Grief: The Key To Resonant Writing

Everyone has some secret well of sorrow in their hearts; every person has some awful disappointment, some terrible hurt or wrong that sticks with them, and forms a permanent grounding against their enjoyment of life.

Too often, as writers, we try to stay away from real, internal pain. We want to write adventures, or we want to write something far away from what we have.

Grief, the true, deep wellspring of reality in our hearts, is like a fabric that ties us all together.

Access genuine grief within your characters, and you will find immediate access to your reader’s heart.

Harry Potter longs for his parents. Harry’s bittersweet and aching need for the stability and love of his mother and father form an exquisite backdrop to the entirety of the plot. Reading Harry Potter feels like home to so many people, because the series itself is based within an overwhelming desire for home. All humans can relate to this desire; the series has a very broad appeal.

Star Trek (original series) is openly founded on one very clearly delineated feeling; the desire to escape the known, grief-filled universe, and to find out, to explore, and to conquer new and not-yet-grief-saturated things. This, also, is a nearly universal emotional experience, and leads to a very broad and deep appeal. We long to escape the familiar (because so much of it is anchored with pain), and to gain something that exists nearly anywhere else.

The Lord of the Rings is a superior story to The Hobbit because the trilogy is formed primarily of deep grief experiences. The Hobbit is a light adventure; The Lord of the Rings is a chain of exquisitely rendered pain. Aragorn is a displaced and forgotten king; Frodo is left behind by Bilbo, and then outgrows the Shire; Sam is displaced by Smeagol, and by the Ring; Gandalf is faced with both the waning of magic, and far greater responsibility. The characters lose so much of what they wanted, and are changed in ways that make them partially incapable of enjoying what they have.

Writing in this way, with grief, has a cost to you, the author. It requires you to be fully present. It means that you have to engage the story seriously; you cannot afford to be frivolous, or treat your characters with disrespect. To write with grief, you must honor your characters’ pain.

Snape is one of the most satisfying characters in contemporary literature; he is composed almost entirely of disappointment and grief.

Study grief, and learn to write grief, and you will gain the innermost loyalty of your readers.