Trauma Writing: A Beginner’s Guide

image: Clem Onojeghuo for Unsplash

Sometimes stories take us to difficult places.

Some of the most powerful works of literature are the ones that take us to the darkest corners of our worlds and our minds. But consider the Yiddish saying, “Anything can be survived if it’s part of a story.” As the characters we honor in nonfiction—or create in fiction—cope with trauma, readers can access their own pain and find healing.

We’re all continually working on our own deepest issues. Most of us have experienced trauma in our lives, and if we haven’t — well, we will. Especially after we’ve navigated the year and world of 2020, our space may feel very battered and wounded; it’s time for literature to reflect it back, to find the words to express it, and to set readers on the road to healing. We can develop resilience through the arts so we are better equipped to understand our own traumas … and face future ones.

Most people think trauma literature is about trauma. In fact, trauma literature is at least as much about the problematics of storytelling as it is about actual traumatic events. It’s about the difficulty of representing the truth of an experience so horribly extraordinary that it cannot be contained within the human mind, let alone within the borders of a page. It’s about, in the words of trauma scholar Dori Laub, the simultaneous “imperative to tell” and “impossibility of telling.”

How do you craft art from trauma?

Let’s start out by talking about truth. Do novelists write truth, or lies? What about poets? What about reporters? It’s important to not confuse truth with facts. Trauma is about truth. It can be about facts, but it is always about truth. People’s traumas may not define them, but they cannot be ignored.

But first—let’s take a step back. Why write about trauma at all? Why read about it?

Trauma survivors write stories to safely dissect and process what happened to them; survivors read these stories to learn how to deal with their own pain. Writing and reading about trauma in the safety of someone else’s story can help reduce one’s fear of pain. And, honestly, what are fairytales but stories of trauma? Yet they allow children to face fear and dread and other terrible things in a “safe” setting. G.K. Chesterton writes,“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” In the same way, we read and write about trauma in removed settings so we don’t carry the fear with us and we can practice the idea that somehow one can survive and even thrive after something awful happens. It’s the whole raison d’être of writers like Stephen King.

But trauma alone does not a story make. Simply retelling something can be healing for the writer, but it’s not going to be meaningful to a reader unless the reader can find a truth in the story that will connect with their own experiences, feelings, and/or situations. I say the same thing during every writing class I teach: if your writing doesn’t tell the reader something new about their life, help them see their truths from a different perspective, or give them ideas on which they can build, then you might as well be writing in a journal. There’s nothing wrong with a journal, but its ends are different from the ends of other writing.

I’m going to come back to the reader again and again, because (again, unless it’s about keeping a journal) all of us are writing for someone else. There is an intended audience. There is someone with whom you are communicating.

We must always tell stories so that their specificity reveals some universal truth.

Sometimes the surface content, no matter how well it’s written, is not compelling enough and needs to connect to something more, something deeper. Or to put it another way: not every troubling or difficult thing you have experienced will be interesting to someone who doesn’t know you.

Feelings and experiences matter, but writers and readers also want to know what they mean. Part of a writer’s job is exploring how personal stories can contribute to the archive of collective human experience.

Acknowledging all this is essential if you’re going to include trauma in your fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or play. But remember talking about it alone will not get your book published or your play/film produced. Being healed by writing doesn’t excuse you from the insanely hard work of making art. There are plenty of mediocre memoirs out there, just as there are plenty of mediocre novels, that deal with trauma in ways that make it less, or more, important than it should be.

A word of warning: This work is emotionally demanding. Horrible things people have told me occasionally invade my mind, as if another person’s experience has insinuated itself into my own memories. It’s unsettling. It’s also why stories matter. Because hearing them can help us better understand the people who share them, and in turn understand ourselves. Stories help us glimpse the humanity in the hardship, showing us that while pain is universal, compassion and vibrancy and hope can be, too.

So now that we know why it matters—why is it so hard to tell? The “trauma narrative” is a storytelling framework that’s often punctuated by fragmentation, broken chronology, changing perspectives, and holes. And that makes it a story that’s more difficult to tell, simply from a practical perspective.

Traditional narratives generally begin with a character who has a desire. The story flows from that character’s choices and the conflicts that ensue relative to that desire. But the trauma narrative is more complicated. Instead of our protagonist moving smoothly toward achieving their desire and dealing with obstacles, they’re also constantly evading what’s difficult to confront. They’re constantly escaping what they don’t want to deal with. This is a challenge to the storyteller.

For some of us, the trauma we’re writing about is somewhere in the background to the story and doesn’t really come out to play, but for most of us, it is the obstacle. Whether it’s seen as a flashback or told as a backstory, the trauma is an event no one wanted to have happen, but did, and now the question is how it will be overcome. What is the tactic?

The trauma we’ll be allowing our characters to experience is an integral part of the framework. But it also punctuates the framework. It doesn’t allow the reader to get away with pretending it didn’t happen. So we need to see how the story moves through various phases to end with a final conclusion or dénouement.

Remember that the trauma narrative punctures the arc, because of the protagonist’s initial inability to process their pain:

  • in stories that introduce the trauma
  • in other stories, the trauma occurred in the past and the protagonist’s job is to somehow process it and emerge on the other side. They get into a sort of feedback loop in which the traumatic event is repeated.

Unless you’re writing poetry, nearly everything else — fiction, nonfiction, drama — will comprise scenes. A scene unfolds as it happens, in the moment, dropping readers into the middle of a critical interaction or experience. Something important takes place. If there’s dialogue, it reveals people’s strengths, weaknesses, character, goals. There’s sure to be conflict, and something changes, perhaps irrevocably.

