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Thursday, August 4, 2016

How to Write a Tragic Scene

Last year, I sat at my desk and stared at the blinking cursor on my computer screen. I gritted my teeth. I was about to write a scene I believed (and still believe) I wasn't ready for, at the time. I was about to write several lengthy chapters about the protagonist's near-death experience.

So I set to work. I attempted to capture the emotions that coursed through her body, and how suddenly the world seemed stuffy and boring and blurry.

When the first day of editing came, I winced. Those chapters were really hard to read. It seemed that, for no reason at all, I began to hate my protagonist. Sure, it was sad what she was going through, but I really didn't care. In my own fifteen years of life, I've experienced plenty of days that seemed "stuffy", "boring", and "blurry", so I could sympathize. But I didn't want to read about it.

Photo by P. L. Meskill.

A few months ago, I read a post on the blog Helping Writers Become Authors that stuck with me. K.M. Weiland explained a battle scene from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, and how the author was able to strike a chord with the reader. She wrote about how Hugo mentioned a beautiful, simple, white butterfly that drifted through the battleground. He didn't talk about the blood and gore of the fight; instead, he talked about that small moment of beauty. Were it merely a normal day of life, the butterfly would be a moment that far too many people would take for granted.

K.M. closed off the article with this:

A smart author doesn’t need to write reams of description about, say, a family massacred in a bombing. All he needs to squeeze his readers' hearts is the infinitesimal detail of a child's empty shoe in the middle of the street.

Upon recently reading Jaye L. Knight's The Ilyon Chronicles, there was a scene in which a few of the main characters learned of a loved one's execution. The novel spoke of the consuming emotions that ripped their lives apart, and while I normally would not care to read several pages about a couple characters' lasting reactions to their loss, there was beauty -- a beauty about it all that kept me turning the pages. The days in which the reactions took place were not towards the end of winter, when the sun starts to shine in such a way that brings with it a blurry sort of sorrow, which closes off the hope of spring's return; when the days are blurry and you long for them to pass. Instead, the reactions took place at the start of winter, when the snow has freshly fallen and there is a sort of glimmer to it -- there is hope.

I don't know why this works, but it does. Perhaps that's why funeral scenes are so often described as taking place on stormy days. (Or maybe it's just I'm biased because I'm a pluviophile who hates the sunlight. I don't know.)

Have you ever tried this method before? Did it work for you?


1 comment:

  1. Oh, I had read that quote before and it really helped me realize, it's better to leave your readers with one powerful detail than a bunch of sensory detail.


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