Monday, 6 May 2013

If You’re Writing About Trauma, Read This Book

“ ‘Torture your protagonist’ urges novelist and creative writing tutor, Janet Fitch. The more sadistically you torture them ‘along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story.’ “ So says Mslexia’s ’10 Commandments’ for writers (issue 57). If, like me, you are writing a psychological thriller, there is all the more need to put your characters through intense, believable trauma. I found a huge source of information and insight in Laurence Gonzales’ book: Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience.

 Gonzales recounts in a readable, novelistic style the survival stories of thirteen people who have been through extraordinary traumas, and have reacted and recovered in different ways. The stories themselves are jaw-dropping: Lisette was shot by her husband; Eileen was attacked by a crocodile; Aron (of 27 Hours fame) cut off his own arm to escape from a canyon; US Marine Chris lost a leg in an explosion in Iraq; Ann’s five-year-old daughter suddenly died; Kathy survived cancer; Patricia and Trevor were attacked by a bear; Don’s ship was torpedoed; Leon survived a Nazi concentration camp.
Gonzales dips into psychology and neuroscience to explain the effects of trauma and the ways in which the body and mind survive it, suffer from it, react to it in later life and recover from it. The science is accessible and highly illuminating for anyone fascinated by the variety of human experience, from the function of rage in survival, to the neural pathways created by loving and caring for a child; from the exhilarating effect of going on holiday, to the scientific reason for that ‘sixth sense’ that warns us of danger in a way we cannot rationally explain.
This is one of those books that you can’t stop talking about, and when you have recommended it to someone, you can’t rest until they have read it. But how did it benefit my writing? Since I am writing a psychological thriller, Unspeakable Things, I need to put my heroine through extraordinary trauma, yet make both this and her reaction to it believable. There is nothing worse than reading an account of something that should be remarkable, and thinking, ‘Hm, that’s probably how I would describe that if I tried, not particularly hard, to think what it would be like.’ Experience is real, vivid and unexpected, and our writing about extraordinary events should be fresh and surprising, but have that ring of truth that sparks recognition in the reader. This is where Gonzales’ novelistic accounts of trauma come in. They gain from both his scientific studies of the brain’s reaction to trauma, and the first-hand accounts of the survivors. The accounts are very rarely what you would come up with if you sat down to write such a scene from a brief scan of your imagination, in the way that lazy writing is done.
 After Lisette’s husband shot her, she ran from the house. ‘She heard another shot but felt nothing,. Then, all at once, she knew what he had done. That last shot had been for him. She put it from her mind. She had a single purpose now. Survive.’
After escaping the crocodile’s jaws and diving down to the sea bed, Eileen ‘became sharply aware that she might die down there. All that she loved... snatched away from her in the single appalling act of a mindless creature... that thought made her angry.’
When Aron Ralston (of 27 Hours fame) found that his arm was crushed, trapping him in a canyon, having told no one where he was going, ‘He felt a rush of sadness and remorse for the thing he’d done.’
When Micki Glenn was attacked by a shark, which bit down to her spine, time appeared to slow down and she felt no pain, only pressure, ‘like I was in a vise.’ She could perceive the most minute details of what the shark was doing as it bit off chunks of her.
As doctors fought to save her five-year-old daughter, who had been perfectly healthy only hours before, Ann “looked up and saw that both her husband and Dr. Green were weeping. This made no sense. It made even less sense when the attending physican turned to Ann and said, ‘Your daughter is not going to make it’. It made so little sense that Ann laughed out loud.”
It is not the fact that these accounts are graphic that makes them excellent reading for writers of trauma, it is that they are surprising. It is the unexpected nature of the experiences described that convinces us that they are true. Even though the events we describe in fiction are not true, we can borrow from the vivid strangeness of these accounts and our writing can become shot through with the unexpected and elevated beyond a mundane imagining of what trauma might be like.


  1. Years ago a small child in a car park slammed a car door directly next to me and let out the most blood-curdling scream. Her poor mother actually turned away, bent over and covered her face as her instinct was that she could not bear to look and see what had happened. Luckily I saw very quickly that nothing at all had happened - the child I guess had scared herself with the car door bang – and I was able to reassure both child and mother and 'reunite' them. The whole incident played out in just a matter of seconds but I’ve gone over it in my mind many times since in a sort of slow motion replay, fascinated by the mother’s reaction – her gut instinct was that she could not turn and face the knowledge of what she thought she was going to see even though her heart must have been torn by the child’s very audible distress. The mother’s genuine pain and terror was palpable but I also imagine she endlessly beat herself up afterwards for turning away from her daughter at what could have been the first crucial moment when that child most needed her mum. As I’m sure you know, Sophie, someone once said (Graham Greene I believe) that writers have a ‘sliver of ice’ in their hearts – even at the scene of the most appalling tragedy they are mentally taking notes in case they ever want to use it for a scene in a book…

  2. Thanks for that! Yes I think writers do have an icy aspect - but it's tempered with compassion for humanity. A reader advised that a character who dies in my novel was not fully realised enough, making her obviously expendable. I turned her into a well rounded, believable character with children, cares and concerns and a desire to make a difference in the world. In the end I liked her so much that I couldn't bear to kill her!