How Write a Gut-Wrenching Tragic Scene—Thanks to One Surprising Detail!

How to Write a Gut-Wrenching Tragic Scene–Thanks to One Surprising Detail!

This week’s video contains a confession from me, slightly counter-intuitive advice on how to write a tragic scene, and an absolutely spot-on example from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

Video Transcript:

I have to start off this video with a confession. Within the last month or so, I stumbled across a fantastic quote of writing advice, which talked about one of the easiest and most important ways to kill it with an emotionally dark scene. Sadly, I can’t remember for the life of me where I saw this quote or who said it. So you’ll just have to let me paraphrase. In a nutshell, this quote suggests that the best way to create an emotionally powerful and resonant tragic scene is to focus not on the overwhelming darkness, but on one small contrasting detail.

Recently, I discovered one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this, while reading Victor Hugo’s beloved behemoth Les Miserables. Deep in the book, in the midst of a horrific battle scene, Hugo wrote the following:

There were corpses here and there, and pools of blood on the pavement. I remember a white butterfly which went and came in the street. Summer does not abdicate.

So why didn’t Hugo just write, “It was horrible. There was blood everywhere. Seriously, reader, it was bad”?

Even assuming that sounds better in French than it does in English, I think you’ll agree that this on-the-nose version that spells out the darkness ain’t got nothing on Hugo’s original version. This tiny detail of beauty, this butterfly—and a white butterfly, at that—absolutely pops off the page in a stunning visual. And the really interesting result of all this is that this small spark of light and beauty only serves to emphasize the surrounding darkness.

The original quote that I can’t remember (and which I would love to know if anyone recognizes it), talked about how a smart author doesn’t need to write reams of description about, say, a family massacred in a bombing. All he needs to squeeze his readers’ hearts is the infinitesimal detail of a child’s empty shoe in the middle the street.

Tell me your opinion: What contrasting detail have you used in a recent tragic scene?

How Write a Gut-Wrenching Tragic Scene—Than ks to One Surprising Detail

 

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. That is a very good one. Another one that comes to mind is in the 1940 version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” when the German soldier sees a butterfly amongst all the carnage. Unfortunately, it leads to his own death. I don’t know if this counts but in my latest book, “He Was Weird,” I give the protagonist a heroic death even though he has just shot 45 people at his school. Readers say they’re more focused on him than the casualties he’s inflicted.

  2. thomas h cullen says:

    As a literary technique, this works because of how it ties to reality’s truth:

    Everything happens, at every moment in time.

    For every moment you’re bored, or inspired, happy, or profoundly upset, reality for someone else elsewhere will be one of contrast – their moment of tragedy, will for you be one of normal routine; for your moment of panic or anxiety, theirs will be one of routine procedure.

    Artists or writers who employ this technique are essentially those who recognise this element of reality.

  3. I have been struggling with writing a much less horrific scene than the one you described, but still emotionally powerful and heartbreaking-an accidental overdose of a loved one who seemed to be recovering. I could describe the scene and it had feeling but it didn’t have the gut wrenching, heart seizing quality that would make it memorable. Thank you for pointing out it’s not all about the physical condition of the scene but a detail of seemingly insignificant significance that can make the most impact of what happens around or in the destruction of lives. Inspiring!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think part of the reason this technique is so powerful is because it’s so honest: when we’re in the midst of unspeakable tragedies, our brains often want to refuse to process the horrors and instead latch on to some familiar and safe.

  4. This reminded me of the impact little girl in the red coat had on me when I watched Schindler’s List. The movie, in black and white, has a little girl walking by violence inflicted in a ghetto in Krakow. I even think a man is shot right beside her, but the focus is on her, the little girl in the red coat. Chilling.

  5. Not sure if this counts but in a script adaptation of my uncle’s memoirs I started writing, I describe a particularly tragic scene where the parcel bomb explodes (killing my cousin Jenny and her 6 year old daughter Katryn though Jenny’s 3 year old son is spared).

    I start with a homely interaction with Jenny preparing lunch for the children, having brought the mail in, up to the point where Katryn, carrying her beloved doll, spots the parcel and thinking it might be a present, opens it & it explodes.

    It’s in script not novel form (and if it more or less what happened as far as we know with some conjectured detail on my part to dramatize the event – for instance the doll & toy train).

    *******

    ‘The kitchen has been demolished – charred and shattered debris is scatted across the tiled floor. (Out of focus)

    Zoom in to partially burnt doll rocking slightly and lying with her brown eyes, fringed with black eyelashes, staring at the ceiling.

    Fritz is standing outside the kitchen in the corridor,
    staring in. His blue eyes wide. He is clutching a small
    model train to his chest.

    ********

    When I wrote it, I didn’t want to focus on the carnage but thought that focusing on the toys would underscore the horror of what happened. This event happened 30 years ago but its still brings sadness to our family.

