Writing Traumatic Events for Your Characters

(This guest blog was written by Rene Gutteridge, one of the hosts of WriterCon (Aug 30-Sept 2, 2019). Rene is the author of 24 novels. Her novel My Life as a Doormat was adapted into a movie called Love’s Complicated.)

If you were to ask me to describe the Oklahoma City bombing to you, I’d be able to give you a very accurate picture of what happened that day.  The building had a gaping hole.  Cars and trees were on fire.  Ash-covered people wondered aimlessly like zombies.  Police, fire and ambulances came rushing to the scene.  You wouldn’t have to watch the news accounts of it because I would have painted a very factually based account of the ordeal.

But what I really gave you was a news report.  Because how I describe most of the Oklahoma City bombing to those who ask comes from the news accounts I watched about it years later.  However, if I rewind the tape and analyze what I really remember and how I remember it, you would have quite a different story on your hands.

One of the most vivid things I recall is the crunch, crunch, crunch sound of glass as I ran to the south side of the building to get around the fires. I didn’t take a step that didn’t put glass under my feet, but at the time I couldn’t figure out what it was that I was running on.

I ran into a police officer and he grabbed my shirt, and I have no recollection of what we said to each other, but I remember his eyes—wide, terrified, unheroic in the moment, it seemed—and he let me go.

I remember all that paper floating down from the sky and the urge to gather it up because that’s what you do when people lose their important papers—you gather it up for them.

Hours after the bomb went off, sirens still took up all the silence, not a single moment to listen to quiet skies—just wailing, high-pitched sirens. I remember being irritated by it, feeling like the whole world must be on fire.

Did I see death?  Blood and gore?  The most desperate moments of my fellow human beings?  I did. I had to have. There was no way for me to miss it.  Yet I have one or two small, vivid images of that sort of thing. Mostly what I remember from that day would never draw a complete picture of the events that unfolded.  It wouldn’t even be an incomplete picture.  It simply, if all strung together, wouldn’t make any sense at all.

When writers try to capture a traumatic event in a character’s story, it’s easy to try to use that moment to describe the entire event itself.  Whether it’s a car crash or a life-and-death attack, we want our reader to see it as we see it in our head—unfolding moment by moment.

But to help our reader connect to our character, we must resist the temptation to have it play out as a scene in a movie. Rather, we should allow our reader to experience it as the character experiences it—through broken, unhinged moments that don’t make up the whole story.

Chances are, you’ve also experienced your own traumatic moment.  Stop and think for a little bit.  What do you remember about that incident?  What do you reallyremember?  Sure, your mind has filled in the blanks, but what are your very first memories…the ones that don’t make sense on their own?

Take some time to sit and write them out.  I bet you’d be amazed at some of the things you remember that seem so outside of the true event.

I was 19 years old, whizzing down Interstate 44 when a bread truck in front of me started to swerve violently from one side of the highway to the other until, going at least sixty miles an hour, it slammed head-on into the concrete beam that held up the overpass.

I pulled to the side of the road and looked around. There wasn’t another car in sight.  And I remember thinking I was the only person who could help him.  This was before cellphones, so I got out of my car, with full intentions of rushing to the truck to offer help.  As I got out of the car, I could see the entire front of the truck. The cab, where the driver would’ve been, was virtually a pancake.

Like it was yesterday, I can still feel this sensation: my feet had become lead.  I tried to move, but my feet felt like they weighed five hundred pounds each.  A man ran past me—I hadn’t even seen him stop his car—and I remember thinking, “How is he running?” It was like gravity had glued me to the road.

These obscure details that we remember from trauma are similar to what your character will remember too.  Trauma is just that—it jolts the brain.  The mind tries to make sense of  madness. Is it any wonder that we can’t process it right?

I vividly recall standing in front of the gaping hole of the Murrah building after the bombing and looking at a computer that was swinging from a desk four or five stories up, held only by a cord, and I couldn’t figure out what it was.  What is that box hanging there?  What is that black cord?  My mind could not immediately register that it was a computer hanging from a desk, in an office that had half its side blown out.

By narrowing your descriptions, and letting your character process trauma as we do in real life, your scenes will not only read more accurately, but also more intimately. Sure, the fireball of the explosion makes for good drama, but this is a book, not a movie, and it’s the microcosm of the event, the tiny details we remember in extraordinary moments, that make us human.

