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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. 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.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      The last aspect. Like it.

      When experiencing severe tragedy, or trauma, we usually do give more focus to our surrounding environment.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great approach. I agree with Thomas: the sparkling glass is a particularly nice touch.

    • Well done! (Enter applause here)

      • My main hero was executed by a fantasy version of burning at the stake, a method which is very, very slow and painful. Some of the last lines before he dies are these: “For a long time he closed his eyes and his chest heaved, and the saltwater running down his face shone with the firelight.”

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

  3. Thank You!!!

  4. 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!

  5. 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

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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!!!!!

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. Ok this post is somewhat older so you may have been told a dozen times in the meantime, but could you have been looking for that quote by Richard Price:

    The bigger the issue the smaller you write. 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.


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