  6. Wow, that is so profound. Personally speaking, it can be very easy to get bogged down in the dark emotions of a tragic or intense scene and start emphasizing the darkness to the point of redundancy. What a great insight to use contrast. I think this technique is comparable to how music will sometimes grow tender, or incorporate a former happy theme, when something tragic has just occurred in a film, or the characters are in a place of stress and darkness (two particular things that come to mind are 1: the tender, almost lullaby phrase of music in John Williams’ “Redcoats at the farm and the Death of Thomas” that comes after Thomas is shot in “The Patriot”, and 2: how the woodwind Shire theme is brought in when Frodo is dragging himself up Mount Doom in Howard Shore’s “The Black Gate Opens” from “The Return of the King.”). Anyway, I’ll definitely be looking to this technique in the next tragic scene I write. Thank you for this post!

  7. My most recent project has several tragic scenes in them where I absolutely bawled through the writing of them. I tried to add some levity and poignancy to the scenes because otherwise, the scenes were just really down, and I didn’t want that to be the overall tone of the novelette.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You know what they say: no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. So I’m sure you can expect your readers to bawl along with you!

  8. And this, Ms. Weiland, is why I read your blog. 🙂 Thanks!

  9. Steve Mathisen says:

    Brilliant observation and advice!! It’s a good reminder that for a clear picture we need both brightness AND contrast.

  10. My favorite is from “War and Peace.” I love the scene when Andrei is injured and lies on his back in the middle of the Austerlitz battle and looks up at the beautiful sky to see the birds flying above. It’s one of my favorite scenes in any book ever.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve yet to read War & Peace, but this reminds me of the northern lights that were visible on the battlefield at Fredericksburg. Beauty is such a poignant thing in a time of suffering.

  11. This is a great post. Reminded me of the “saddest story in the world”: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

    My story has a stillbirth in it, but it is only described in a short paragraph where the father is remembering all the things he was counting that day – the number of kicks there were supposed to be, the number of tiles on the hospital floor, the number of breaths his wife took, the number of people who would have been in his family, etc. I found that to be a much more meaningful way to write about it than a blow by blow description of the actual event.

  12. I went looking and I can’t find the quote either, but I know the one you mean.

    I always took it to mean that you should focus in on a single, hard-hitting concrete detail rather than trying to embody a whole abstract concept like the horrors of war. What hit me was that the shoe is empty and the child lost, so I didn’t see it as a contrast. It drives home the point that the war affected even the most innocent.

    I like your interpretation, too. I think both are strong ways to create a tragic scene that won’t let your readers slip past without feeling it.

  13. Great tip! I’m off to find me some butterflies.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just so long as *they* don’t come to tragic end! 😉

      • I don’t know why but your comment reminded me of my dachshund’s favorite past-time. Pouncing on white moths/butterflies. The first time I saw it I was surprised. Then he jumped back and the butterfly flew away. Turns out Buddy is a catch and release kinda dog.

  14. pamelacreese says:

    the woman looks across the clearing…and amid the senseless deaths, the bodies of slain families… the focus shifts from the protagonist to the arm of the child he is holding…and the dancing animals he’d painted around her wrist just days earlier.

  15. Here’s a quote I thought of right away when I read your article: not sure if this is the one. 🙂

    The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance. —Richard Price

  16. You’re so RIGHT, K.M., but focusing on one minor detail that contrasts the situation makes the heartache so much more powerful. I can’t wait to try that. Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s like when we lose a loved one and we’re doing okay until we see some small detail of their life – a photo, a piece of clothing, a sentimental knick-knack – and suddenly that happy connotation makes the sense of loss that much harder to bear.

      • Oh my! You are so right! What I would add to your list of missing loved ones is a favorite song. I remember driving down the road and heard a happy song that reminded me so much of my dad (who’d been dead over a decade at that point), but I was crying so hard that I had to pull over. Great tip. Thanks!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Music is a huge memory trigger, which means it’s also a huge emotional trigger. I will never forget the use of “My Love Is Like the Red, Red Rose” in Mary Johnston’s Civil War tragedy Cease Firing.

  17. This passage I wrote isn’t exactly like the one you noted, but I think it works in a similar manner. The protagonist is crawling across a US Civil War battlefield searching for the captain:

    From this distance, the officer’s bare head looked hauntingly festive. Blood bloomed on it like a scarlet rose, and a matching ribbon draped across his cheek and neck before disappearing into the hair below his ear.

    I intended for the contrast of a beautiful rose and ribbon to strengthen the horror of the scene. I hope it worked.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice. Even though the image itself is grisly, the comparatively happy metaphor makes it all the more haunting.

