Writing Novels in a Minor Key:Where Are All the Good Tear-Jerkers?

By P.J. Parrish

Have you ever cried reading a novel?

No, I don’t mean your first draft. I mean, has someone’s work moved you to such a point that you shed real tears? Movies…that’s easy. We all have our favorite cinematic tear-jerkers. Here’s just a few of mine:

Breakfast At Tiffany’s: Holly searches for Cat in the rain.
Roman Holiday: The Princess and the pauper Peck. Hopeless love.
The Vikings: Kirk Douglas gets his Viking funeral.
Field of Dreams: Costner plays catch with his father’s ghost.
Sophie’s Choice: Stingo reciting Dickinson over the death bed.
Spartacus: “Please die, my love… die, die now my darling!”  
The Incredible Journey: Yes, even the old dog makes it home.

But the number of books that have made me cry I can maybe count on one hand. I cried when Jack the dog, reaching old age, had to be put down by Pa in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Books. I cried when Charlotte the spider died (but her babies lived on!) I remember reading Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club on a plane and when I got to the scene where the mother explains why she abandoned her babies by the side of the road, I had to go hide in the bathroom and compose myself.

Are novelists more leery of the “cheap” reaction of tears? I think that is certainly true in crime fiction today. It is rare to find a novel, in these days of neo-noir aping and dick-lit posturing, that appeals to the emotions. We deal with the themes of death and loss all the time. We describe blood and guts with clinical accuracy. Why do we pull our punches when it comes to showing the emotional outfall of death?

I don’t believe it is just because movies are visual. What is more powerful than the blank screens of our own imaginations? I think it might be because today’s crime writers are leery of being labeled as soft when we go into matters of the heart. But to my mind, something very special happens when crime writers decide to write in a minor key.

Time out! Quick music lesson here. There are basically two ways you can compose something — in major and minor keys. And they sound distinctly different. In the western musical tradition, major-key music is played at times of celebration (think of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March or Happy Birthday), and fun times (Celebration by Kool And The Gang). Minor-key music is used to mark mourning (Chopin’s Funeral March), heartache (Back To Black by Amy Winehouse) and despair (Gloomy Sunday by Billie Holiday).

That memorable score to The Godfather, the one that captures the despair, bloody history, horror and complicated family love? It was written in C Minor. Now here is how it sounds when rewritten in a MAJOR key (Listen to just a couple seconds and you’ll be shocked.)

I’ll make him an offer that he…aw heck, on second thought, buy the old man a new horsey. ((Sunshine, lollipops and tommyguns every day…)))

Excepting many cozies, the tone of most crime fiction is minor key. (Although I find it interesting that the haunting theme for Dennis Lehane’s dark classic Mystic River is in C Major. Maybe because director Clint Eastwood wanted to go against grain and convey majesty and hope?) If you want to continue the music analogy, even romantic suspense doesn’t shy away from a darker feel at times. Yet I have found few crime novels that had me reaching for the Kleenex, that elicited from me a genuinely earned emotional response. Here are a couple:

Silent Joe by T. Jefferson Parker. The hero, a victim of child abuse, hunts for a kidnapper but every path leads him right back to uncovering the secrets of his own childhood. Sparse as a haiku but powerful and haunting.

Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook. Beautifully written like all his works but what starts out as a mundane murder trial with a semi-repulsive protag becomes a wonderfully humane love story. Think Gone Girl with a heart.

Lisey’s Story by Stephen King. Not technically a crime novel but I’m including it anyway here. It took me a while to get into this book, which slides back and forth between the real and woo-woo worlds as it tells the story of a wife coping with the aftermath of her writer-husband’s death. It is slow-building but powerful magic, King writing in B minor, about gently accepting one’s fate.

A pretty short list.

I had a conversation with a high-placed editor at a New York cocktail party last year. She told me she has noticed two trends in crime fiction recently: the decline of hard-boiled “guy books.” And the continued strength of romantic suspense. Now, let’s not kid ourselves. There is some terrific hard-boiled stuff being written right now, books that don’t turn up their noses at emotions. Likewise, there is some utterly putrid romance suspense on the shelves these days, stuff that gets everything about police procedure and forensics wrong and gets really treacly about the romance part. But where are the crime novels that hit you in the heart?

