In my last post, I talked about how using a technique called expectations vs. reality can create intrigue and tension in a story without having to include physical threats or death. However, that’s not the only technique I use to that end—I also employ what I like to call alternative loss and grief to add depth to conflict, propel character arcs, and create challenges and setbacks in the plot.
I call this approach “alternative” because, for the most part, death is the first association with the terms loss and grief, and the technique does not include death, at least not in the literal or entire sense. Rather, it takes losses other than loss of life and uses them to elicit the same depth of emotional difficulty and pain (a.k.a. grief), which in turn creates the drama or interest that usually comes when a story includes the death of a character or characters. This probably sounds very abstract, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the processes of grief, so I’ll give concrete examples of what I mean.
When I’m coming up with possible losses for a character or story, I try to cover at least 3 bases: physical, relational, and emotional/mental. There are probably more that you could consider depending upon the genre (spiritual loss, for instance, may be relevant), but there are plenty of options just from the 3 areas I listed. For example:
- Loss of health (serious injury that causes a handicap or disability; chronic illnesses; life-threatening illnesses like cancer; degenerative diseases like dementia, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, etc.)
- Loss of work (suddenly being fired; having to shut down a small business; having to change careers due to health or other difficulties; losing the means of one’s livelihood, like a farmer’s crops being completely destroyed)
- Loss of material possessions (a home, area, town, city, or ecosystem destroyed or damaged by a natural disaster; an important, sentimental, or expensive item being lost, damaged, or stolen; losing important transportation like a vehicle; losing most or all of one’s monetary savings)
- Geographical or cultural change (moving to a new city, state, country, or area; adapting to a new climate or new cultural norms that contradict one’s “norm”)
- Loss of mobility/freedom (being imprisoned or put on house arrest; being exiled; being unable to leave a specific area due to bodily or transportation-related setbacks; being kidnapped, enslaved, stalked, or blackmailed; being heavily monitored by those in authority; a person with a disability or other handicap not being given social, political, or literal autonomy)
- Loss of friendship (growing apart from a childhood friend; having a falling out with a best friend; having an unhealthy relationship with a friend; having a friend suddenly leave or ignore you)
- Loss of romantic relationship (breaking up with a significant other; having a significant other break up with you; getting a divorce; finding out that a significant other is or has been cheating on you)
- Loss of family connection (moving away from family; growing apart from siblings or parents you were once close to; having to distance yourself from abusive family members; having an important family member leave or abandon you)
- Loss of community (leaving an organization where most of your relationships are found; moving far away from home; being ostracized from one’s community, group, or family)
- Loss of trust (a trusted friend or family member telling an important secret to others; being betrayed by someone who used to give support; finding out that someone you respected or admired has serious flaws; becoming disillusioned with a person, place, or idea)
- Loss of innocence (a child having to grow up too quickly; a child being abused; learning a dark or horrible secret without having the emotional or mental tools to process it)
- Loss of reputation (being deemed a criminal or losing one’s reputation due to false accusations; committing a crime or otherwise condemned action and having to deal with the consequences)
- Loss of mental health (the development of mental illness; the process of finding a path to mental wellness after trauma or the onset of mental illness; the isolation felt when others do not understand emotional and mental limitations; the difficulty of navigating the world while coping with trauma or other mental/emotional differences)
- Loss of connection (rejection by parents, siblings, peers, or other important life figures; not having others to share daily life with; feeling starved for emotional and mental intimacy with others; chronic loneliness)
- Loss of aspirations/dreams (not getting accepted into one’s desired college; no longer being able to practice or do a favorite hobby due to physical or mental difficulties; not being married or dating when one wants a significant other; not being able to biologically have children; never being able to reconcile with an estranged friend or family member)
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but look how many options there are just on the list! Not only is there a wide variety to choose from—ranging from moderately difficult to seriously damaging—but all of them are capable to eliciting similar emotional reactions as physical/literal death from characters as well as from readers. The loss of health, the betrayal of a spouse, or the loss of a home to a fire are tragic in their own right and, even without any other conflict or dilemma, are enough to inhabit a story and fill it with resonance and nuance. The possibilities aren’t endless, but they nearly are.
Once you determine the type of loss a character or characters will experience in your story, you will also need to deal with the fallout of said loss, which is always a form of the grieving process. This is perhaps more important than the loss itself, at least for writers—properly showing the effect or impact of a loss gives that loss the weight it needs to be meaningful, but insufficiently following the grieving process after the loss can make audiences disconnect from the story. Writing grief is also difficult—it can vary so much from person to person, both in its expression and its duration. A one-time event will cause a different type of grief than a chronic or reoccurring event, as well. With that in mind, here’s some advice for understanding how to write grief:
- Familiarize yourself with the 5 stages of grief—note that the stages do not have to followed in a specific order or experienced in their entirety by each person, but knowing the stages will give you a basis of information to help you recognize it in characters, in others, and even in yourself.
- Read about other’s stories of grief—because grief can vary so widely, it’s important that you see as many unique expressions as possible. Read about those who were angry, those who became depressed, those who were able to move on quickly and those who never really got over their loss; read different metaphors that people have used to describe grief and read about different philosophical and religious approaches to understanding it. Read about people who experienced one major loss and read about people who experienced a continuing, ongoing, or reoccurring loss. If you know people who have experienced a significant loss and you think it’s appropriate, ask them (kindly and respectfully) to describe their grieving process to you. Ask out of genuine curiosity! If you’ve experienced a serious loss, ponder how you handled it, what the process looked like, and if you ever reached a level of acceptance or think you will. The more examples you see and understand, the more you’ll be able to correlate that knowledge to your knowledge of your character’s individual personalities.
- Take time to consider all of the consequences of the loss—how will the loss impact character relationships? Will there be other forms of loss that follow the initial loss? For instance, if a character has a parent who leaves them when they’re young, will they also lose trust, innocence, or a sense of belonging? If a character loses their job, will their relationships with their family or friends suffer? Will a serious health diagnosis result in the loss of friendship or connection with others? Will a character’s inability to accept their loss create distance between them and others or create resentment in them toward others? The more you explore the extent of the loss, the more interesting the loss becomes and the more complex your characterization and plotting can be.
- Ask for feedback from others—if you’re unsure if a character’s emotional response to a situation makes sense, have a friend read the scene or chapter and give you feedback. If you’re having a hard time coming up with long-term or extended consequences for a loss, ask a friend to help you brainstorm. And if you still aren’t sure, try to find someone who has experienced a similar situation and ask them to help you if they’re willing.
Much like the “expectations vs. reality” technique, there is a plethora of possibilities for how loss and grief can create intrigue, character development, and motivation. Part of the beauty of this technique is that there’s no hard-and-fast way to approach it—you can adapt the principles to fit any genre and can mellow or intensify the type of loss you include to fit the emotional tone and purpose of a piece. Most of all, though, expanding one’s repertoire of ways to create drama and conflict in a story brings balance, maturity, and variety to the tales well tell without sacrificing good storytelling (or our favorite characters).