  18. Aften Brook Szymanski says:

    This brought on one of those light-bulb moments for me.
    There’s a scene I can’t seem to capture, it haunts me in the mundane moments and stalks darkened corners of my mind.
    I can’t fix the stupid scene!
    The emotions bleed into melodramatic every time I try. Not what I’m aiming for in that particular scene.
    This post makes it seem all so clear- why hadn’t I realized highlighting a contrasting element? One perfect realization to smack the reader in the face that real people in the real world are experiencing horror?
    *face palm

    Renewed insight into revisions!
    Edit-Ho! (No, I am not referring to myself in a derogatory manner, just using the gut tensing exclamation involved in the ‘charge to action’ call).

  19. One of my favorite movies is “Wolf Children”, which takes this idea of contrast and flips it on its head. Most of the movie is happy and light with a sad moment near the beginning, and a bittersweet ending. The mother of the children loses their father near the beginning, but I feel her loss most powerfully at the end. It brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it.

  20. Contrasting it with one nice thing? Haven’t thought about it before. But it sure has promise.

  21. Yes! I love this!

    In *America, America,* by Ethan Canin, the main character’s father showed his pain over the loss of his wife by doing things in the kitchen exactly as she had done. She used to hang damp paper towels over the curtain rod so she could reuse them. The scene when the MC went home to see his father had done the same is the most poignant scene in the book.

  22. thomas h cullen says:

    Good example.

  23. One thing I found involves the poem, “Go, Youth,” by James Tate… “In the middle / of the road a child’s shoe glistened. I walked around it. / It woke me up a little. The child had disappeared. Some / mysteries are better left alone.” However, no quotes from Mr. Tate about technique.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Schuyler M., above, actually found the quote I was thinking of:

      “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.” —Richard Price

      But this poem is great. The technique in action!

  24. Very good point about homing in on the detail. You mentioned you were trying to recall a quotation that evoked this technique. Could it be Anton Chekhov’s reference to this subject:

    “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

    I often use it to illustrate the concepts of ‘Show and Tell’ and last quoted it in my ?How NOT to be an ASPIRING Writer’ book.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Another commenter, above, found the quote I was thinking of, by Richard Price. But this is a great one too. One of my favorites!

  25. In one of my recent short stories, I did something similar to that. When one of the main characters died at the end, instead of focusing on how he was covered in blood, etc, I mentioned how quiet and calm the room was, how peaceful his eyes looked, and the way the broken glass on the floor sparkled in the sunlight.

  26. Ah, poetry at it’s best in a novel! What translation would you recommend?

  27. Thank You!!!

  28. When I kill my protagonist (yes, it’s a sin, and I’m not proud of it) I go into quite a bit of detail describing the look in his eyes as he takes a final breath. That scene almost made me cry. I can’t wait for my readers to get their hands (and tears) all over it!

  29. Rhoda Marshall says:

    This is a fantastic post. Is this the quote?

    “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and work off the resonance.”

    –Richard Price

  30. Great tip! thanks for the advice. I’m going to check out my manuscripts now.

  31. Wow, so many good examples in the post and the follow up comments! I am starting a story that revolves around a lot of violence and darkness and I worried about how I would write those scenes. Thanks so much for the sounds suggestions, now I can’t wait to get started and look for the brightness and the one redeeming factor in each scene!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Dark scenes can be tough to write for a number of reasons. But a little juxtaposition can work wonders, no matter the circumstances.

  32. I haven’t anything of my own to offer (yet) in this regard, but it made me think of the death poem Yabu-san recites before committing seppuku in Clavell’s Shogun:

    “The blue sky above the earth
    white clouds rise towards heaven
    life is only a butterfly’s dream
    death… the way to eternal life.”

    He’s such a vicious guy and he’s about to kill himself publicly in an extremely gruesome way; the contrast between the the situation and the beauty of his poem struck me deeply.

    Love this blog!!!!!

  33. In any tragedy, there is always some detail like that that gets “stuck” in your mind and can catapult you back to it. If not an object, then something that seemed beautiful or comforting at the time that later becomes a memory of horror, thanks to hindsight. In real life, for me, it was being comforted by a neighbor’s promise that my brother would be home for Christmas after he collapsed. The next day, when my parents told me and my sister that he was dead, I thought it was my fault for believing Mrs. Brown and going to sleep. Sorry–it’s hard for me to articulate quite what I mean here.

    One of my fantasy books opens with the hero high on his mountain, enjoying the beauty of his forest, looking down on the golden mist below. I played beautiful, plaintive music while I wrote this scene, because (in my mind) as the Camera zooms in, he becomes aware of faint cries far down in the mist, and instantly for him, the moment turns from beauty to horror because he knows what is happening. Even as he is racing to help, he knows from experience that he is too late. The beautiful music helped bring the horror into sharp focus for me as I wrote the scene.

  34. I knew I’ve seen it before! It helped me write a scene in which a young girl stares into the barrel of a gun, knowing she’s going to die a reluctant hero. I could never get her disappointment and gnawing pain just write, but when I thought about the firelight glimmering on her killer’s shirt buttons, I knew where to start. Thanks bunches.

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