On Writing Grief

"When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions!" 
That's a line from Hamlet, that play about a sad prince.

Grief is very difficult to write. Don't let anyone tell you differently. I've had a long struggle with writing sad characters, a ten year slog, and late at night when everything is silent and I'm trying to put words on a page, sometimes it feels like I barely know anything.

But I have come a little ways. I have a few grains of sand to stand on, and perhaps I'm a little higher up than I was when I wrote my first character crying back in 2003. So I'm in the mood for scattering my grains into the Internet and seeing how they're swept about.


Sand Grain #1

In the first novel I ever wrote, the opening scene was a long-winded description of the crippling grief the main character, Takoshi, felt at the death of a friend. In that scene, there was silent crying, the sound of a soul being tore apart, the grief, the overwhelming sadness...

It was like watching a funeral from outside a funeral home. The problem was that I was dedicating hundreds of words describing the feelings of character that the reader didn't share. Why should the reader have cared? The reader didn't know Takoshi's friend. It was the first bloody scene.

It was an awful opening scene, and not in a good way.

This failure was my first grain of sand, and it goes something like this... The better we know a character, the more time, the more words we can use to grieve.

Take for example Sirius Black's death. I cried like a baby when he died, pacing my room filled with angry tears. Because I felt like I knew him, because I loved him to pieces, I was with Harry during his grieving, and I accepted longer descriptions of Harry's feelings and grieving because I related to it. I'm sure you can think of incidences in books similar to this.

But the safest route is actually the opposite of your first instinct.

When writing grief, less hits much harder than more. When in doubt, spend an hour or more and think of one or two lines. Think of something simple. Don't use big words. When you're broken-hearted, your thoughts are simple, right?

It could be a bit of dialogue.

In Mabel's City, this scene was very different the first time I wrote it. In this scene, Zip discovers that Zipperina, her creator and friend for hundreds of years, is dead. In the first version, Zip grieved openly, and I grappled with those emotions, then I realized that the reader would not understand them. We have not spent much time with Zipperina. We have just met Zip. This is a sad moment, but there's something in the simplicity here that works better than me hurrying to break down in a series of paragraphs explaining a complex relationship to express Zip's grief.

We explore Zip's grief a little more later in the novel, but Zipperina's death is not a crying moment in Mabel's City.

I suppose another rule of thumb for this grain of sand is recognize the difference between scenes where you want to reader to be crying and when you want the reader to be a little sad.

There's a big difference.


Sand Grain #2

Grief is most effective when it's minimalistic. When it's visual. If screenwriting has taught me anything, it's never to underestimate the power of the power of the visual sans dialogue.

It's a strange thing because when we think of film, we think of the grand monologues and charged dialogue. We think of scripts and actors talking. 

But an effective screenplay uses props, settings, and visual cues. Dialogue is secondary.

So, you're writing a scene where a character is grieving. I would say when in doubt have no dialogue, and pretend to be screenwriter — you're not allowed to write emotions at all. 

What? What does that mean? You're crazy!

No, wait. Hear me out. Don't use the word grief. Don't say "sad." In fact, don't use any emotion words. Now, I'm going to recognized that we're novelists — even hobbying ones that make no money — and we're hardwired to describe the Feels. We romp around in characters' heads. We play God. It's awesome.

Now, stop. Stop for that sad page you're trying to write.

Back the hell up. Get out of the character's head. Stand in the doorway of their room as they grieve and just gently describe what they're doing. Maybe they're touching a window. Maybe they're flipping through a book, but reading nothing. Maybe their voice catches. Maybe they're cleaning a room that's always messy.

What the character's doing in their grief is crucial.

This week I saw Thor: The Dark World with friends, and while I had problems with the movie, there was a scene that stuck in my brain as an illustration of this point.

In the movie, Thor approaches his brother Loki, a sorcerer who's imprisoned. Their mother has just died. Thor approaches the cell and Loki is taunting him, immune to grief, and Thor tiredly tells him to drop the illusions. Loki drops the illusions, and we see that the inside of the cell is destroyed and the powerful sorcerer looks a wreck.

When in doubt, just stick to visuals and don't describe grief.


Sand Grain #3

This week I've been casually writing The Princess and the Fox Demon, so I've been thinking about grief a lot. This week, I've been trying to write my fox demon, Chirikai, grieving. In the scene, Chirikai's friend comes to visit after hearing rumors that Chirikai is going to pieces after his mother's death.

One of the interesting things about writing this scene, is that Chirikai is not a quiet, introspective character, and this scene is not written from his viewpoint. It's from the friend. So we're looking at Chirikai's grief from the outside, through his friend's eyes.


The scene applies the two lessons above with an extra element. Grief is about the abnormal. What actions are different? How is grief causing a character to act differently? How do characters behave slightly differently when they're trying to hide grief?

Often watching characters hide their grief is more powerful than the moment when they snap and all that emotion pours out.


It's easiest for me to refer to clips of my own writing because I know it the best, but there are other writers a million times better than me who have done better examples. Those writers, however, are not open on my desktop as I write a blog post.

There's enough material to write entire volumes on grief. And there are no rules in writing. But it's always useful to hear strategies.

Happy November. Don't get too sad writing sad characters.