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?

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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. 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.

    • 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.”

  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.

  35. 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.

  36. Arlo Clyde Sharp says

    Here is a passage from a work in progress. A teenage girl has lost her baby, and the infant’s spirit is present at the gravesite service, but only the two dogs there can perceive her:

    The funeral service had saddened Bobo and his dog friend Daisy. They hated to see their people grieving. And the two dogs had spotted the ghost baby named Rebekah there. Sometimes, the dead lingered a while in this world before moving on to somewhere else. Maybe they had unfinished business or simply wanted to be near their loved ones a while longer. The baby tried to get her mother and the others to notice her, to no avail. Lonely and afraid, she cried piteously, but no one but Bobo and Daisy could hear.
    Bobo and Daisy took turns nuzzling the phantom infant to let her know she wasn’t completely alone, and they projected toward the baby all the love the people and the two dogs had for the little tyke. The baby stopped crying and smiled with the sweetest dimples imaginable. It made her cute as a newborn puppy.

  37. Not me, but…

    “Boromir smiled” 🙂

  38. I’m six years late and I’m not sure whether you found the source of the quote you mentioned, but it’s one of my favorites, so I recognized it.
    Here’s the original :

    You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.
    Richard Price

  39. A very rough draft of my latest character death is in the prologue and served to launch the main part of the story 25 years later. It is out in the country on an early August night where a young couple are walking on a dark road on a clear night under the excuse of watching the Perseids meteor shower…. a car approaches…

    They stepped back as the headlights drew near. The boy waved at the passing vehicle as it closed the distance. It was a few seconds away when it turned on its high beams.

    “What’s he doing?” She muttered. “Doesn’t he see…”

    Her words were cut short by a sudden surge in engine noise. The vehicle accelerated and swerved towards them.

    She threw her hands forward in a vain attempt to brace herself. “Oh my…”

    The scream was cut short by the impact. Both teens were struck at the same time and thrown through the air. The girl landed deep in the scrub spruce that lined the field beyond, while the boy tumbled end over end before crumbling to a heap in the ditch.

    As the girl looked up, she was vaguely aware one of her eyes wasn’t working. She tried to speak, but all that came out was a gurgle. An attempt to move revealed she had no feeling anywhere in her body, and a sinking feeling was rapidly closing in on her consciousness.

    She glanced upwards and caught a long meteorite flash through the warm summer night sky. For some reason, it brought a faint smile to her trembling lips. She blinked and her gaze fell back down to earth.

    The last thing she saw was a set of taillights vanishing in the distance.

    As I said, a rough draft but it has potential….


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