Thursday, April 11, 2013

Make ‘em cry

You want your memoir to bless others, right? You want it to comfort, encourage, and change readers for the better.

But your memoir will not impact others unless they read it.

After all your effort to write your memoir, how do you get people to read it?

You must make a way for readers to get into your story—
to join you in your story—
to make them care—
to make them want to keep reading.

How do you do that? By including emotions.

“The heart is always 
the first target 
in telling purposeful stories. 
Stories must give listeners 
an emotional experience 
if they are to ignite a call to action.” 

You bring emotion into your story by following Wilkie Collins’ advice, “Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.”

Last week we covered “make ‘em laugh,” and I hope you’ve had fun writing humor into your rough drafts. Humor is important—readers will give you only so long before they decide whether they like you and your story—so if you missed last week’s post, check it out.

This week we’ll look at “make ‘em cry.”

Sometimes people wonder—mainly men, I suspect—why we should include sorrows and struggles and angst in our memoirs.

The reasons to include the hard things are many:

“Our sufferings and pains are not simply bothersome interruptions of our lives.” (Henri Nouwen)

Often during the hardest times, we learned our most important lessons.

Difficulties can get our attention.

They can make us cling to God.

They can give us a holy discontent over things that are not right in our lives.

Sorrows can be the stuff of turning points and second chances.

They can lead to personal victories.

Furthermore, sharing our struggle benefits readers. When we make ourselves vulnerable and write about our hurts, readers recognize they have something in common with us.

That, in turn, serves as an invitation to enter into our stories and learn lessons for themselves through our experiences because:

“…Stories can be a stand-in for life, allowing us [readers] to expand our beyond what we could reasonably squeeze into a lifetime of direct experience.… We can take in the stories of others who escaped life-threatening situations without taking on the risk … [and we have] an opportunity to try out solutions.” (Peter Guber)

So there you have yet another reason to share painful parts of our lives:  We offer readers experience, wisdom, and choices. We can point them to God.

“Your story should incorporate some joy. But pain is the Great Teacher,” says Donald Miller. “By bringing meaning to the pain, you bring meaning to the pain of the world.  This is why people need story. They want to know they’re not alone. Others suffer just like them. They want to know their suffering has a purpose, that there is hope, redemption.… You think you’re just telling a story. But the truth is you’re bringing life.” (emphasis mine; from Joe Bunting's blog post, The Meaning of Pain)

Things that made you cry shaped you. They gave you a story to tell for the benefit of others.

If you want readers to see how God brought beauty from your ashes, they have to see, smell, hear, taste, and feel the ashes with you. You have to make ‘em cry with you.

If you write your memoir well, you will bring the story to a hope-filled, satisfying resolution. You will accomplish what Donald Miller calls “bringing life.”

So how do you make ‘em cry? It can be a tough assignment.

First, be honest. Avoid exaggeration. Your reader needs to be able to trust you.

Second, practice what Bill Roorbach calls Method Writing, a spin-off of method acting (from his Writing Life Stories)

Here’s how method acting works: Before the curtain rises, the actor remembers a time in which he experienced the emotion he needs to act out. He spends time reliving that emotion so that when he steps on stage, he is gripped in that emotion and succeeds in playing his part.

Method writing, then, requires you to step out of the present and into the past. If you’re writing about a tragic event, take time (make time) to remember the event and rediscover the emotions you felt.

In the midst of reliving that situation and emotion, ask yourself:

What was at stake? What did I have to lose or gain?

At the time, how did I envision that this situation could change my life?

What were my fears, my hopes, my prayers?

When you are caught up again in that event and emotion, get it onto paper.

Your “emotion should be so realistic and gripping that the reader can’t help but feel it too.…” (Becca Puglisi)

To paraphrase Larry Brooks, make your readers happy they are not there, yet grateful to feel what it was like to be you.

Emotion: That’s how you make a way for readers to join you in your story, to make them care, to keep them reading.

"Our best stories 
evoke an emotional response, 
touch a deep cord, 
and motivate action and change." 

OK, are you ready? Go make ‘em cry!


  1. Oh, Sherrey, this is one of your deepest, most profound posts! I read Bill Roorbach about a dozen years ago and did not recall that Method Writing tip, though I often use it. Your Larry Brooks paraphrase: "Make your readers happy they are not there, yet grateful to feel what it was like to be you." That's exactly what I feel when I read a well-crafted memoir. Thank you for articulating and labeling that for me.

    1. Thanks, Sharon, I'm glad you enjoyed Bill's exercise and Larry's statement. They resonated with me and I suspected y'all would like them, too.

      Your book has a wealth of advice, too! :)


  2. Linda, my takeaway from this post is your paraphrase of Larry Brooks, "make your readers happy they are not there, yet grateful to feel what it was like to be you." Tucking that one away for future reference. It's a gem, as are you!

    1. Hi, Sherrey, I'm glad you enjoyed Larry's quote. In just a few words he sums it up so well. Bless you as you continue with your memoir. :)


  3. I am so far behind on all my wonderful writing resolutions. Your blog will provide much of my summer reading and writing ideas. Thank you, Linda, for being here even when I am absent.

    (It looks like you have a spammer comment that needs to be deleted - just so you know.)

    1. Hi, Jamie Jo, bless you as you carry out your various ministries, including your writing ministry. You are amazing and I am so glad to consider you a friend! :)

      You and your family are in my prayers.