Every scene needs to do something. This is true of anything you write, but it goes doubly so when you’re writing about trauma. Every scene must have a purpose: it can deepen your understanding of a character, it can drive the story’s momentum forward, it can enlighten the reader as to a secret or situation. Readers should finish reading a scene with the same feeling they have after reading a chapter — that they’re compelled to read on.

When writing about trauma, the start of a scene is your friend. You want to capture the reader’s attention right away, even perhaps shock them so they see the serious nature of the trauma you’re inviting them to experience and understand. It’s therefore useful to allow your scenes, or some of them, to explode into action. The more vivid the launch, the more readers will want to see what happens next.

(I write murder mysteries, arguably at least partially about trauma, and I like to start major scenes with a non sequitur. I find this is a great way of jolting readers and arousing their curiosity.)

Try starting your scene in the middle of an event or an activity, rather than during the buildup to it. Jump right into the action. Once you’re there, you can guide the reader into following your characters’ reactions, goals, and desires through the remainder of the scene. Just as you started the scene in as compelling a manner as possible, end it that way, too, with a hint of some action that’s coming next.

Forward motion is your friend. In any kind of writing, your goal as an author is to keep the reader turning the pages. This is quite different from the “so what?” question — that’s what the readers will get out of it. What you want out of it is for people to read your work and be moved, by it, or inspired by it, or to just plain like it. That only happens when they read the whole thing, and you’ll only engage them in reading the whole thing if you keep forward momentum through your connections of scenes.

You probably already know that the best compliment an author can receive is when a reader says, “I stayed up way too late last night reading this book, I couldn’t put it down.” The few times that I’ve heard it about my own work, I’ve been thrilled. And I can remember many nights when I’ve stayed up far, far too late, because I, too, couldn’t put a good book down.

Well, that’s the effect you want to have on your readers — to produce something so compelling that it becomes as important to the reader as it is to the author.

So in a sense, one of your goals is to create compelling stories. And to make a story compelling, along with other obvious elements, it’s essential to keep the story’s forward momentum going.

I’m going to give you an image. Read this through and then, if you can, stop whatever you’re doing and revisit the narrative. Take a deep breath. Now … Imagine going for a walk in the woods. The birds are singing, the sun filters through the trees, you fill your lungs with sweet beautiful air, the pine needles are soft under your feet, it’s the perfect walk — and suddenly you trip over a log.

Now you’re abruptly and completely out of that experience. You’re dealing with whatever part of your body hurts. You’re probably cursing instead of humming. Your walk has been at best disturbed and at worst ruined.

And here’s the thing: anything that takes the reader out of the story’s forward momentum, anything that reminds the reader that there’s a writer in the room — that’s the log.

So it’s essential to pay particular attention to anything that breaks up the forward flow of the story, anything that takes the reader out of the narrative and reminds them that is, in fact, what it is: just a story, and not something they’re living through. This is particularly necessary when a novel is written in the first person, or in the third person with a limited viewpoint: it’s important the reader feel in a sense that they are the narrator.

Reminding them they are not also reminds them this might be a good stopping-point. And that’s the last thing you want to do, isn’t it? We don’t want to provide good stopping-points: we want them to feel there’s no stopping at all, they’re caught up in the forward flow and must read on.

I used an expression a moment or so ago I want to talk a little about. I said you don’t want to remind the reader there’s a writer in the room. I think the creative arts are unique in that while there is someone creating the thing — whether it’s a painting, a book, or a symphony — in order for the thing to work, its creator has to be invisible. You don’t look at a Mondrian and think, “Mondrian,” you look at it and experience “color.” You don’t listen to the Brandenburg Concertos and think, “Bach,” you listen and you hear magic. You don’t read Stephen King and think, “Maine author,” you read it and feel “terror.”

Beginning writers, especially, are still so aware of themselves as writers that they cannot help but put that awareness into their work. They use flowery language, search the thesaurus for supposedly better words to use, forget how people really talk in their eagerness to explain everything they think needs explaining. And every time they do, there’s that log, right in the reader’s path. There’s that reminder that there’s a writer in the room. And there goes the story.

There are a lot of places where you can keep that momentum going by eliminating unnecessary details. If your character is driving somewhere, you don’t need to map their itinerary unless it’s essential to your plot. Another example: “Mark walked over and handed Margaret the book.” If he handed it to her, then he had to have walked over, so why say so?

Just as you’ve asked your reader to trust you, at some point you also need to trust them. Don’t use a hammer when a pinprick will do. It connects to what you’ve probably already heard ad infinitum, ad nauseam, to “show, don’t tell.” (Chekov didn’t write the famous quote attributed to him, but it works anyway: don’t say the moon is shining, show me light glinting on broken glass.) What you want to do is give your readers enough information to understand what’s happening, but not so much that you preempt their sense of discovery. When you provide too many markers, you deny your readers one of the great joys of reading: that feeling of epiphany when the reader figures something out and “gets” it. By trusting the reader, you rely less on explication and you allow your characters and dialogue and action to tell the tale. Your storytelling becomes leaner, more direct. (Because, honestly, while the phrase we use is “trust your reader,” the truth is what it really means is, trust yourself to be adequate to the situation: trust your character development, your storytelling, your descriptions, your dialogue.)

And this is especially true of trauma writing. You’re walking a very fine line here, because of the danger of losing your reader through too much graphic violence, too much triggering of their own experiences, or through the fear that you’re taking them to a dark place they’re not ready to go. Hinting at evil is almost always more compelling than spelling it out.

Remember that you want your story to be the focus, not your writing.

Bestselling novelist of mystery and historical fiction. Writer, editor, & business storyteller at jeannettedebeauvoir.com.

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