Those of you who follow me on Instagram will know that I’m close to finishing the first part of my WIP, and (no spoilers) the last chapter I wrote deals with the death of an important character—an event that catalyzes the rest of the novel. But even though I’ve planned this part of the novel for months, imagined the sequence of events down to small details, I was still at a loss for how to go about writing such a tragic and, in some ways, delicate event. I’m still working on the first page of the chapter that comes right after the character’s death, and it’s been a while since I started. Just like in real life, death is hard to process, and seems like everyone (real or fictional) deals with the grief that comes afterward in different ways.
My writing conundrum has made me pause and analyze just what makes writing grief so difficult. It’s as near-universal of an experience as they come, so one might think that would leave ample reference material for writers to use. But all the knowledge about the 5 stages of grief or personal accounts of the aftermath of a tragedy still doesn’t help when you sit down to write your story. Why is that?
Grief is highly contextual—and that’s why I think it’s so hard to capture on the page. Even if you take one person and see how they tend to grieve, there’s still going to be important variations in their grieving process based on things like:
- How unexpected was the loss?
- Was the nature of the loss traumatic beyond usual standards?
- How significant was the person or thing they lost?
- What is the nature of the gap that the loss leaves for them?
- What other issues—financial, relational, emotional, spiritual, geographical, physical—arise as a result of that loss?
- How are they expected to grieve, do they meet those expectations, and how do they feel about those expectations?
- Do they need to care for others who are also grieving?
- Do other responsibilities (work, family, friends, political, etc.) interrupt or shorten their time of grieving?
- How strong is their support system? Do they feel isolated?
One change in any of these questions can make a person respond differently than they did when dealing with a previous loss. Add on top of that all the other people who will have their own personal interpretations of the loss, and you have such a complex and nuanced web of interactions and events that it’s almost too much to keep track of in a story.
However, the complexity of grief is what makes it so compelling in a story—that’s likely the reason why the advice “drop a body from the ceiling” is common (a.k.a., when a story is lacking momentum or conflict, “kill” a character and let the fallout of their death spur the story onward). It’s also, except in rare cases, unavoidable: either there’s a character who has lost something prior to the story, or a character (or characters) who will lose something during the story. What can be done to make writing grief easier, then, since it’s going to seep into the story anyway?
I have no definite answer, because it varies so much (if it was straightforward, I wouldn’t have to write this post). But I do know three things:
- Grief has to be viewed through the complexity I described earlier. Go through questions like the ones I listed, answer them for each character affected, and see what other questions or discoveries emerge as you figure out how each person will respond. Then, figure out how those different personal responses are in harmony with one another or clash; see what conflict may arise due to differing ways of handling the grief; and look at the ways in which the loss of the person (or thing) ripples out into other areas of the characters’ lives.
- Grief takes time. How much time it takes will vary due to the circumstances determined in #1 (context + individual personalities), but regardless, you have to factor that into whatever you decide to write. That goes both ways: a minor loss shouldn’t be grieved intensely for the entire novel, but a devastating loss (a close friend or family member, a whole city due to war, etc.) can’t be forgotten just because the plot needs to move more quickly. Grief also isn’t (always) a linear process—it may pop up again much later, when things seemed okay for a character, because they suddenly realize a person or thing is missing, or it may consistently be a sore spot or distraction for a character who is slowly dredging through their feelings. If it turns out that you don’t want to take so much time writing about characters grieving, then dial down the severity of the loss they suffer. Likewise, if you think the grieving time for characters isn’t enough to sustain part of the story, make the loss more significant.
- You’ll need to edit and tweak a lot. Because grief is complex, it has to be shown in nuanced ways, and even the best writers aren’t going to capture everything they need to capture in the first or second draft. Accepting that it’ll take a little more effort to walk (write?) your characters through a loss makes it much easier to do the work, compared to if you think you should be able to nail it in the first draft.
Hopefully this helps you navigate some of the complexities of your story/stories. This is still an area that I’m learning, and likely one I will continue learning for as long as I continue to write, but for now, these tips are helping me figure out how to write some of the most difficult scenes in my WIP. It’s elements like grief that really make me thankful that editing is part of the writing process.