We have all been inspired by memorable scenes. Some are so sublime and so satisfying that readers return to them repeatedly -- such as when the hero fulfills his mission -- when the heroine wins against the odds -- when the lovers declare their feelings for each other. I perused the final struggle between Gollum and Frodo at the Crack of Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings so often that the pages fell out (long before the days of e-readers).
This column will not cover these types of scenes. Instead, this column will address the types of scenes that people, if they have experienced anything of the sort, would prefer to forget. The emotions and experiences contained in these scenes should be the worst you can imagine or remember -- from what I call the valley of despair. Although they can be dreadful to live through personally, they can provide your book with gripping entertainment and poignant depth.
Triumphant, happy scenes as described in the first paragraph are often found near the conclusion of books, at least when the stories end happily. The scenes we're examining today rarely close books, although they may be used to end chapters or volumes in a series. These desperate scenes are more likely to be in the middle, and are frequently used to increase the tension. These types of scenes generally should not be at the very beginning, because in order for them to mean more, your readers may first need to spend some time with the story, getting to know and to care about the characters, their backgrounds and their situations.
Before working on how to create a scene of despair, let's examine a famous example, from Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Here's what happens (spoiler alert!): the second Mrs. de Winter, a young and somewhat lower-class woman, is giving a costume party to celebrate her and her wealthy husband's recent marriage. Since the beginning of the story she has felt inferior to her husband's late wife, Rebecca, and has been convinced that her husband and everyone else are comparing her unfavorably with the first Mrs. de Winter. The party is supposed to be her opportunity to finally take charge -- but the novel's villain tricks her into wearing what Rebecca wore at the last costume party before she died. Her husband and his closest relatives stare at her in horror, because it appears as if the first Mrs. de Winter has come back to life.
What can you use from this to strengthen your own writing? Let's consider some of the elements in the Rebecca scene. The event is unexpected, at least from the perspective of the character (clever readers -- or second-time readers -- may detect clues in the build-up). It is emotionally terrible instead of triumphant. It is unjust, as she was tricked into wearing the costume. It appears that she has lost what she wanted most -- her husband's love and trust -- and has reminded him again of her rival. She is so depressed afterwards that she considers taking her own life. You do not have to use all these elements, but they are good place to start.
So, when writing your story, ask yourself this question: what is the very worst thing that could happen to your character(s)? Usually my first answer is a crazed killer arriving with an AK-47 or the equivalent for my story's time and period. Of course, killing off your main character can be inconvenient to your story. You may choose a slightly less story-limiting alternative by choosing instead to injure your main character, or to kill or to wound someone else, whose loss your protagonist will feel deeply.
Although violence works in many stories, it may not be the route you want to take. Besides the fact that it may not belong to your genre, one problem with violence is that it is usually -- although not always -- fairly impersonal. If you want your readers to be emotionally attached to a character, then you may want to choose a different route to despair. Here are some suggestions:
Of course, which terrible event you choose to give to your characters depends on the setting and where you want your story to go. But the list above should get you started.
Now that you have come up with the dreadful, desperate event, what can you do to make the situation even WORSE for your character? Here are some suggestions:
We are piling it on, but right now we're brainstorming. After you generate many ideas about how to increase the wretchedness of the experience for your character, then choose the set that works for your story. You may decide against some ideas because they're inconsistent with other ideas. You may decide against others because they take your story in the wrong direction. You may throw out some more because there are only so many bad things that you and your readers can handle.
Once you have figured out what to write, how do you summon the energy to write? How do you reach a place where you are able to empathize with your characters?
I believe that you can deepen the scenes in which your characters despair by tapping into your own worst memories. Many years ago, I had a miscarriage. Besides nearly killing me, the miscarriage indicated that it was unlikely that I would ever bear a child of my own. I went to that extremely painful -- and until this column, intensely private -- memory when I wrote the draft of the scene in Jocasta in which her baby son is taken away from her, to be left on a mountain to die.
Visiting that memory was difficult, although inevitable, as there were enough similarities in Jocasta's and my situation. Jocasta and I both lost our children (of course, hers came back); we both suffered depression when we were looking forward to life. After writing that scene, I was so upset that I turned off my computer for the rest of the day. I took a walk and visited friends.
Yet I believe the scene in Jocasta is better because I allowed myself to feel those feelings while I wrote it. Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps for most readers, that scene is as good -- neither better nor worse -- than the other scenes in the book. Perhaps the fact that it resonates so much with my own past history is what makes me feel it more significantly.
But I think something more carried into it, because some readers have given me feedback on that scene. One woman, describing her reaction, tapped her chest over her heart, and said, "It gets you right here."
I'm no therapist, but I believe that visiting your own valleys of despair -- in a safe way -- can do more than enrich your story. I believe it may help you gain perspective and insight into your own experience.
Unless you are writing a memoir, you're unlikely to have memories that relate to all your characters' worst experiences. So you will still have to use your imagination, or borrow from other experiences to write about some of the events you choose to portray.
Assuming your characters are still alive after you write their scenes in the valley of despair, what happens next?
The valley of despair can provide rich material for your story. You can explore the repercussions and consequences. This can be a time for your character to grow and learn. Your character may receive help from an unexpected corner. In a way it is a chance to reassure your readers: even after the worst, life goes on, at least for most.
Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.