Maybe I am wrong. Or just reading the wrong stuff. What has gotten to you? What has made you cry? Movies are easy. But give me some books as well.

Or am I wrong in my belief that there is still room for well-wrought (as opposed to over-wrought) emotion in today’s crime fiction?

44 thoughts on “Writing Novels in a Minor Key:Where Are All the Good Tear-Jerkers?

  1. Personally, I prefer stories that make me laugh instead of cry. I cry over the daily news that are full of tragedy with senseless deaths, murders and acts of terrorism. When I read, I seek humor to help me escape from reality, or a different setting than contemporary times. That’s why I shy away from serious crime fiction and pick up cozies with amusing titles. If I want a tear-jerker, I’ll turn on the news channel. If I want escape, I’ll pick up a novel that I know will have an HEA (happy ever after) conclusion. Give me a smile instead of a tissue any day. And that’s how I feel about my writing. I don’t want people to cry unless it’s tears of poignancy for my characters at the happy ending.

  2. If you’re looking for books to make you cry, read more European crime novels. I loved the Ken Bruen Jack Taylor and the Henning Mankell Wallander TV series when I saw them on my local PBS station. When I tried the books, they were so loaded with gloom and doom that I quickly gave up on them. Talk about minor key! It seems to me that this is a major difference between the European reader and the American reader. Europeans seem much more willing to read depressing books. Like Nancy, while I’m all for a drag through loss and despair with the character as he or she advances through the plot, in the end, I want to be lifted up and have hope.

    It’s interesting that you mentioned the romantic suspense genre. Just a year ago, I heard, in an RWA class, that labeling your book romantic suspense was the kiss of death for making any sales. I think on her website, Lisa Gardner commented that the romance publishers had gotten so strict with the required romance elements that many romantic suspense writers were fleeing to write standard mystery/thrillers, but they still include some romance elements.


    • Kathy, I think you are right in that the European crime writers are almost exclusively grim. (Must have something to do with SADD…no sun at those high altitudes!) I have read several Ken Bruen’s novels…much to admire in his unique style but man, talk about grim. One book I can think of, as an exception, is Stuart Neville’s “Ghosts of Belfast.” It starts very grim but in the end is quite redemptive. I loved that book. Ditto Dennis Lehane’s “Live By Night.” I don’t like books that are relentlessly dark. I need a ray of hope at the end.

      As for romance suspense, that’s an interesting insight re Lisa Gardner. I suspect the editor I was talking to was using editor “shorthand” re the label romantic suspense. Such as the limits of labels…

  3. I go with humor every time. But even so, some of my humor writing has a scene that pricks the conscience. But then goes shortly back to something funny. It is very southern to cover up with humor.

    • Strange how our tastes go, RG. I never read humor. Have tried it and it just doesn’t appeal to me. Now I love funny movies. But for me, humor rarely affects me in novels. I think Dave Barry is funnier in person and his columns than in his novels. David Sadaris…laugh my butt off at his stuff.

  4. Back in high school, I read Ian Fleming’s ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE right after it was published in paperback. This book, more than all the others combined, digs deep into Bond’s feelings and emotions as he falls in love with and marries “Tracy”. The book ends with the newlyweds driving off on their honeymoon only to come under attack by a revengeful Ernst Stavo Blofeld. Tracy is murdered in front of Bond. Her death really got to me back then. Probably the only time I can remember shedding a tear over a scene in a book.

  5. “The Son” by Joe Nesbo. Hard-edged but his composition includes a stirring romantic arc and brilliantly wrought emotional highs and lows.

    I share your observation. Overall movies dominate lacrimal duct output…the “why?” of that could be a separate topic.

    • Tom, I tried a Nesbo book…can’t recall the title but it starts out with a rat in a slum and he gave the rat a POV. I couldn’t get into it. But as we all know, some times you have to give a writer a second or third chance. Will put that one on my list. Thanx.

    • Wow- thought i’d read allof his. Sounds bizarre and not representive. A couple of his earliest eere iffy but generally excellent. Try ‘the Son’ for solid assaessment.

  6. As much as I cried watching certain scenes in Kramer vs. Kramer and The Champ, I don’t think I could take much in a novel.

    Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield made me cry at times.

  7. Great topic and examples, both in the post and by the commenters so far. Lots of movies have made me cry, but few novels.

