Writing Effective Grief In Fiction: 5 Ideas For Writers

Author Denise Jaden shares her 5 ideas for writers on writing effective grief in fiction, including how to make readers care, avoiding isolation, and landing a satisfying end.
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Author Denise Jaden shares her 5 ideas for writers on writing grief effectively in fiction, including how to make readers care, avoiding isolation, and landing a satisfying end.

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Grief alone is not enough to make a novel. It can be the backdrop, sometimes the obstacle, but novels must be flavored with other focuses, obstacles, and emotions in order to draw in their readers. Here are 5 ways to use grief more effectively in fiction:

1. Make Them Care

When starting to write your book about a character's loss, you may be tempted to dive right into their grief on page one, thinking that this is your inciting incident...

writing-with-a-heavy-heart-book-cover
denise-jaden-author-writer

Guest column by Denise Jaden, whose first two novels from Simon
& Schuster (Losing Faith and Never Enough) are infused with grief and loss.
Writing With A Heavy Heart: Using Grief and Loss to Stretch Your Fiction
is her first nonfiction book and was born out of personal experience, as
well as a series of workshops she has taught on the subject. The e-book
version of this resource will be available for free for three days (February
8-10) through Amazon. Denise is from just outside Vancouver, Canada,
where she writes and homeschools her young son. Find out more about
her upcoming book events and writing at www.denisejaden.com or on
Twitter @denisejaden.

... The problem with this is that a reader hasn't had a chance to care about your character yet. Take an example from watching the news or reading the paper: While you may hear about people dying or contracting terminal diseases every single day, do you spend your time weeping over them? No. And why not? Because you don't know the people this is happening to.

Help the reader get to know your characters before you tear their hearts apart. Perhaps you can use humor, which will work in nice juxtaposition against the grief, or give the reader mysterious questions to answer in the early pages. These things will help connect a reader to the main character before she launches onto her grief journey.

2. Avoid Isolation

When a person is hurting, they often just want everyone to leave them alone. They build protective walls around themselves, not only to keep other people out, but also to guard against unwanted emotions. But when you read a long passage of fiction with a lone character, be honest, doesn't it seem easier to skim and keep your eye open for the next bout of dialogue?

Isolation rarely works well in fiction, but a character that desires isolation and can't get it leaves a great opportunity for added conflict in your story.

3. Forward Momentum

Writing fiction about characters grieving gives us opportunity to nudge them in new ways, never allowing them to wait for time to heal their emotional wounds. As an author, it is your job to push your characters forward on their journeys, and not to allow time to do all the work.

Your characters should grieve in their unique ways, but on your schedule. Grief does not have a set time limit, but fiction does. The only certainties are that the grieving process will take longer than your characters want it to, and will likely hit them at the worst possible times and when they least expect it.

4. Outlets for Grief

An outlet for your character's grief can be a great way to keep your character from becoming mopey and isolated. In the aftermath of grief, perhaps your character develops a new skill or interest—a sport, a craft, a social club, exercising—these can all be active ways of pulling your character along in his or her journey.

In my novel, Never Enough, the main character relies on photography to help her gain new understanding of the world in the face of grief. In The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, the main character is both a musician and a poet, and uses those outlets to get through her journey.

5. A Satisfying End

Here is a short checklist to help ensure that your character's grief will come to a satisfying and authentic conclusion, even if he or she is not fully healed during the scope of the book:

____ Can your character admit that he will be forever changed by his loss?

____ Does your character have the strength and boldness to grieve her own way?

____ Is your character able to share his pain? Is he able to rely on others in new ways?

____ Is your character committed to living life fully again?

____ Does your character have an increased ability to love and to be loved?

Anger, shock, denial, guilt, fear, betrayal—these emotions, and others, can hit with dizzying unpredictability. Each time one of these emotions comes flooding back, it is a sign that your characters are moving through their grief, and not staying stagnant. They are making their way toward recovery, and, with some careful planning, your readers will stick with them for the journey.

If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you’re seeking isn’t craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren’t good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can’t write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly.

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