Here are some practical tips to capture your character’s most harrowing and traumatic moments:

  • Go small, not big. When something traumatic happens, it’s very hard for the human brain to comprehend the entire event….and for the reader to feel like they’re immersed in the moment.  It’s like offering a tasty hamburger but instead of offering a bite, you make them shove the whole thing in at once.  Sure, all the flavors are there, but they’re working on trying to get the thing down without choking.  The finer details will give the reader a bite-sized amount to handle, and will therefore make her feel as though she’s in the event as well.

  • Connect a moment in the traumatic event to a memory in the character’s mind from long ago. Let’s say the character is trapped in a burning car.  Flames are licking at his shins.  Sure, you can use strong words like “searing pain” but what if it reminded him of the time, when he was five, that he reached out and touched the tea kettle while it was still over its flame?  The mind has a crazy way of interpreting moments in life, and you can add to the chaos of the event by showing the brain doing something unexpected, like connecting pain back to a childhood memory.

  • Use all the senses, but not all at once. I do not remember a single smell from the day of the bombing.  Surely the air was thick with suffocating smoke, but I don’t remember it.  Using all five senses is always a good idea, but in a traumatic moment, when the person is trying to interpret what is happening, one sense typically takes over.  Maybe all the sound is swallowed by the raging fear the person experiences.  Play with how you can use senses intentionally to add to the chaos of the moment.

  • Less is more. If you need to describe a fiery crash on the freeway, from the POV of your character, give short bursts of what someone might see.  The very top of a fireball.  Light bouncing off the side of a semi.  The ground shaking underneath the floorboard of the car.  Find some small moments and let the reader fill in the blanks as they want to.

Gravity eventually let go and I ran to help the man driving the bread truck.  I hopped in the truck and helped throw bread out the back so they could get him out that way.  I remember watching him on the gurney, being loaded into the back of the ambulance, awake and talking. I couldn’t believe he had survived.  When the officer asked me for my statement about what I saw, I mentioned that I thought he was probably drunk.  The officer said, “He went into a diabetic coma.”  That was what I took away from that day—never judge a situation.  You never know what is really happening.

And I also learned that I’m probably not going to be the hero in the moment.  Maybe my feet have more courage these days but I hope I don’t have to find out any time soon!

Should I Do NaNoWriMo?

I'm sure you're all familiar with NaNoWriMo, which has become the best-known writing event in the nation. People all across the country commit to writing a novel during the month of November, and many claim they have succeeded. 

I have mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo. I'll admit it. I like anything that encourages writers to sit down and write. If you've read my Red Sneaker books, you know I advocate a no-frills, no-fuss attitude. In other words, stop whining and write already. NaNoWriMo has largely the same message. Of course, I don't think you should do this for just a month. I think it's a critical part of the writing life. Write every day. Get the work done. Finish and start the next one. But if NaNoWriMo gets your rear in the chair--good. If it helps you get past the urge to edit as you go, to monkey with each page before you've even finished a chapter--grrrrrreat!

On the other hand, the idea that you can write a good book in a month is absurd, and potentially even dangerous. At best, you  might get a decent first draft done in a month, and that's no small thing. (I've never done a draft in anything close to a month, but some people may be smarter. Or at least faster.) For me, the first draft is the hardest, the most painful, and the easiest to make excuses to avoid. What could be tougher than creating something out of nothing? Revising is no piece of cake--I revise and revise, typically working my way through a book ten or fifteen times before I even think about showing it to anyone else. But revision is pleasurable. I like seeing all the parts start to come together. Once I have a first draft down, I know I'll finish the book. It's simply a matter of time.

Should you try NaNoWriMo? First of all, let's define terms. If you attempt this, acknowledge that what you're doing is creating a first draft in thirty days--not a finished novel. (And by the way, 50,000 w0rds is not a publishable length for a novel in most markets.) Even then, whether you should attempt this, in my mind, depends upon whether you have trouble getting motivated. If you need a little push and this artificial calendar event helps, then by all means, try it.

What I will caution you against is trying to rush a book, that is, sacrificing quality for speed. There's too much of that going on in the world today. When people talk about junk books, too often they pick on the growing legion of self-published novels, but the truth is, it's going on in the traditional publishing world as well. The Big Five publishers are actively encouraging their big-name legacy writers to crank out more books, particularly series books, sometimes two or three a year.