    In my editing, I’m constantly reminding my fiction writers to show the POV character’s immediate inner and outer reactions to what’s going on, especially anything shocking, frightening, or depressing, to bring the character alive on the page and underscore the critical nature of that scene and what just happened. Without emotional, sensory, and physical reactions, the character and scene fall flat, lifeless.

    And some of my clients want to skip over the emotion-packed scenes, preferring to summarize them or tell about them after the fact. Why? Because it’s damn hard to open yourself up to summon up all the deep-seated angst and dark emotion necessary to write those harrowing scenes well – and it’s exhausting! Could that be one reason we don’t see more tear-jerking scenes in novels?

    • Good point, Jodie. And I think you are right that the messy stuff is the hardest to write…esp if you are in deep POV like you talked about in your post this week. It is really hard to truly burrow into a character’s brain and first, figure out what he is feeling and second, translate it onto the page.

    • Kris, I don’t see how anyone could write a heart-wrenching or tear-jerking scene without being in deep point of view. You’d have to be or the rendition would be shallow and so would the readers’ emotional response.

  8. I wept buckets reading John Green’s The Fault in our Stars. That’s really the only ‘tear jerker’ I’ve read in a while. I knew going into it that it would probably push all my emotional buttons but the funny thing was I cried in all the parts I didn’t expect, not the one’s I did.

  9. Where the Red Fern Grows and Stone Fox. The death of animals seem more tragic than human loss.

    The last novel I cried over was,oddly enough, an historical called LILY by Cindy Bonner, based on a true small town outlaw family in Texas. Romeo and Juliet stuff, but I bawled when the two young lovers were parted. Their pain was so real. Geez, I’m tearing up again!

    • Speaking of historicals Ramona, I asked my sister Kelly this question last night and the only tearjerker book she could recall was “Gone With The Wind.”

  10. I like to balance humor and hard-boiled in my reading, PJ, but I’m not much of a cryer. Lately, I’ve noticed a trend in guy novels where the man gets all weepy when he holds his first child. All I can think is, “Hah! If a woman writer did that . . “
    Good blog, by the way.

  11. Hmmm, in pure tear-jerkers:

    When Ash finds Wally’s body in the ruins of the embassy in The Far Pavillions (also when Ash’s adopted mother dies in the mean little hut.)

    And, yes, I got misty when both Stu and Paddy (and then Dane) were killed in The Thorn Birds.

    Crime novels? I’m not so sure. I do not like the weepy “new baby” thing.

    The opening in Steve Ulfelder’s Wolverine Bros Freight & Storage has a murder that is pretty gutting. It definitely got to me and set the tone for the book (somebody’s gotta pay.) I do like revenge as a trope when the inciting incident got to me. (BTW, Steve would be a great guest poster addition to TKZ.)

    I do like a book that doesn’t go straight HEA. Michelle Gagnon’s Kelly Jones series has a shocking ending that tugged at my stony little heart.


  12. Only two printed stories have ever made me cry. One was a short story called “Knitted Honors” by K. M. Carroll. It was a sci fi story about soldiers quarantined hovering in Earth’s orbit because of an alien disease. The ship’s captain had received knitting materials for his wife in case he got bored. He ignore them at first, but then started knitting, and started giving the scarves he knitted to the soldiers dying of the disease. The wore it as a badge of honor.

    The second is Skyfire by Jess E. Owen. The end of the story has the main character, Shard, in a protective barrier with a dragon egg. The egg’s mother dies fighting off other dragons to protect Shard and her egg. During the fight, Shard tells the newly hatching dragon how brave his mother is.

    Serious Tear Jerkers.

  13. I wish I could write humor. At most, I can manage a few scenes, but a protagonist or other main character with a sense of humor/wry wit/whatever? They’ve so far escaped me.

    A male screenwriter who read the novel recently told me he cried at the second last scene in the manuscript, which surprised the heck out of me, although I cried when I wrote it, which isn’t surprising.

    When several major publishers rejected the novel, they did so, not for the writing or the plot, but because they felt it was too dark. That may be code for the real reason, of course, and since I don’t have the code, I’ll never know the real reason.

