I’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.
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.
There’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!