Note from the Editor-in-Chief
We’ve decided republish this beautiful post by our treasured contributor John Yeoman as he unfortunately passed away unexpectedly this year.
Have you ever shied away from writing a scene in your story because it was too painful?
Because it triggered memories you’d rather forget?
You were thrust back into trauma: a marital breakup, bereavement, personal humiliation or some other horrific event.
Yet, if you dumb down that scene you’ll wreck the story. Even if your experience is totally fictitious, it still hurts.
All great writing is a learning experience for the author.
We force ourselves into new places, dramas we may never have encountered, the minds of strange people whom we might never want to meet but must—somehow—portray.
And so it should.
Unless we force ourselves to feel our characters’ pain, the reader won’t feel it either. They’ll toss our story aside.
“It’s not real,” they’ll say. And they’ll be right.
I discovered this for myself when I depicted a funeral in an historical mystery novel set in the 16th century.
Imagine the scene. A church cemetery at midnight. No moon. Just three mourners holding lanterns. The narrator is burying his beloved wife in secret. She’d committed suicide so could not legally be interred in sacred ground.
Will her soul be saved? He doesn’t know. He prays beside the coffin—and is answered by a mocking owl.
I cried as I wrote that scene. Why? Too many funerals in my recent past perhaps, although their circumstances had been quite different. But had I skipped that episode and dismissed it in a single line—”And so the lass was buried. God rest her soul.”—it would have been a cop out.
I had to depict every graphic moment, even its fragments of noir humour when—in the darkness—the narrator falls into the grave, apologizes to the coffin then bursts into tears. Otherwise, his subsequent nightmares—vital to the story—would not have made sense.
Face the pain and work through it.
Not only will your story gain strength but you’ll also grow as a person.
Aristotle put his finger on it 2400 years ago. When we live through an experience of fictional tragedy—on the stage or in our minds—we are ‘purged by pity and terror.’
Catharsis. It’s a cleansing experience. An inner confessional by which we are reconciled to ourselves and human nature.
Any author who is not a total hack does not write to change their reader—the attempt would be impertinent—but to change themselves.
Every story we write with feeling is a personal catharsis, a release of tension.
Do it competently and your reader will be changed as well.
Dare we bare our souls? And let it all hang out? And enrich our stories with revelations that will expose our most private feelings to the world?
Yes! Here are three ways to do it without (too much) pain:
1. Accept that people have felt almost all emotions.
There’s very little you can tell people that they haven’t felt themselves.
The days of readers being ‘shocked’ by revelations in literature ended with the 19th century.
Even then, their shock was mostly sham. Privately, Victorian readers lapped up the indiscretions of Madame Bovary, Moll Flanders and Tom Jones.
Write those scenes of pain, scandal or revelation well, and your readers will relate to them. Because chances are they’ve experienced something like it themselves.
Or they know someone who has.
Those scenes are true.
2. Don’t think that scenes of intimate confession will reflect badly upon you.
Readers fall in love with authors who, through their characters and events, disclose their own fallibilities.
UK novelist Sharon Bolton has publicly admitted that she writes her gruesome crime scenes to exorcize the demons in her own soul.
Do we think the worst of her? No. Readers rush to clasp her hand at literary events and her novels are bestsellers.
US crime queen Patricia Cornwell portrays herself in her bitter, tormented heroine Kay Scarpetta.
Few readers would like to meet Scarpetta in the flesh but Cornwell has so many adoring fans, she has to hire bodyguards when she appears in public.
3. Use the painful scenes as opportunities for personal growth.
Creative writing has often been prescribed as therapy for people who are stressed.
By writing out difficult experiences, we gain control. We structure them. We impose order on random pain.
So we own it.
The secret here is not to wallow in reminiscence—at least, not beyond the first draft.
Go back. Edit it ruthlessly. Crisp up those long tortured descriptions.
Anguish piled upon anguish will bore the reader. Read it again in a few weeks’ time and it will bore you too.
Pack all that trauma into just one eloquent line. Then pain becomes metaphor. (We can handle metaphor.)
And move on.
That’s what our own lives should do, after periods of stress. Creative writing helps us do it.
But ruthless editing is the key. Be your own best friend. Spill it all out. Rein it all in. Then move on.
How to go beyond the pain and glory of writing to bond with your readers
Bare your soul.
Expose your most private feelings to the world.
You’ll not only create a story that will live because it’s ‘true,’ you’ll write one that will help you to live.
To get over past traumas.
And move on.
Have you ever read—or written—a story that helped you get over a painful event? Please leave a comment below! Every comment gets a fast, thoughtful response.
About the author:
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, taught creative writing at a UK university. He was a successful commercial author for 42 years and was a regular, much-loved contributor to WTD. He died unexpectedly in 2016.