Twelve Posts on Writing, Day 11: Break my heart! (Please?)

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On my bookshelf I have a copy of (Not that You Asked) by Steve Almond. After chatting a bit with him, he inscribed some of his rules for writing on the flyleaf. The second rule he wrote is:

“Slow down where it hurts.”

When I read that, it blew my mind. I wrote it in huge letters on the whiteboard above my desk. The other rules he wrote I kind of already got. But when I read the second rule? Holy cannoli. Lightbulbs exploded in my brain.

If you’re crinkling up your eyebrows and asking, “So? What’s the big deal?”, then you’re either A) a better writer than I am and you don’t need to read this blog entry, or B) in denial and don’t read your scenes closely enough.

I just finished reading The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. She followed Steve’s second rule with excruciaing results. When the story grew tense or sad, she made sure I (the reader) was right there, in her protagonist’s head. Suddenly I’m living in a post-zombie apocalypse world, struggling against the tide of Unconsecrated.

*shudder* It made for a thrilling, heartbreaking read.

This is all about that whole “show don’t tell” thing everyone talks about. How easy it is to tell the reader character so-and-so felt sad when her lover died. She cried. She mourned. She didn’t eat for three days. Blah blah. Information is there, the reader is informed. Move on.

Of course none of us would really do that, right?

You’ve seen it happen in books. So have I. We finish the book and think, “Yeah, that was pretty good.” But there’s something missing.

We — the readers — were missing.

If we follow the “slow down where it hurts” rule, we take our readers into the scene. They experience the setting, the dialogue, the action. They get muddy and dirty and bloody and crushed right along with our characters. They emote. We make them cry for joy. We break their hearts. And as a result, reading the story changes from a cerebral experience (“Yeah, it was pretty good”) to a physical experience. A blood-pumping, tear-choking, heart and soul experience. (“You have to read this book!”)

A heart and soul experience doesn’t happen when the reader is aware she is sitting on the couch in her living room, reading words on a page. It happens when she loses herself in the story. When she’s engaged. By slowing down and delving in, by poking those ouchy spots and really feeling those bruised areas, we pull her deeper into the magic.

Then — like me when reading Ryan’s Forest — she’ll finish that gut-wrenching scene and have to get up from the couch just to jump around and break the tension. She’ll finish the book, be surprised to find she’s been sitting on her couch all that time, and then proceed to walk around in a stupor looking for the Kleenex.

As a writer, that’s what I’m on about. That’s how I want to write. If you don’t or you haven’t thought about it, you should.

How about this. Why don’t we just agree right now, one writer to another. I’ll break your heart if you’ll break mine. You slow down where it hurts, and make me feel your story; and I promise to do the same. Deal?


28 thoughts on “Twelve Posts on Writing, Day 11: Break my heart! (Please?)

    Suzanne said:
    January 9, 2010 at 4:31 am

    What a brilliant observation. I’ve just had a couple of critiques back of a story that seems to have potential and I think this is what’s missing. Nice story, no energy or involvement. Time to go traumatise it!

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 12:47 pm

      Thank you, Suzanne. I’m glad you found it helpful. Good luck with your story. Make ’em suffer!

    Tina Lee said:
    January 9, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Okay. I agree. I’ll work on it right now and hope I can break your heart. I’m looking forward to you breaking mine!

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 1:08 pm

      You got it, Tina. I’m looking forward to you breaking mine as well. Good luck to you in your writing! 🙂

    Catherine Ensley said:
    January 9, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Absolutely! I actually had a one-on-one critique session with Krista Marino at SCBWI-LA and she said that’s exactly what I wasn’t doing in my MS. I thought if I did that, I was “telling,” but the rules for “Show don’t Tell” seem to have been turned on their head since I began writing. It’s now not only okay to include emotional thoughts; it’s necessary. BTW, Krista edited Forest of Hands and Teeth. I started reading it right after my session with her and OMG! Every sentence in that book drips with wrenching emotion.

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 12:54 pm

      Catherine, I had a one-on-one with Krista, too. Were you in the YA Voice workshop with her, too? Did we meet? 🙂 I read Forest of Hands and Teeth because she’s the editor, too. Yes, the show-don’t-tell thing can be confusing, can’t it? I wish you the best with your writing. Are you going to SCBWI NY? Thank you for reading and commenting here. 🙂

    Kelly said:
    January 10, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Great tip!
    l could not put Forest of Hands and Teeth down, I ignored chores (and at times my kids 😉 to finish that in less than two days!

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 12:58 pm

      Same here! Poor kids, starving and dirty while mummy sits on the couch with her nose in a book. 😉 Hee hee! Thank you for reading and commenting!

