Writing about Grief, Pain and Sorrow

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by Allie Pleiter @alliepleiter

We want our books to touch readers. For that to happen, our characters must go through deep emotions, letting the experiences transform them and their faith. Even those of us who write with a touch of humor need to plumb the depths of life’s journey to write a book that feels as significant as it does entertaining.

My most recent series, True North Springs, focuses on some heavy topics. Camp True North is a summer camp specifically created to offer hope and healing to families who have lost a member to violence. As such, these four books have touched on much deeper—and perhaps darker—topics than most of my previous work. I found writing about grief, pain and sorrow took particular skills and techniques that were different than other novels. The final book in the series, For the Sake of Her Sons, went the deepest yet into these areas. And so I offer you, dear writer, the following advice from my experience:

Dial Back the Darker Details
The True North Springs books dealt with traumatic, life-altering events. Shootings, drownings, car accidents, addictions—a lot of heavy history. It’s wise to keep such events in the past of your characters, and not veer into detailed descriptions that may be triggering or traumatic for a reader to experience in real-time detail. Concentrate on the emotional impact, not the factual details. Let them know they can see themselves in
your characters, but they don’t have to relieve their pain.

Build a Balanced Narrative Rhythm
It’s okay—necessary, even—to go deep in some scenes. But take pity on your reader and don’t leave them there for multiple scenes. Offer up a breather that gives your reader a chance to rest with something of a lighter fare. Even a small silly or happy detail can give your reader the chance to catch their emotional breath. Offer a contemplative scene or a conversation between characters offering compassion. This allows your readers to follow you into the next transformative scene.

Tapping into and recreating our own personal pain sometimes rob us of the perspective we need to write fiction well. @alliepleiter #writing #Christianfiction #writingcommunity Click To Tweet

Harness Humor
If you’ve got humor in your toolkit, use it. The emotion of laughter through tears is one of life’s purest. Children in stories are great for this, but situational humor or something absurd can do the trick. Almost every one of us has a story like “Do you remember when Uncle Bill ate all the food in the break area at the funeral home?” or some such thing. It won’t take away the power of the serious moment, I promise. Instead, it will
enhance it. Your reader will love you all the more for the full breadth of emotions you give them.

Make Yourself a Margin
There’s no doubt that our personal experiences often serve as the seeds for the fiction God calls us to write. It can be a tricky business, however, to utilize your personal experiences without exploiting them. Tapping into and recreating our own personal pain sometimes rob us of the perspective we need to write fiction well. I offer the concept of “The Universal Truth” in my book How To Write When Everything Goes Wrong. Find the universal truth of your experience—that element that extends beyond your personal situation and offers up something to which any reader can relate. Then write a situation that uses that universal truth in a circumstance different from yours. I have found writing your exact circumstance, even in a fictional character, can be fraught with danger. Your own emotions take over despite your best intentions. Instead, create an emotional margin by writing something similar, to your own life.

These tips can help you go far into the most difficult human experiences to show your readers how God’s mercy and hope can heal even the deepest of wounds. And isn’t that what we want to convey to those who read our words?
Allie Pleiter writes both fiction and non-fiction working on as many as four novels at a time. The author of over sixty books, Allie has enjoyed a twenty-four year career with over 1.6 million books sold. Allie maintains writing productivity coaching practice built around her popular Chunky Method. Visit her website at alliepleiter.com


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