Heart-Wrenching Moments

There’s one TV show that consistently makes me cry.  Me, a grown man in his 30s bawling his eyes out over a TV show.

You might be surprised to learn what that TV show is.  Any guesses?


Yup, that dorky and often-ridiculous animated show by the guy that made The Simpsons.  Futurama consistently brings tears to my eyes — sometimes just enough to make me misty-eyed, and other times with tears rolling down my cheeks.

Futurama has, in my opinion, the perfect balance of ridiculous and deep.  Two thirds of the episodes, roughly, are just plain and simple fun, often verging on the ridiculous.  About a third of the episodes, though, are absolutely stunning character development pieces.  I think it’s because of this disparity between the two episode styles that it brings tears to my eyes.  No other show has made me cry this much.  The next show that makes me cry, and only a few times at that, is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  And, again, it’s for the same reason — most of the series is Star Trek stuff and then there’s the occasional character piece that grabs your heart, rips it up, and stomps on it.

By having most of Futurama as fun fluff, it gives the viewer time to get to know and love and enjoy the characters… and then when a character development episode comes, we suddenly see this character we’ve come to know and love reveal his or her softer side, his or her weaknesses, his or her failings and successes.

The biggest tear-jerker episode for me is “Jurassic Bark.”  The main character, Fry, who’s been frozen and woken up 1000 years in the future, eventually finds the fossil of his dog from 1000 years earlier.  We get a mix of humour and heartbreak as we learn of the bond that formed between Fry and Seymour, and as we move through the episode, we are saddened knowing that this deep and loving bond has to come to an eventual end.  That, in itself, makes for a touching episode.  Fry is saddened, but also heartened knowing that Seymour lived for years after Fry got frozen, knowing that he lived a full and joyful life.  But the last minute or so, oh my God, I’m tearing up thinking about it.  Seymour, unable to find Fry, waits for the rest of his life in the very spot where he first met Fry.  The very last second of the episode is Seymour closing his eyes forever, having waited the rest of his life for Fry.  That’s where I lose it.

Yesterday I watched the “Game of Tones” episode.  I’m working my way through the final season, so this is a more recent episode.  It seems to be loosely based off Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in that there is a ship approaching Earth, transmitting a signal no one can interpret, and destroying every planet in its path.  Fry knows the musical sound of the signal, but can’t quite place it.  They discern he heard it sometime during his very last day in 1999, before getting frozen, so they enter his memories and explore that day.  It’s a fun and somewhat ridiculous episode.  We enter it thinking it’s a typical Futurama episode.  Then we start to see some character work forming… in his memories, Fry can interact with a memory of his mother and for the whole episode he says he needs to say something to her, but doesn’t get the chance.  And, besides, whatever he says to her, he’s saying to a memory of her, in his mind, so he’s essentially saying it to himself, so there’s the acknowledgement that there’s no point to it.  But after solving the crisis, Fry is rewarded by being allowed to enter his mother’s dream… to interact with her, through time, through her dream.  This is the big character moment — what is Fry going to say to his mother?  He was unexpectedly cut off from her, cast 1000 years in the future, to never see or hear from her again.  What will he say?  *spoiler alert, again*  There are no words.  There is nothing to say.  All he wants to do is hug his mom.  The last two seconds of the episode show Fry’s mom waking up with a smile on her face, looking at a photo of Fry.

And that’s when the tears welled up and fell.  The episode premise was a little ludicrous, but the resolution was one of the most moving scenes of the entire series.

You know what show never made me cry?

Touched by an Angel.

Everyone was bawling on that show.  So many people say it makes them cry.  To me, it did nothing.  Know why?  There were new characters in every episode and so we don’t have enough time to fully know them and invest ourselves in them.  Besides, you watch that show knowing you’re going to get some tearful sob-story.  With Futurama, you’re expecting comedy, so when you get a tearful episode, it’s unexpected, it catches you off-guard, and it is far more meaningful than anything Touched by an Angel did.  As well, Touched by an Angel is essentially “forced sadness” — they’re intentionally trying to get you to cry — whereas in Futurama, they’re just exploring character, the tears are a side-effect, not a goal.

Now, I’m a writer, and this is a blog about writing.  So, what does this have to do with writing?

Like everything I interact with, there are lessons I pick up.  The lesson in this one is to pick your moments for the emotional content.  To overdo it is, well, overdoing it.  To do it before you invest in the characters is, well, too early.  To intentionally go into thinking, “Okay, I want the reader to cry here,” will come off as forced and like “Touched by an Angel.”  You need to get the reader to love the character and to go along for the ride and, when the moment is right, you go for the tear-jerker scene.

My goal as a writer is to get the reader to have an emotional reaction.  I’ve succeeded before with certain readers, and my goal is to do that more often to more readers.  I’ve got a real emotional and deep scene in my upcoming book, Silent Hearts, and I hope it gets readers sobbing.  (And while I want the reader to sob there, my intention in writing it wasn’t to make people cry, rather it was to explore the characters I’d created — there is a slight, but important, difference there.)  It’s about halfway through and it’s one of those set-ups where you think you know everything about the characters (and the characters think they have it all figured out), but then it all falls apart.  There’s only one real emotional scene with that heart-wrenching quality — to put in another of that depth would be too much.

Emotional scenes are very difficult to write.  I’ve never come across one (in a book) that was effective for me — I’ve never cried while reading.  I have been stunned beyond belief once or twice, though.  So, out of the thousands of books I’ve read, there are only two or three that have ever elicited any deep emotional reaction.  That’s how hard it is.  The success rate is far far far below 1%.  It takes work and practice, but it is possible.  For me, though, I’m taking my lessons from Futurama — they’re doing it right, so how do I translate that reaction from something visual to something written?  That’s the challenge, and that’s the adventure.


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