    Lisa Nowak said:
    January 10, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    Wow, great observations. I never really thought about it that way, but I see how it’s true. When I’m writing I live for the parts where I get to torture my characters. The raw emotion–both the character’s and the reader’–is what I feel passionate about. And passion, after all, is what makes all the hard work of writing worthwhile.

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 12:59 pm

      You are so right about passion, Lisa! I think that’s one thing that makes writing the “housekeeping” scenes difficult. The how-they-got-from-here-to-there scenes. Trying to make them as important as the gut-wrenching scenes takes skill. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    Robin Gaphni said:
    January 11, 2010 at 8:35 am

    Excellent post. It’s a new way to look at the show don’t tell premise that all of us have had drilled into us. “Slow it down” is going to be my new mantra (in writing AND in life). Thanks Amy.

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 1:03 pm

      Thank you, Robin, for reading and commenting. Best of luck to you in your writing. 🙂

    Niki said:
    January 11, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Great post! I will have to read Forest, it sounds amazing. Thanks! :o)

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 1:04 pm

      It is! Go read it! 🙂 Thank you, Niki, for reading my blog and taking the time to comment.

    Niki said:
    January 11, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    oops I’ll just correct my smiley 🙂 🙂

    Nathalie Mvondo said:
    January 12, 2010 at 12:20 am

    Hi Amy,

    your post had me smile wide at the end. I don’t know anyone else who will make a deal such as, “I’ll break your heart if you’ll break mine,” sound sweet! 😀 Thank you for sharing. This is definitely something to think about.

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 1:04 pm

      Hi Nathalie. Glad the post made you smile. 🙂 Thank you for reading and commenting!

    Shirley Duke said:
    January 12, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    I know what you mean. I finish a book sometimes but feel like some part of it leaves me empty compared with those books that after you finish, you can’t stop thinking about.

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 1:06 pm

      I prefer the ones that leave me in a daze. 🙂 When I finished The Book Thief I cried for two days. Even now if I let myself think about it deeply, I’ll cry. That’s the kind of book I want to write! I don’t like that empty, “meh” feeling some books leave. In fact, I’m starting to not finish books if they give me that feeling. There are too many good books to read, right? Thank you for your comment!

    blogstradamus said:
    January 13, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Slowing down is not only helpful in reading and writing but completing a task of any sort. It more enjoyable to methodically parallel park once, rather than going at full speed only to have to retry 2 or 3 times to get into the space…Thanks for the reminder to obey one’s internal speed limit and thanks for commenting on my blog!

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 13, 2010 at 4:24 pm

      Great metaphor there, with the parallel parking. That makes total sense. Thank you for reading my post and commenting. 🙂

    Caroline said:
    January 13, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    This makes so much sense…as a reader, I need to see (and feel) where it hurts, or else it’s just words on a page. Thanks – I think I will use this language when I’m talking about books!

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 13, 2010 at 11:38 pm

      Hi Caroline. 🙂 I’m glad you found this helpful. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

    Kristi(e) said:
    January 14, 2010 at 12:19 am


    It’s one of those brilliant pieces of advice that (if you’re anything like me) leaves you feel like a complete idiot after hearing because of course you should make the pain happen in such excruciating detail for the reader. How else should it be if they are supposed to be living vicariously through the character for a short while?

    Thanks for pointing that out. 🙂

    Rawley said:
    January 14, 2010 at 10:05 am

    Very insightful for us floundering writers. You’ve got a deal!

    Dan Holloway said:
    January 14, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Amy, this is a fantastic rule. I’m just starting a novel that I know is going to break my heart writing it. I’ve been gearing up for it for months now. I even wrote a blog post called 16 songs that make me cry ( as a way of looking just how it’s possible to do that kind of emotion.

    The real danger of slowing down is that we go from genuine heartbreak to schmaltz and sentiment, which just makes the reader laugh. It takes such skill for a writer to pull it off (the same way it’s harder as a musician to play the slow movements – you have to be SO steady of hand). It makes you really nervous as a writer. But you have to try. Let your own heart be broken – you can claw back the sentiment in the rewrite – you can’t inject the feeling after it’s done.

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 14, 2010 at 5:23 pm

      Excellent point! Yes, we totally run the risk of going all schmaltzy. I’m so glad you posted this comment. I did this recently in a short story I wrote, and just about died when my critique group pointed it out. But like you said, that’s what rewrites are for. Thank you so much for reading this post and adding your insight. 🙂

    Robert Shumake said:
    February 2, 2010 at 8:46 am

    what a great site and informative posts, I will add a backlink and bookmark your site. Keep up the good work!

    Robert Shumake Paul Nicoletti

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