So you start another book and find yourself getting attached to a side character. The more you read about them, the more you like them. But a few chapters — or books — after you realize just how much you look forward to their interactions, they...die. And so you might cry or rant about it with someone. You might think you’re over it, but then you listen to that one sad song and remember them and feel sorrowful all over again. Tragic, isn’t it?
Tragedy has power. In any genre, it succeeds in stirring up powerful emotions: pain, anger, despair, fear. If you know how to write them, they can impact your readers in a way nothing else can. Therefore, here is a list of dos and don’ts that will hopefully help you out the next time you’re drafting a tragic scene.
Note: this article is meant for fiction writers, but poetry authors might find it useful as well!
Do — Plan & Purpose
Giving your scene purpose is probably one of the most important things when writing tragedy. Say, if you kill the love interest with no reason but to create momentary angst, your readers may find your choice unnecessary, and will likely be very mad at it. Therefore, even if you are more of a panster, it always comes in handy to know how this sequence will influence the rest of the novel. Before sitting down to actually write and pour your heart and tears into the scene, it would be a good idea to think about causes & consequences.
Don’t — Forget about character arcs
Talking about cause and consequence: the loss of someone or something can change your character entirely. It can be the reason why they started a quest or became the villain. Think about your character and their flaws; did they cause the misfortune, or were they impotent against it? If you wish to, there are infinite ways you can use tragedy to enhance character development.
Often, the event itself may be shocking, but the character’s reaction will take tragedy to another level. This is your opportunity to show your character’s anger, grief, and vulnerability. Give readers the chance to relate to the character and to feel with them. This is what literature is all about, right? Use it as a point to uncap repressed emotions, portray their catharsis.
Do — Use the power of wholesomeness
For the reader to care, they must get to know the character first. You can present their backstory, explore their relationships, or even create an inside joke. Use light-hearted scenes to your advantage. Giving both characters and readers hope will make darker scenes much more meaningful. A shared smile here and there will translate into a couple of unexpected tears.
Don’t — Ignore your instincts
One of the most beautiful parts of writing is where the author gets to experiment. However, getting stuck in a chapter that is meant to be emotionally heavy can be depressing for anyone. As with most scenes, if you feel something is wrong, it should be time to take a step back. Give your mind a rest, use this as an opportunity to take a look at your brighter chapters. When you feel ready to come back, check the ambiance of the segment before trying again. Sometimes, modifying small details will make it flow better. In a moment where emotions take protagonism, look out for wordy dialogue or over-detailed setting descriptions.
Finally, if you lack inspiration, try learning from other pieces of art. Listening to your favorite sad songs can result helpful (Lorde ballads and evermore by Taylor Swift are some of my picks). Plus, you can also try reading and annotating classic tragedies to understand archetypes better (nothing as a Socrates play to get a grip of fatal flaws and people’s downfall). Yes, thinking about the reader-character relationship is important, but your emotions should not be overlooked. Allow your writing style to come through fully. Chances are, if you feel pain or guilt for your character, your readers will feel sorrow too.
is a young planster with too much passion and too little time on a day. She has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, whether they are thoroughly researched flash fiction pieces or improvised bedtime stories.