I had a great time this past weekend. A group of talented people, some of whom I’ve known for a quarter of a century, organized a cross-genre convention called When Words Collide. The convention brought together romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery writers so that we could share what was alike and different about our different geners.
These are the notes from the panel I went to about writing difficult scenes. Usually I like to credit who said what, but the room was packed. I sat on the floor, in the back of the room, where I heard the speakers, but couldn’t see who spoke when. So I’ll give everybody credit for everything.
The panelists were Susan McGregor (editor, speculative writer, and writing teacher); Jennifer Kennedy (science fiction and fantasy writer, and storyteller); Barb Galler-Smith (historical fantasy writer and editor); Lynda Williams (fantasy writer and editor); and Lauren Hawkeye (writer and theater enthusiast).
What makes a scene difficult for a writer is any emotionally-charged material. Sometimes the material is related to an emotional loss the writer has previously experienced, or a story that scares a writer so much she may become physically sick.
Very often a writer worries about how someone she loves, especially a parent or other family member, will react to reading the scene. The counter point is that writing difficult scenes are times when the writer grows both personally, and in her craft.
Common uncomfortable scenes include
~Sexual material, erotica, sexual politics, rape, alternative sexual lifestyles, or soft porn
~Loss of a character’s innocence: some writers have a hard time emotionally damaging characters they love.
~Violence particularly towards women and children. One of the hardest things a writer can try to accomplish is to make historical violence both accurate and tolerable to a modern reader.
~Moral dilemmas, especially those where heroic characters show their dark sides, and make choices that are unfair, immoral, or unjust.
~The death of a character.
The writer needs to know what frightens her and why she’s frightened. There is a huge difference between writing as therapy and writing a work to sell. A writer can’t force her way through the first by concentrating on the second. If a writer has had a horrific experience, she must take whatever time and help she needs to heal before she tries to give voice to that experience in a commercial manuscript.
Be honest about the scene being gratuitous. If it does not advance the plot or change the character in a major way, why include it? These are not the kind of scenes to use as fillers.
Know your characters; know that this scene must happen; know that there is no stopping the scene; and know that this is a scene where you can’t pull any punches. Writing around a scene, and thinking you will come back and “fill it in” later is a bad idea. Delaying a difficult scene makes it harder to come back later to write it, and harder to go on with the rest of the story. There have been situations where a writer gave up on a story rather than face a difficult scene.
Write something to fill the scene, even if it is an outline or a draft. Some writers use stereotypes to get themselves through the first draft. Good writers go back later and write beyond the stereotypes to full, rounded characters.
Other writers start by technically setting up the scene: the lighting, time of day, which character stands where, etc. Once the characters are in place, the author gets out of the way and lets the characters have their way. She writes one word at a time.
If you’re having trouble understanding what the character feels, start with a small event in your life. Think about the time you thought your credit card had been stolen. What emotions did you have? Extrapolate those emotions to a larger scale. Instead of a credit card, how would you feel if you thought your child had been stolen?
Pick other people’s brains, either in person, or by reading what people who have been through the same difficult situation have written. You have to write from your head, heart, instinct, and baser passions, like lust. Readers and writers share all of these parts, so you have to include all of the parts in your writing.
Forget thinking, “Is it all right if I write a scene like this?” or “What will so-and-so think when he reads this scene?” Just do it. Get it out on paper. Readers are whole people with complex motivations and reactions. As writers, we don’t know what will be motivating them when they read this scene. They might be at a place where they need to express anger and your scene may help them do that. They may also be at a place where they need to close the book and go away for a while. Don’t try to second-guess a reader.
Know your audience. Intentionally mismatching material and projected audiences is a power trip. You want to engage your audience where they are, and then take them one step further. For example, if your readers are likely to be uncomfortable with a homosexual relationship, just a mention of the relationship may be all they can tolerate. You can not force them to go two, five, or ten steps further than where they are today by being graphic and upping their discomfort.
If readers lose hope, writers lose readers. No matter how bad a situation gets, there must always be a glimmer of hope that the character will survive, or if the character is to die, a glimmer that the people around them will grieve and survive.
Allow difficult scenes to end a chapter. Do not attempt to bring the reader in for a gentle landing. Give the reader the luxury of closing the book at this point, so that they can go away for a while to think, cry, throw the book across the room, or decompress.
When they do come back, humor, lightness, or comfort may be needed for a few pages. Shakespeare frequently used people like gravediggers or doormen as relief characters. Aim for a balance that gives the reader a chance to pause and grab his breath. Your goal should be to make the reader want to come back to the story after a break.