The results are inevitable. First, authors lose their personal lives. Second, the books have not gestated as long as a good book requires, so they won't be as good as they might've otherwise been. They may be perfectly competent, mind you, adequate bubble-gum, time-passing material, but much of the richness, texture, and quality will be lost. The fact that this is encouraged nonetheless shows how schizophrenic the current tradional publishing world truly is. On the one hand, they trumpet so-called upscale fiction, meaning genre fiction that is supposedly better written, that has the art and craft of a literary novel. But they're paying their bills by enouraging their best-known writers to produce more and more quickly.

This is a relatively new development. Back in the day, when I was writing a Ben Kincaid novel a year for Random House, I occasionally suggested that I could do more--mostly because I wanted to write something different. Repeatedly I was told to chill. To have more than one book released a year would "glut the market."  Critics and fans would rebel. No one can produce good books that quickly. (And in truth, a year is often not long enough.) But today economic needs, driven by profit shortfalls stemming from the increasingly less profitable print arena, are causing publishers to change their tunes.

I don't want to live in a world where novels are cranked out on a rigid conveyor belt. I've already heard tales of people dictating novels into their phones while they drive, and we know many of those Big Five legacy authors are using co-writers and ghosts who may or may not be acknowledged on the cover. Yes, I've always advocated an unpretentious approach to writing. But I still believe quality is paramount. The whole point of my eight Red Sneaker books (the ninth coming soon) and the conferences and the seminars is to help you produce the best book possible. If NaNoWriMo helps you get there, fine. But don't ever do anything that compromises the quality of your work. Amazon is already flooded with mediocre books. That's not how you break out. That's not how you get the writing career you want.

Make your book the best it can possibly be. That's your ticket to success. Quality.

Should You attend a writers conference?

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I hope you will forgive me if, just this once, I digress from the usual hot-off-the-presses publishing news and writing advice and instead tell a more personal story, one that has been much on my mind these past few days–in part, because people keep asking why I spend so much time putting together this annual writing conference. It takes time away from my writing, it’s not particularly profitable, and I spend most of the year worrying that no one will come–so why? I’ll explain this the same way I do everything.

Let me tell you a story.

When I was young, my dream was to write a book and see it published. That was it. That was all I wanted. I dreamed about visiting the library and seeing my name on the spine of a novel and thinking, yeah, I did that. Problem was, I had no idea how to make this happen. I sent my stuff out, hundreds of times, but it was always rejected (because it was awful). I took some classes in college, but they didn’t lead anywhere. I became a full-time trial lawyer, but I wrote every available spare minute–and still couldn’t even get an agent.

I joined a local writing group, and someone there recommended that I attend the Golden Triangle Conference in Beaumont, Texas. Not in Dallas, or Houston, or anyplace you might expect. Beaumont. Great conference, she said. So I went.

I participated in everything possible. I went to every class I could. Despite my poor social skills, I forced myself to talk to people, even agents. I even went to the banquets. No luck. But somewhere in the midst of it all, someone mentioned an agent named Esther Perkins. How did she know Esther? Esther had attended this conference several times in the past.

So after I got home, I sent Esther my manuscript (this was Primary Justice, in case you’re wondering). She liked it. Better yet, Esther knew an editor in the Ballantine division of Random House, Joe Blades. How did she know Joe? She met him a few years before at the same conference. As it turned out, Joe also liked my book. He offered me a three-book contract. The book was a hit and that led to a career of more than forty books and several New York Timesbestsellers. All because of a conference.

You may be thinking this is just my way of persuading you to attend the conference. Wrong. This is my explanation of why I’ve hosted conferences all these years.

Because now my dream is to see what happened for me, happen for you.

Can I guarantee you’ll get an agent at this conference? No–though many have. Can I guarantee this will lead to a publishing contract? No, though for many it has. But I can guarantee you’ll meet some terrific people, and one of them might just drop your Esther Perkins, that is, the tiny bit of information that makes all the difference.

You will have one asset I didn’t have all those years ago–me. I will be there chatting and shepherding and making sure everyone gets what they need. No one will miss a session that could have changed their life. No one will miss a chance to speak to the people they came to see. Everyone will leave feeling they have the inside scoop on the current publishing world–because they do.

Writing is like any of the arts–it’s hard to know when success will strike. But the one thing I know for certain is that you have to get yourself out there, get in line, give yourself a chance. Your break will come when you have the right book in the right place at the right time–and you know how to take advantage of it. There is no reason why it couldn’t happen for you. Do you think that skinny geeky kid from Oklahoma thirty years ago had something you don’t? I did not. But I had a lot of desire. And I went to a conference.