What it Takes to Move a Reader to Tears Without Chopping Onions
By Zoha Arif
Kids, behold Master Sensei, the CEO and Founder of the Fortune 500 Onion Ninja Industries. Master Sensei has been prosperous in the inedible onion business; he has burned the last few decades training and commanding a force of a thousand Special Upper Elite Class ninjas in the art of precisely bear-handing fresh, ripe onions. These silent bandits are rented by writers desperate to juice the waterworks from the toughest readers, those who sit poker-faced with cheeks and eyelids dry and crusty during the tragic and unfortunate death of a lead character or the utter failure of the hero’s attempt to halt the evil plans of the villain. The job of these ninjas is quite intricate and complex--it is not for the weak. These bandits slither and sneak into the residences of book eaters with a few onions tucked neatly in their hooded cowls. When they land at the reader’s doorstep, they squat in the crevices of windows, huddle underneath unicorn-sprinkled pillowcases, and smush in the produce drawer of the fridge. Once the hiding location has been secured, they then begin the task of karate chopping onions whose released fumes will force tears from the target reader. Their effective service has amounted to three billion green bucks in profit for one fiscal year of Onion Ninja Industries.
But now Master Sensei is putting the business to rest. No longer will ninjas invade your sweet homes whenever you browse through the book of an author who has partnered with Onion Ninja Industries. No longer will the overwhelming chemical spice of onions assault your eyes during the tragedies of novels. It has been my honor to serve you, ninjafolk, as your beloved CEO, Master Sensei announced the day before he vanished off the face of the earth, leaving behind nothing but one hundred boxes of tissues in his Bel-Air mansion, but I think that it is time for a change of pace in life.
After the disappearance of Master Sensei, I took it upon myself to travel the Earth and observe the effects of the absence of the elite ninjas. The observations were shocking. A seventh grader clutching Bridge to Terabithia sits indifferent and untouched, the sleep-deprived teenager mowing A Thousand Splendid Suns on the bouncing bus route to school devours the book with dry cheeks, the recently graduated senior pressing If I Stay is still and yawning, his emotions unresponsive to the series of deaths.
The phenomena of the lack of waterworks in the world propelled me to launch a new corporation --- the Efficacious Tears of the World LLC -- whose mission is to produce a single novel: The Classified Instruction Guide To the Art of Ninjahood without Onions: Writer’s Edition. Yes, this entire monologue has simply been an advertisement for a new book scheduled to release soon. I will offer you a 2% discount off of this sensational instruction guide and have even enclosed an excerpt from this book to demonstrate the high-quality of work produced by ETW LLC:
Chapter One: Learning to Embody the Characteristics of an Onion-Chopping Ninja
A ninja is like oxygen; he is present everywhere but is impossible to physically spot. To morph into an onion-chopping ninja, a writer must perfect the skill of showing instead of telling--that is, describe the experience that is meant to provoke tears with intimate detail instead of directly telling the reader that this is a sad, unfortunate scene and that the character is in a state of complete dismal. The bitter emotion must be intricately camofougled into the fabric of the scene, so that the essence of tragedy and sadness is communicated to the reader on the downlow. Creating powerful, vivid visuals, describing the state of the character’s body, and using dialogue to show a loss of words or the irrational blabbering of thoughts that comes with extreme sadness will formulate a stronger emotional connection with your reader--they lend the reader vivid images and specific gestures to connect with and use to feel, hear, and see the situation as if they, themselves, were the main character. Human beings cry in response to strong emotions. Therefore, triggering strong emotions in a reader by allowing them to fully experience the tragedy from the perspective of a character will draw the waterworks.
A ninja must roll through a reader’s veranda and shimmy underneath a front door without attracting a dust’s worth of attention. Stealth is, therefore, the root, the boiling hot glue, of a ninja’s activity. A writer who wishes to collect waterworks must demonstrate stealth with word choice by selecting words that express the essence of the emotions most profoundly. The level of formality and informality, status as a slang term or a vernacular term, and negative or positive connotative meaning, are a few characteristics of a word to consider when selecting potential terms.
It is essential that a writer pinpoints their intended effect and utilizes words that feed into that effect. For example, if a character usually speaks in loose, jiggly slang that forces a giggle from anyone who hears it, having that same character use formal words with negative connotations is a stealthy way to demonstrate how deeply the character is affected by the tragedy (so deeply, in this case, that they cannot speak in their usually peppy style). Furthermore, simply changing the phrasing of a certain description can contribute to a scene’s emotional gravity.
