I take it as an amazing compliment when someone tells me that a sad scene in one of my books made her cry. (I have never had a male reader admit to that and don't expect I ever will.) I am equally delighted when a reader tells me that a scene I had written to be scary actually managed to scare her. Stephen King once said that nothing gave him more pleasure than scaring the socks off his readers, or something to that effect. I know what he means.
To that end, when I run across a particularly satisfying, well-written scene, whether it be scary, sad, funny, or poignant, I come back to it over and over to take it apart and see if I can figure out the magic. Particularly if the author is dealing with something that requires the reader to suspend any possibility of disbelief. Most of the books I love have story lines that would look preposterous written down on paper in plain sentences. A boy wizard whose destiny is to destroy the most powerful and evil wizard in collective memory? A ring powerful enough to enslave a world? A trio of outcasts in a boys' boarding school in England who manage to pull off retaliation after clever retaliation without ever leaving a shred of evidence -all at the ages of 15 and 16? Or a king with a magical sword whose kingdom has fallen through corruption but who sleeps until the time that his country should need him again? How is it that the writers of these tales are able to invite me into a world that is not geographically located but is easily as real as long as I am there?
I read to learn.
For sheer fright, I look to Mr. King, of course, whose books could make me so tense I would jump on the bus when someone hit the "stop" buzzer for their particular exit. I took note of how he paced the scene, the particular phrasing he used, and the situational elements that are universally unsettling: the chills up the spine, the approaching footsteps in an unoccupied house, the creak of a door or a sigh that may or may not be the wind. His word choices also left me in awe. I think one of the scariest tidbits he ever wrote was the phrase carved into a tombstone in the book Salem's Lot: God Grant He Lie Still. That still freaks me out, the implications are so deep.
For funny, I love Gordon Korman. No More Dead Dogs had me laughing out loud. Mr. Korman is an expert at capturing situational humor. The fun in his books arises from the behaviors his characters exhibit, and those behaviors are right on target, given the age group (eighth grade) and the gender (boys) the work focuses on. Of course, there is an equally funny parallel girl's thread running through it, but I don't want to go into that in case someone out there has missed this amazing work.
But for crying? I have wept over classics like Little Women and A Christmas Carol, but there is one particular work, the third book in an obscure series (about the O'Nolan Family and published in the 60's) by an equally obscure writer (Mary Wallace) that I cannot for the life of me figure out. She begins book three with a scene that is so spectacularly heart-wrenching that I can pick up the book, read those first 20 pages, and have tears running down my face by the end of that chapter. No matter how many times I read it, and no matter how hard I try to figure out how she worked that magic, I cannot deconstruct the scene to the point where I can say Aha! It's the narrative! Or, it's the dialogue!. But it still works on me every time I read it and I wish I knew how she constructed that spell. Sigh.
Currently I've been trying to get my hands on a copy of Cloud Atlas because the movie is having the same effect on me. Every time I watch the movie -and I've watched it a LOT- I come away with one more example of amazing symbolism, one more motif, one more detail that I missed before. And again I find myself scratching my head and asking, how'd they do that?
And can I?