My list of top favourite books ever was, for a long time, easily reducible to about five. When a new one I loved would come along, I could usually figure out which one of the top five had to be bumped off to allow it a space. As time went by, though, and I continued to read more, choosing which book had to leave grew to be harder, and at some point I decided I couldn’t do it and expanded my all-time faves list to ten. Even that’s starting to feel crowded these days, but for the moment I’m sticking to ten.
The books on the list include representatives from many genres, but one of the unifying things that virtually all of them share is that I cried at the end. I got to thinking about this recently because I finished watching the last couple of episodes of Sherlock last week, and at the end of the final one I shed so many tears. (And then, in a bit of emotional masochism, watched the episode again the next day and shed so many more.) I was already in love with the series, but that last episode, pulling on my heartstrings as it did, really clinched my fandom.
I think one of my goals as a writer is to write a book that brings my readers to tears at the end. So after watching that show, I started pondering what the particular formula is for that. What was it about each of the situations in my favourite books that made me cry?
It would be easy to say "death", because lots of times it did involve the death of a character… but not always. I cried at the end of Lord of the Rings, where Frodo leaves, but no one dies. I cried at the end of The Scorpio Races, but no one dies there, either. I cried at the Snape flashbacks of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and neither did death figure into those. Loss, then? Perhaps, but loss on its own doesn’t necessarily draw tears.
Considering it more deeply, I think it’s sacrifice. Where someone is faced with a choice where there’s no perfect solution, and they have to make the hard decision to sacrifice something themself in order to do good by someone else, or to do the right thing instead of the easy thing. Sometimes this means death, either theirs or someone else’s. Sometimes it’s just letting go, giving something up, or allowing something to go to someone else instead. It’s heartwrenchingly sad but with a melancholy beauty to it.
How many books have I read recently that have sacrifice in them? Many have hard decisions, many have sad events, many have loss… but not many have true, painful sacrifice. But pretty much all of my top ten do. And I think that’s clearly the difference.