    The novel has a bittersweet ending although some people may feel it has a sad ending. One editor also felt it was too dark (there’s a suicide, etc.), and suggested changing the ending, but the book would not say what I want it to say if I changed the ending, so it’s staying the way it is.

    Seems to me that a debut author’s story has a better chance of finding an agent and big publisher if it has a fair dose of humor, which is not to say that all dark stories by debut authors will never sell, just that there seems to be a slight bias for something uplifting in some way these days.

    Would you agree?

    • Tough to say, Sheryl. I don’t think there’s a formula for what has a better chance of being accepted on submissions. I’ve read some pretty dark stuff of late…and look at the long-legged hit “Gone Girl.” The characters are utterly without redemption and the ending is a downer. Yet it continues to fly off the shelves.

      I do think that agents and editors sometimes have trouble with “quirky” books that aren’t easily pigeon-holed by genre or type. Your book may be like this. Or maybe its overall tone isn’t consistent? I think a novel must have a variety of emotional arcs that elicit disparate emotions. But as a WHOLE, it has to have a tonal consistency. We have to know, as readers, what tone you the author are trying to convey.

    • Hmmm. I think it has a tonal consistency, and since it’s won a couple of contests, it probably does, but I, of course, have a difficult time really knowing. It’s not perfect but it never will be.

      As for GONE GIRL, I agree with you… overall, I’m glad I read it because I love Flynn’s voice, but I don’t think the ending was adequately justified, and neither the protagonist or her husband felt real enough for me.

      You could say that the ending had a humorous twist, however, although I doubt it was meant to be funny. I suspect that many people enjoyed the twist at the end, whether or not it was justified sufficiently.

      It wasn’t her first novel…perhaps that has something to do with why it was published. That, and the writing voice.

  14. Reread “The Maltese Falcon” (I assume everyone’s read it at least once.) What makes the book so great isn’t the riddle, or Sam Spade’s tough-guy exterior. It’s that under that hard-as-nails veneer, Sam really does care. He hates when he has to turn Bridgette over to the police, you can tell he regrets that even as he does it. He “won’t play the sap” for her, but underneath he’s dying.

    • Really? I’m not sure I agree, John. I think Spade’s “morality” is defined in that one line, “when a man’s partner is killed he has to do something about it.” I think after he handed Bridgette over, he slept fine that night.

      And there’s that great coda on the last page when Spade comes to work the next morning and his secretary Effie gives him the stink eye. He puts his arm around her and she pushes him away, saying, “Don’t, please, don’t touch me. I know you’re right. But don’t touch me — not now.”

      I love Effie. She is the moral compass but Sam won’t look at her.

  15. I love tear jerkers. I cried reading Gone With The Wind, The Fault In Our Stars, She Went Away, and Anne of Green Gables, my all-time favorite book sob. Thanks for this post. I’m still mulling over your thoughts and this business of writing in the minor key. I also now have a list of other sob-worthy books to read.

  16. I haven given it much thought… until now. You’re right! I cannot name one book that I’ve read within the past year or so that has made me cry– and I read crime fiction. You know what, I have been struggling to rework my WIP and you have just given me a brilliant idea! Thank you.

  17. I’m very resistant to crying while reading fiction. Can’t think of anything that made me cry since reading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and that was mainly because I read it while living in the Deep South in the 60’s, and felt the sadness of the story very strongly.

  18. General novels, there are a few that made me claim to have a tear in my eye. THORN BIRDS was one. TIPPERARY was another. A WASTED VIGIL was pretty sadness inducing.

    Thrillers or Crime novels that have choked me up…hrmmmmm. Frederick Forsyth’s THE AFGHAN had a pretty gut wrenching ending. But I can’t really think of a thriller or crime novel that drew me to the emotional edge tear-jerker wise.

  19. PJ–It’s noteworthy that two of the three stories that made you cry involve animals, one dog, one spider. I have a suspicion that those who read and writer crime novels are temperamentally soft on animals, hard on humans. And I agree with you and others who have commented on the difference in attitude between European readers and writers vs Americans. Generally, the happy ending in Europe is viewed as evidence of a failure to grow up, an unwillingness to face reality. Most Americans don’t think this way. Think of the toughest American TV crime stories–including True Detective–and compare it to Prime Suspect to see what I mean. Even True Detective–grim in many respects–ends up full of redemption. Prime Suspect? Not so much.

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