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.
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:
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?