A few months ago I wrote about how Authors are Magic. During that post, I talked about reading Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series to my children. We were reading the ninth book in the series at the time, and I described my love for the books like so:
The story is engaging, the characters are fun and inventive, and as the series goes on, it’s clear that the stories – for all that they’re about fantasy Vikings having adventures with their dragons – are really about the process of growing up and find your place in the world. Or, to quote the oft-repeated tagline in the books: They’re about becoming a hero the hard way.
We’ve now finished reading all twelve books in the series, and they’ve prompted me to write about yet another aspect of writing that is near and dear to my heart.
(On a sidenote, I can’t recommend this series enough. The world-building, the characterisation, and the skillful way Cowell continues to “make it worse” are things all writers could learn from.)
Halfway through the eleventh book in the series — right at the Black Moment of the narrative — everything goes wrong. And I mean everything. A secondary character who had been with us from the first page of the first book dies in the most heroic and bittersweet way possible. And, in the end, it doesn’t even (seem to) help.Our hero loses everything he’s gained over the course of ten and a half books, and we’re left wondering: How can he possibly succeed from here?
That in itself isn’t rare or unusual. No, what made it really striking for me was that I was reading this book out loud to my sons. Just like I had all the others. But the emotional core was so very strong that I was struggling to read through my tears.
And it wasn’t just me.
Both my eleven-year-old and seven-year-old cried. My younger son crawled over to curl up in my lap so he could hold on to me and sob his heart out.
Did they want me to stop?
The very idea that I might stop reading to let us all take a few breaths and recover was met with a chorus of heartbroken pleas not to do such a thing. They were absolutely, completely engaged with the characters and the story. They both, in that moment, knew that their tears were as much a part of the book as the words I was reading.
And that — that, my friends — is what it means to build an authentic emotional core within a story.