Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Anguish of Being Unflinching: Hard Scenes

As writers, it’s pretty much a given that we sometimes enjoy torturing our characters. We laugh about it, brag about it, revel in every angsty scene, and search topics online that would make any non-writer raise their eyebrows at the sight of our browser history.
                We love to torture our characters.
                But at the same time, we often run into the Hard Scenes. The ones that creep into your head, slinking back even though you rejected them immediately. The ones that make you dread putting your fingers to the keys. The ones that make your your characters look up at you with tear-rimmed puppy-dog eyes as they scream desperately, “There must be another way!”
                And sometimes there is. Sometimes you find an alternative, and backpedal away from the Hard Scene, relieved. Sure your climax might not be as… Well. Climactic. But there was no way you could’ve written that other scene. It would’ve killed your Main Character. It would’ve killed you to write it!
                But other times, there are no alternatives. It’s like I said in my post about character reactions. Sometimes, you have Action and the Unthinkable.
                And sometimes, very little separates the two.
                For some it’s the dark, violent battles, for others it’s the crushing emotional turmoil. But all stories have their Hard Scenes, and as writers we can’t afford to shy away from them just because they might be ‘hard’ for us to write. I’ll be highlighting a few different kinds of Hard Scenes today, and perhaps not all of them apply to you, but… Every writer is different.
·         Physically Hard Scenes: The other day, I was reading some manga (Japanese comic books. XD I’m a fan) and it was an action scene. And someone’s arm got sliced off. And I just kind of stared at the page for a couple minutes (making this face: O.O) because it was very sudden. It was very unexpected. Not particularly gory, yet it was completely and totally unflinching.

Characters get hurt. Whether it’s a slap in the face, or the amputation of a limb, or an incident that brings them close to death, your character is going to get hurt. If they don’t, they should. Especially if they’re involved in some kind of inherently risky business (taking part in a rebellion/war, ruling a criminal underworld, or guarding the most desirable object on the planet from vicious mercenaries… If your character is one of these things and doesn’t get more than a paper cut throughout the course of your book, you will have some very bored/unsatisfied readers).

A physical scene doesn’t have to be gory to be difficult to write, but in the long run these scenes will pay off. They’ll make your story more exciting. If you do your research first, they’ll make your story feel more realistic. While it’s tempting to leave your main character (or the oh-so-beautiful object of his affection) without a scratch, don’t make things too easy for him, or it’ll be hard to make your readers feel the urgency that keeps them turning pages.

·         Emotionally Hard Scenes: Physical pain is not the only kind of pain. Your characters are going to hurt emotionally, too. If they don’t, they should. Happy-Optimistic-Fun-Time-in-Spite-of-All-Odds can only last so long before it will start to bore/frustrate/annoy your reader (Angsty Despair throughout a whole novel can do the same thing. The key is to find balance). A character that’s never discouraged is not only unbelievable, it’s unrelatable. Everyone feels down at times, and in a melancholy way…? We like to feel down with a character. As they despair (briefly) we commiserate with them, and urge him on, and wait to see how they’ll recover.

A beloved side character dies. The love of our main character’s life rejects him. He finds out that he was the cause of his family’s death, or that one careless mistake may have ruined everything. These are the dimly-lit, rainy day scenes in movies where slow music plays in the background and the main character cries herself to sleep at night.

But hey, we should look on the bright side. It could always get worse!

Oh. Wait. That brings us to category number three…

·         The Lowest of Low Scenes (AKA, Scenes of Eternal Despair): Already talked about these some. These scenes are often a mixture of the above varieties. It is where literally everything goes wrong. The rebels’ attack on the palace fails, their escape route turns into a bloodbath, best friends die, enemies rule, and there is no hope. None at all.

We need these scenes. The scenes where everything goes wrong and all hope is lost.  Why?

“How could things possibly get any better after this? There’s still a huge hunk of pages left, so something must happen. Unless… Things get even worse.” Cue ‘O.O’ face and rapid flipping of pages.

I’m sure you could call some examples to mind on your own, and most likely they involve season finales of TV shows and cliff-hanger-ey middle books in a series (Mine do. Fall of the Earth Kingdom in Avatar: Last Airbender, and Catching Fire of the Hunger Games trilogy). Why? Because situations like this keep people interested. Even if they have to wait a while for the next installment, they’ll do it because they’ll want to see how things get turned around.
                As writers, we can’t afford to shy away from the Hard Scenes. They’re too important, to our characters, our stories, and our readers. If you write slowly, that’s fine. If you have to rewrite later, that’s fine. Do it during revision. If you have to go through boxes of tissues for every sentence you scrape out, that’s fine, too.
                But don’t run away from the Hard Scenes. Figure out how much emotion the scene needs. Write the scene. Chances are, they’ll be the scenes your readers remember most clearly long after they’ve finished reading.
We need to step forward, side by side with our main character, and say to them, “Hey. If I have the courage to face this, then so do you.”
We need to step forward, and write the Hard Scenes.
And then, we need to make things get better.
But I’ll save that for my next post. ;)
What are some Hard Scenes that you’ve struggled to write? What are some Lowest of Low Scenes that you remember from books or movies? How do you work through a scene that you find difficult to write?


  1. As long as it makes logical sense for it to happen, I don't find it all that hard to hurt my characters, physically or emotionally(especially emotionally). I do have a problem with permanent maiming, but not with dying, oddly enough. And I have plans for two POV characters to do both--one dies, and one is paralyzed from the waist Professor X. XD

    Which leads me to a Lowest of Low Scene I remember--the climax of X-Men: First Class, where Xavier is injured and can no longer feel his legs. It was terrible and heart-wrenching in such a way that I knew I had to include something similar in one of the later books in my series. >=) I also thought the fall of the Earth Kingdom was the awesomest twist ending to the second season. As a viewer, I was all thinking they would win, Aang just got into the Avatar State, you know? AND THEN. O_O I loved it. ^_^

  2. I don't usually have a problem with it, but every so often an idea comes along that makes me flinch. For a few seconds, until I realize how genius it is, and how well it fits in with the rest of my plot. ;)

    I've killed characters. I've crushed them with flaming trees. I've sliced off limbs... *waits for police to arrive at her door* XD

    Some times have been harder than others. *shrug* But assumably, there are some writers out there who aren't quite as callous as I am. XD

    YES. SUCH a good ending. >.< And Zuko, and Azula, and-- GAH! Need to watch that series again. All of it. SO disappointed Legend of Korra isn't coming out til 2013.

  3. In a long-abandoned WIP I was writing a scene where a minor character was going to die, and I just couldn't do it. I finally realized that if he lived, I could throw some awesome twists into the story later on. So a different character died instead. (It had nothing to do with me liking one character more than another, I swear! ::shifty eyes::)

    The project I'm working on now has made me teary-eyed three times and all-out cry once. That has a lot to do with me drawing from some personal experiences - and yes, it was hard to do. But I knew that working through it and getting the words down would made a for a stronger story in the end. (I rewarded myself with ice cream after wards. That also helped get me to the end!)

    Good post, silent!

  4. *afterward, I mean, of course! :P

  5. Thanks. ^^ I had an experience like that recently... I always knew a certain character was going to die. She was going to sacrifice herself and cause emotional turmoil to the MC.

    Then recently she informed me that she was going to live, she was going to be epically unfeeling, and she would cause even MORE emotional turmoil if I kept her alive.

    It was a nice realization. ^^