have with my characters, their lives, their struggles, their conquests. I want them to feel what I feel, see what I see. That's what a writer is all about! But tooooo often I see people taking the shortcut and just making people cry by pointlessly tormenting their "charries" because for some reason they think it's fun. Really it's a form of sadism. I get both angry and sad when I see young writers chortling together over how in pain and tormented their characters are. They think it's funny! It's not funny. It's serious business. Just because the characters aren't real doesn't mean we aren't responsible for their lives. What we do in our fiction reflects what we believe of reality.

      And "Me Before You" is a dreadful exposition of a horrible worldview.

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    2. Yes yes yes! Sadism is exactly the right word (I think I used that word once in a blog post I wrote, where I addressed the topic of torturing one's characters). Basically, you're the creator (or god) of your world. God doesn't take delight in tormenting us; he uses our trials for our good. So we should be the same way; all our characters' sufferings should have a purpose, even if they can't see what it is. And that purpose should not be just jerking tears out of the reader, or otherwise manipulating emotions.
      I had a lot of flaws as a younger writer, which I've hopefully overcome, but acting like it's fun to torture characters is something I've always thought was weird and wrong ever since I heard it expressed online.

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  4. So it wasn't just me who was disgusted about the ending! I haven't read/watched it (and very probably never ever will), but I read the PluggedIn review, and that's all I need to know, thanks.

    You'd think that in this society of ours that speaks very loudly on "equal rights," "diversity," "disabilities," etc., that having a disabled character end his life for that reason would anger the masses. Apparently not. Because apparently suicide is NOBLE.

    And yes. So much yes. Authors need to respect their power enough to not use tear jerking as a crutch. If that's the only emotion you can pull out of a reader...

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    1. I am REALLY surprised this plot not only got published, but got a movie made out of it - with some very popular actors, too! It's a disgrace and an insult on so many fronts. It's so sad - so horribly sad. WE CAN DO BETTER!

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  5. Absolutely. I've already ranted on this a bit on my Facebook writer's group, but there's always more that could be said.
    The death in this book/movie is absolutely selfish, for one thing. Like you said, they fall in love, he decides to kill himself anyways. Completely different from a self-sacrificial death out of love. And yeah, someone can say, "Oh, but Louisa sacrificed her own desires," but ... no, just NO. Human life is way too devalued nowadays. And as a lot of people have already said, it sends the message to disabled people that their lives aren't worth living (and to non-disabled people that disabled people are worthless and might as well go kill themselves now, even if they've found happiness and love).
    I don't like killing my characters off; and I've always, always despised fiction (movie or book) that manipulates my emotions just 'cuz. It doesn't even have to be tear jerking; I don't want my emotions manipulated. It's like in the new Hobbit movie, Bilbo has this MAGIC RING that can make him INVISIBLE. But for the sake of "suspense" and "drama" he wears it for a grand total of maybe two minutes when he's around a dragon that's the size of a passenger jet.
    Characters acting stupid or stubborn just for the sake of drama are lazy and boring.
    So anyways, I do have one character death (that I really went back and forth on) but I always knew that it was necessary to the plot; I hope that readers care enough for this character that by the time he dies it will be bittersweet: bitter because he died, but sweet because of the reason why (hint: it's not just so you'll cry at the end).
    Annnyways, yeah, even Huffington Post had an article criticizing Me Before You ...

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    1. I will always, always, ALWAYS advocate pushing beyond the comfort-zone of tropes. Too many people take refuge in doing the "safe" thing, the plot twist that viewers expect, the point which has always delivered the "drama" and the "suspense." No - shake it up! Find a new way to impact your readers/viewers! Don't lean on old crutches - get up and walk! Run! Make your writing come alive! It won't be easy, but it's what makes writing GREAT.

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  6. I love this post! I read MBY and really enjoyed it... up until the assisted suicide, which rubbed me the wrong way. I couldn't understand why he did it (except that his life was so FULL before he was paralyzed that it didn't seem worth living), and I couldn't understand why Lou still loved him. He changed her, though, which was one of the things I loved about the book. (But idk if I'd ever read it again.) And I completely agree with what you said about killing off characters just for the heck of it. Playing with your readers' emotions is NOT A GOOD THING. Crafting a well-written novel that makes my readers feel things despite themselves is what I'm working on. (And the book I'm revising right now does have a death, but it's what initially starts the story, so it's pretty necessary. No unnecessary deaths, though.)

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    1. Death in fiction is a reflection of reality. It is a terrible fact that we must all face until the Lord comes back. It isn't wrong to depict it in our novels. But using it for the mere purpose of yanking a reader's heartstrings is so stupid that it would be absurd if it didn't have serious repercussions in society's mindset.

      Despite the fact the Will's life had been "so full" before his accident, his decision to still commit suicide is not only wrong, it's an insult to the many, many, MANY real life human beings who have suffered debilitating accidents and "lost" their care-free lives, but have still pushed on to overcome their obstacles. THAT is awesome. Not Will. Will is a wimp.

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  8. So true, Jenny! The reviews for this film/book were quite a shocker to me, and realizing what this story is really about made me so angry and sad and a bit terrified of the moral decline of our society. It made me sad too, because the trailer looked so heartbreakingly beautiful and sweet and sad - it had so much potential! It seemed to remind me of Jane Eyre a lot, and Lou looked so cute and brave. :(

    #justnope
    A story that romanticizes suicide as heroic over a brave life lived through disability or depression is just WRONG! Thanks for sharing. . . also manipulating characters just for the sake of a tear-jerker, without a depth and moral understanding in it, is toying with the emotions of your readers and misusing one's gift. Absolutely agree!

    Some similar articles on the point of this story: http://verilymag.com/2016/06/me-before-you-movie-euthanasia-disability-love-suffering-news-0606

    https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/you-before-me-is-better-than-me-before-you

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kim-sauder/why-excitement-me-before-you-is-deeply-troubling_b_10108260.html

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  9. Oh my...maybe she was just lazy and couldn't think of a good way to end it beyond them being in love? Goodness...
    Great post, though!

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  10. Thank you, Jenny!
    Whether it is in real life or in fiction, life is always best when treated with value. And in both real life and fiction, I'm saddened and alarmed at how readily death is delivered, especially without any real reason behind it, and without the full consequences being shown.
    I'm searching for ways to articulate the many thoughts I have on this subject, but I think you summed up much of it.
    I only wish that I could see more people saying the same.

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  11. Haven't seen this, but... wow, this post. As someone who abhors tear-jerking for that sake, and useless character deaths in general, I have to say that this was a fantastic post and I agree.

    BLESS YOU JENNY.

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