Elie Weisel, for example, demonstrates the power of stealth word choice in his memoir Night. In the prologue, Weisel describes his father’s death:
Instead of sacrificing my miserable life and rushing to his side, taking his hand, reassuring him, showing him that he was not abandoned, that I was near him, that I felt his sorrow, instead of all that, I remained flat on my back, asking God to make my father stop calling my name, to make him stop crying. So afraid was I to incur the wrath of the SS.
Weisel has a masterful command of word choice. Besides the power of showing the thoughts hijacking his head and the fear he felt in the moment, adjectives such as “miserable,” “sorrow,” and “abandoned” collectively create striking, melancholy imagery for the reader. These words have soft syllables and their dreary connotation makes them feel squeezed and tight -- as if they are trying to hide in a dark, lonely closet. As such, choosing words that contribute to the desired effect of the experience is essential to drawing tears.
3. Personality (Yes, Ninjas have Personalities too!)
Contrary to popular belief, ninjas do have personalities, many of them likeable and relatable. It is essential, therefore, that authors create a character that readers empathize with and understand. When something tragic happens to a beloved character that we have been rooting for all along, it becomes easier to draw the waterworks. A few tips on creating a character that the audience will care about:
Give your characters passion and things to fight for (it’s easy to connect to a character whose life ideals are similar to yours. Real people maintain their own opinions and indulge themselves in passions. As such, building your character’s opinions and passions will give them life).
Make your character vulnerable (every human being has vulnerabilities or things that they would sacrifice everything for, such as the people they love or the project they’ve spent a thousand hours creating).
Make your character the underdog (all human beings have been the new kid, the underestimated co-worker, the one expected to fail. Putting your character in this situation makes it easier to root for them).
4. Weapon Savvy.
Ninjas tow the world on their bent backs; their lives are a series of high-stake situations that call for a thousand different kicking and back-flipping techniques and, as such, they become very weapon savy in terms of nunchucking and boomeranging stars. All of this practice with weapons culminates into a ninja that can persist in the face of the most-high stake calamity. To mirror this characteristic, besides the mechanics of a piece, a writer can embody the trait of weapon savviness in their characters by raising the stakes of an already tragic situation. The feeling of hopelessness and desperation in a situation with no obvious remedy is a universal emotion, an innate human thing, that all readers can connect with. Raising the stakes of a tragedy and forcing the reader to tumble on this long, draining journey with no obvious silver lining is a strategy to force the reader into the perspective of the main character and, consequently, experience the distress.
A great example of an implementation of this technique is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. (Spoiler Alert!) At the end of the novel, the reader and Ender learn that the "simulations" Ender have been fighting were actually real battles and that Ender unknowingly committed genocide. By increasing the stakes of the situation for Ender from just a simulation game to a real-life universal war, Card also increases the emotional pull for the reader. Not only do we feel sorrow for Ender being drained and tired after a lengthy, tough battle, but there’s the additional sorrow of Ender being driven to commit the genocide of an entire species unknowingly.
5. The Element of Surprise.
Ninjas take full advantage of the element of surprise. Twist and mold your plot as much as the story allows to surprise your characters with tragedy. If it is obvious that tragedy is going to strike a character, your reader will have time to prepare themselves. By twisting the plot and undermining the reader’s expectations, a writer may create a surprise tragedy, one that the reader was not expecting or emotionally prepared for, thus making the waterworks dribble easily. Veronica Roth employs the element of surprise effectively in the final novel of the Divergent trilogy: (Spoiler Alert!) Roth spends the final book painting a happy, tranquil future filled with prosperity, honor, and love for the heroine, Tris. The villain is a man in a wheelchair and when the final boss battle arrives, it seems foolish to believe that Tris will not emerge the victor. But in a swing of events, the villain produces a weapon and shoots Tris. The death is sudden and unexpected, just a few pages from the end of the trilogy. Without foreshadowing or even slyly sprinkled hints, the reader is left in shock and disbelief that this character who we spent the entire trilogy following melts into a carcass within paragraphs. The emotional reaction would not have been this strong if the reader had time to accept the final fate of the beloved Tris and prepare for her extremely unfortunate ending.
There future customers, the end of the excerpt of The Classified Instruction Guide To the Art of Ninjahood without Onions: Writer’s Edition. Without the help of the onion-chopping ninjas, drawing waterworks has become a difficult task that requires an intimate understanding of human psychology and universal emotions. However, drawing waterworks is not an impossible task and with practice and experimentation, it is entirely feasible for the tears to once again flow as freely as they did in the era of Master Sensei. So please fellow tear collectors, head to your nearest book retailer and claim your portal to Ninjahood today.
What technique do you think you will employ the most to draw the waterworks?
Zoha Arif is a Second Reader at Polyphony Lit and the Managing Editor for Voices.