Self-editing masterclass snapshots: Characters are grief stricken – how do I stop that becoming monotonous?

guardgrief-stricken characterI’m running a series of the smartest questions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never makes the final wordcount, and how to flesh out a draft that’s too short. Today I’m looking at an interesting problem of pacing:

Characters are grief stricken – how do I stop that becoming monotonous?

One student had a story in which the characters are coping with the death of a close family member. How, she said, could she keep the new developments coming, as the grief process would take many months?

We’d been talking about pacing the story, and how it was crucial to be aware of change. Each scene should present the reader with something new, to keep the sense that the narrative is moving on. That change could be big or small – a major twist or a slight advance in the reader’s understanding, a deepening of a mood or maybe a release. What’s important is this sense of progress – because it’s one of the chief ways we keep the reader curious.

So what do we do when the characters are in one intense emotional state such as grief, whose very nature will not let them move on?

The answer is to find ways to keep the reader surprised about it. And indeed, a life-changing shock is not a one-time blow. The loss is felt in infinite details we are unprepared for, and this is what makes it so vicious. Look at any grief memoir and you’ll see how every act of normal life becomes a new ordeal. The wound is being reopened over and over.

Seven stages

Indeed, grief counsellors generally describe a number of distinct phases – up to seven, depending on how you define them. They are:

  • Shock and denial.
  • Pain and guilt.
  • Anger and bargaining.
  • Depression, reflection, loneliness.
  • The upward turn.
  • Reconstruction and working through.
  • Acceptance and hope. (More here.)

Forgive me an apparently insensitive comment, but this is a fantastic framework for storytellers. Nature tells us how to shape our plot.

If your story is about coming to terms with a great shock, find the day-to-day challenges that keep the experience painfully fresh. Then map the overall path and how your characters will move along it.

ebookcovernyn3There’s more about pacing in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart – including a section on how characters can react plausibly to shock and bereavement. More posts here about insights from my Guardian masterclasses.

I’ll be continuing this series, but next week I’m breaking the pattern. I had rather a good question about back story that I know is quite urgent for the writer, so I’ll be tackling that.

And for now… Have you written about characters who are adjusting after a great shock? How did you keep the reader’s attention, even when the grieving state lasted for a long period? How did you figure out how to shape the material? Share in the comments!

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  1. #1 by mrdisvan on July 26, 2015 - 7:10 pm

    I was just reading this and thinking, “Oh, but grief makes people do all sorts of odd things, so it’s great for storytelling.” I’m glad you got in there first with the “insensitive” admission 🙂

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 26, 2015 - 7:14 pm

      Ho ho, Disvan. We are a horrible lot, aren’t we? Wasn’t there a story about an actor who thought his boyfriend had died, and as he ran down the stairs he paused and checked the mirror, thinking ‘this is what a horrible shock looks like’.

  2. #3 by Steve Mathisen on July 26, 2015 - 7:13 pm

    Reblogged this on Odd Sock Proofreading & Copyediting and commented:
    Roz knows how to Nail Your Novel

  3. #4 by Cyd Madsen (@CydM) on July 26, 2015 - 7:23 pm

    This is a sensitive subject with no road map. As I grow older, by default my circle of acquaintances grows, and my exposure to grief–in stories written by friends and experienced in life–grows exponentially. What I’m seeing is that there’s a period I call the Honeymoon during the first year. The one grieving is surrounded by support and shock and a determination not to let the loss tear down their lives. Most are exceptionally productive and resilient. It’s during the second year when it begins to ache. It’s no longer a Big Experience, it’s altered reality. I’ll hold back on the rest of what I’m seeing, have experienced, and witness others moving through. As it applies to story, the film Ordinary People is an excellent example of grief as the focal point. In my own writing I’ve chosen to go wide, include more characters at different stages, and outsiders looking in with opinions. I’m commenting so I’ll get notification of other comments on how to handle this. T’is much too big a knot for me to untie. God love ya for fielding these questions. Your students couldn’t be in better hands.

    • #5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 27, 2015 - 6:21 am

      Hi Cyd! The ‘honeymoon’ support period – I hadn’t seen that described before. I wonder how the process has changed now that we’re all far more in touch, and able to send a quick Facebook message or email. Certainly I’ve seen a lot of Facebook posts where people are sharing devastating news with an online circle of friends, and surrounded by a swell of support. It must at least show them they’re not alone.
      As you remind us here, this is a long and deep process. A year, two years. I bet it’s much longer than that. I like your approach in your writing, of including characters at different stages. What must it be like for them all seeing each other?

  4. #6 by Ann Stanley on July 26, 2015 - 8:21 pm

    I’ve struggled with this question, actually, trying to write a novel about a young woman who loses her husband to cancer. It’s four years later (or seven in some drafts) and everyone is telling her to move on. The novel’s about her resistance, then gradual attempts to heal and find her life again. It’s been a difficult road to describe without it just sounding like she’s a whiner. I have about five different drafts, with various conflicts in them, but none quite work. I haven’t given up, but right now it’s in a drawer, while I work on easier stuff.

    • #7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 27, 2015 - 6:24 am

      Ann, what a testament to your patience and your determination to do your subject justice. Thanks for commenting.

  5. #8 by Alexander M Zoltai on October 17, 2015 - 3:45 pm

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Roz really comes through in this Re-blog…

    She brings up what John C. Gardner called “Profluence”—part “Pacing”, part “Progress”…

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