I remember the first time it happened.
It was my sixth birthday, and for the one and only time, I was the coolest kid in school. Because for my party we were going to watch Star Wars—at home.
Seems like nothing now, but this was 1980. VCRs were barely consumer items—my dad had one for work—and the only video store in the entire greater Detroit area was an hour’s drive away. So the notion that we could sit down and watch the most important movie in the history of history, that we could do it at will, well. It was something.
So there was pizza and cake and Coke and then we all piled into the family room, every inch of space taken up by sprawling six year old boys. We gasped at the Super Star Destroyer, shivered at Vader’s management techniques, felt illicit tingles imagining Leia telling us we were her only hope. All too soon the rebels were making their all-or-nothing run at the Death Star, and it was looking bad. Most of the squad had been blown up, and Luke was alone in the trench, his wingmen down and Vader behind him, prepping to fire—
And then with a “Yeee-hoooo!!” Han Solo piloted the Falcon out of the solar flare and sent Vader spinning into space, and I started crying.
If I’d had any illusions about remaining cool, they evaporated pretty quickly.
I’m 41 now, and I just rewatched the scene—research, you know—and damned if I didn’t choke up again. Big, fat, manly tears.
Very uncool at six, but I’m used to it now. I look forward to it. It’s a hit of pure primal joy, a howl of belief in friendship and hope and the triumph of good over evil. My wife has caught me doing it a million times. She laughs at me. My daughter is three, but I fully expect that when she gets older, the two of them will get enormous joy out of mocking me for it.
Because it’s not just a Star Wars thing. Most of the films and shows and books I love have at least a moment like that. A moment when the stakes are at their highest, and all hope seems lost, and then at the last possible second, fidelity and self-sacrifice make the impossible real, and I start sniffling.
It happens in The Matrix, when they’re rescuing Morpheus, and Neo wraps the strap around his arm and locks himself in place because he knows that Trinity will be grabbing for it—even though that strap is attached to a plummeting helicopter.
It happens in George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, when Daenerys is buying the Unsullied with one of her dragons—and orders them to kill every man with a whip, as her dragon roasts a slaver medium-well.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, when the Nova Corps pilots interlock to form a blockade, and then hold it together even as they are slowly crushed.
In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, when an eleven-year-old Ender organizes the ragtag and the rejects into the finest army in Battle School.
It happens every time Joss Whedon is involved in something, so the moment I’ll cherry pick is in Serenity, when River says it’s her turn to protect Simon, leaps out the closing blast doors and throws the medkit back through.
Damn it, I honestly just choked up typing that. Keep it between us, will you?
These moments go deep in me. They’re a fundamental part of who I am as a person, as an audience member, as a reader—and especially as a writer.
My goal as a novelist is to create smart entertainment, books that keep bright people up too late, that make them want to read just one more chapter. Books that have ideas threaded in amidst the thrilling bits, ideas that I hope linger even after people close the book.
But more than anything, I hope to create those moments of fidelity and friendship and doing the right goddamn thing. Doing it when the costs are enormous and the night is at its darkest. Doing it when it would be so much easier not to.
In a lot of ways, that’s really the reason that I wrote the Brilliance Trilogy. Yes, I wanted to talk about the costs of intolerance and satirize the flaws in our own systems and explore the jittery fear we all seem prone to these last years.
But I also hoped to make people I don’t know cry. Cry big, fat, happy tears.
I don’t know if I succeed or not. I hope so. But I suspect even the trying is worthwhile. I suspect I’m not the only one who tears up at those moments.
At least, I hope not. Don’t leave me hanging. Comment, and tell me what gets that reaction from you. I’ll be watching, and responding—and hopefully, discovering some new stories to cry over.
This article was originally featured in the That Was Awesome! Writers On Writing series, on January 12, 2016.
Marcus Sakey’s thrillers have been nominated for more than fifteen awards. His novel Good People was made into a movie starring James Franco and Kate Hudson, and Brilliance is currently in development with Legendary Pictures. The final novel in the Brilliance series, Written in Fire, is available now. Sakey lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter.