Dear Jerusha: I have to write a scene in my work-in-progress but the subject matter horrifies me. It’s a crucial scene - I can’t omit it or just allude to it, but I find it difficult to research or think about and I’ve been avoiding drafting the scene for a very long time. Do you have any thoughts on how best to approach writing it?
Darling, you're not alone. One well-regarded writer delivered the really-truly-finished-totally-this-time-long-overdue manuscript to her editor, only to get a phone call: "I love it, it's wonderful. Just one thing. That blank page 327, which just says 'Big Row Here'. What was that going to be?" And the answer was that the row was crucial to the story, but it was in and around an issue that was, personally, very difficult for Ms Writer. She'd done the right thing and decided she was willing to go there, but when it came to the crunch - or, rather, when it came to p.327 - she couldn't do it. She'd do it next time. In revision. In re-drafting. When she'd done everything else...
You know that working with material which is potent for you, as I was talking about to my last correspondent, is the key to getting your best writing out of you, but that doesn't mean it's always fun. Emma has a short story that she wants to write, but it's entirely built round one of her own personal horrors, and two years in she still hasn't psyched herself up. So how do you get yourself to write it?
One answer is to convey the events by using them, structurally, in a way which means you don't have to build a full scene. Flashbacks, memories, dreams, nightmares, putting it in a letter, hints in dialogue and glancing away ... There are all sorts of ways of getting get the reader to assemble and experience the horrors for you, particularly if the event (the Western Front, say) is something which lots of readers already have stocked in their imaginations. But there are two risks. One is that the less particular, crunchy detail you put in, the more you're at risk of you and the reader never getting further than second-hand or even clichéd stuff. If the business of good writing is to make us see things anew - to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange, as anthropologists say - then how are you going to do that, if you're relying on what the reader knows already? "The mud! The blood! The poetry!" says one parody, which is spot on; it's one reason that short historical fiction is exceptionally challenging, because in that small space it's hard not to rely on things the reader already knows.
And the second risk is the point that Scott Edelstein makes, about a flashback perhaps being a way of avoiding the hard work of writing a full scene. It may not be that you're avoiding the research and time it'll take to spend the last third of the novel evoking 160,000 soldiers on the field of Waterloo. The hard work may be emotional rather than practical, but you can still - perhaps even more strongly - not want to do it. "I'll slide it in as memories", you say, and it might actually be a good idea. But it might not be, if it leads you to skimp a scene which is central to your story: the changes that scene causes onto won't have been earned.
So, assuming that this is a scene which must be given full value, at least partly in real time, how do you get yourself to write it? I think it helps to reduce the opportunities for your horse to refuse or run out as you approach each jump:
- Do such research as you can't do without, to root your imagining in, then put it away.
- Switch off the internet, and ignore whatever else you find it easy to be distracted by.
- Jump in and start writing. Don't let yourself sit shivering on the edge, dabbling your toes in the water and not-swimming.
- Caffeine improves concentration and focus. So do small amounts of alcohol, sometimes. Of other substances, I couldn't possibly comment. Large amounts of any of these are counter-productive.
- Write fast to keep up momentum; tolerate the less-than-perfect word and phrase, scribble XXX where there's a bit of research you're missing; don't leave the page you're on to check back to what colour his hair is; even keep snacks and drinks to hand, to avoid those moments when you might dodge away.
- Try thinking of this as free-writing. It's frightening to let go of control, but sometimes it's easier to live through something if you don't watch yourself doing the living: if you don't look beyond the edges of the moment.
- Know that the first draft may well be as painful as it gets, and after that it'll be easier. Don't believe me? I was astonished when my writer friend Sarah Salway, who has taught writing as a therapeutic process (as opposed to writing for other people to read), told me that the therapeutic value is in the revising. It's not in the cathartic (you hope) splurge of getting-it-out,as I'd always assumed; it's in re-visiting that stuff from outside. You're thinking, "Was it really like that? Could I express exactly what it was better? Do I need that bit or is it just padding? What really mattered here? How can I get at that?" And although doing that kind of re-envisaging on tough material isn't ever going to be fun, it is easier, because you're cooler and you're outside it: you're in control
And how do you make sure that it is actually evocative and horrifying: that it has the effect on the reader that you want, and doesn't seem gratuitous or merely silly?
Research the practicalities, but if you go to personal accounts of this horror, don't get hung up on reproducing the feelings that others write about. The feelings you want to evoke in the character - and so in the reader - need to come not from them, but from your imaginative inhabiting of the practicalities. As long as you've done your research, your evocation of the horror will be honest and therefore truthfull, and we'll feel it so. It's when images and words are second-hand, pre-owned, standard-issue, the usual way of pressing such buttons, that the scene begins to seem voyeuristic or melodramatic.
And then I'd put all the research material away, even pour a drink if this is one moment when a bit of disinhibiting would be a good thing, and get something down. Again, this is where getting into something of a free-writing mindset can help. Throw the switch which disables your Inner Critic/Editor and let whatever happens happen; this is exploratory, not something to be censored, judged, evaluated for OTT-ness or melodrama or measured for its upsetting-your-granny quotient.
Don't forget that even in an important and fully-realised scene, you can still exploit the possibilities of compressing some bits, and expanding others. As ever, it'll be decisions about point-of-view and psychic distance which determine your decisions about what to Show, what to Tell, and what to omit. Maybe you do find some parts of the scene fragmenting, slipping away, or only being evoked in a dream or a scene set a month later. That's fine, if it's not because you're avoiding the hard or scary work, but instead the proper outcome of your having fully imagined and inhabited the scene, only then will you know what to leave out.
If what you're writing is a known horror, and you feel a responsibility to the real sufferers - and many writers do - then I'd suggest that you wait until the writing's basically done and revised, and then go back to your sources. Check that you have been honest and faithful to the truth of it all, but keep remembering that this is fiction. You're entitled to change things if it makes the overall horror work more effectively. And you're entitled to omit things which are just too grim, if leaving them in would derail the readers's experience of the scene. Story is still king. Indeed, often even survivors can only approach real horrors through the medium of fiction. It's knowing that this isn't, quite, what happened, that makes the reader able to see it through.
Remember whoever it was who said that "If your characters are crying, your readers won't". It's true, though I'm still trying to work out why, exactly: I think it's because if the story is about what caused them to cry, then crying is an outcome, not character-in-action and drama. (It might become character-in-action, of course, if the Wicked Stepfather throws the crying one out of the house for being a wimp). What makes your readers cry is you evoking in them whatever physical or mental situation your characters are suffering: you must leave the space open for the readers' own outcome.
So be willing to understate things, in the sense of not labelling and explaining fear or grief or weeping or whatever. In The Mathematics of Love, one thing that really gets to readers is Stephen's nightmares, at the end of each chapter; I've even had a few readers who couldn't bear to read them, which seems to me an index of writerly success. These little passages almost never describe emotion at all, being pared down to images - snapshots - of what he has no words for even as a narrator, let alone in telling well-turned stories of the war to his clients and friends.
But that doesn't mean you need pare back on the language. If you build the scene round physical sensation and action you might use quite dense, evocative, lyrical, figurative, connotation-rich language to evoke it fully, and so you should. Don't be so afraid of going over the top that you lose your sense of the ordinary business of voice, pace, characters-in-action. Just as sex scenes knock many a writers' compass awry so can writing violence or other horrors. This may be a scene of high horror or drama, but it is, actually, just another scene. You will get to the end of it. And it might just turn out to be one of the great scenes of the novel.