Friday, April 23, 2010

T is for the Terrible Moment After

There's a phenomenon in life that I find difficult to write in my fiction, and that's The Terrible Moment After. That's how I think of it. It's the minutes, the hours even, after something awful happens, something that changes your life forever.

It's what happens after a drunk driver hits your car, and you stumble disoriented from your vehicle in a multiple car accident.

It's what happens after you find out a friend just died in Iraq, or was murdered, struck down from behind after a stupid drunken fight.

It's what happens after the slow death you've been waiting for finally comes, with its mixture of grief and relief.

Those, unfortunately, are all my own terrible moments after.  And to me, they're hard to write, because so little happens, in those moments. Those awful climactic moments, they're easy to write. But what happens next?

I remember all the little details of what happened right before my father died. I was home, hadn't gone to the hospital yet and had given up on school (I was 17). I was doing the dishes.  I heard the front door open, the first time my mom had been home in days, and I knew he was gone. I remember the open kitchen window over the sink, the view of our green May yard and the scent of lilacs drifting in. I remember dropping the dish towel on the floor. My mother was trembling, her arms wrapped around the flowers from my father's hospital room, and her blue eyes were full of unreleased tears.

But what came next? I remember going to the funeral home, but that wasn't until later; cleaning the house for the wake; finally crying for the first time weeks after, lying alone in the grass of an open field.  Did I curl up on the couch with my dogs and watch TV?  Take comfort in my books, as I often did?  I don't remember.

And that seems like so little to show, in a novel; Then she laid down on the couch, and her rottweiler laid her head in her lap, and they watched the MTV Real World marathon. There's so much going on in the midst of so little.

I remember, too, the next year, getting the phone call about my friend being murdered.   I remember pacing the house, but not what happened next; what do you do when there's nothing you can do?  Clean the house? Go for a run to try and burn off some rage?

I think it's a powerful moment to write, don't get me wrong. We don't live our lives in the world-changing moments; we live in what comes after, including the terrible moments after. But there's so little to show, in these moments. And in some ways, there's so little going on -- we process these things so slowly.

But I think that just as much as we write the climaxes, we need to at least cover the aftermath. Even if it's just a few sentences about how the character survives that time, what they do to keep moving and keep the distance, and what happens when they stop.

Hopefully this post makes sense, about writing the aftermaths. Sorry about the dark (and personal) nature of the post -- there are beautiful moments after, too. Even, especially, after you've come through the terrible ones.

What does your MC live through? And how? How have you dealt with your terrible moments after?


Stina Lindenblatt said...

I've dealt with my terrible after moments with my husband's support. He's been amazing.

Great post! It makes a lot of sense in the context of writing fiction.

Jami said...

You make a good point. The aftermath is much harder to write. I think that is why I have read so many books where that part goes blank...then skips ahead. Or the character is described to be in a cantatonic state, and doesn't really know what is going on around them. Or it just says something like "the following weeks were a blur". I haven't seen the actual moment after a lot in a story.

Lynn Colt said...

It's true, the moments after are hard to write. In life, we get a hundred meaningless busy-moments to keep from thinking about it, but on paper that doesn't translate. Feeling numb for weeks isn't very entertaining in a MC, right?

I lost my dad when I was 17 too. In novels it seems like kids stay home from school when they lose a parent, but my sister and I went back the Monday right afterward. It helped to have something to DO. But in a novel that sounds weird.

When my MC lost someone (not permanently. yet, at least) the way I dealt with the moments after was "A forest's worth of tissues mopped up my next few weeks." Then I got back to action, to life going on.

Tahereh said...

a beautiful, powerful post.

i have to have faith, when terrible things happen, that things will get better. that they happen for a reason. it's the only way i can move forward.

wish you all the best!

thanks so much for sharing. :)

Ellie said...

I can see how the lead up would be much easier, then after the senseless
act. Interesting post; gives one
a lot to think about!

disobedientwriter said...

First of all, I'm so sorry to hear about your terrible moments. It seems you've had more than your fair share.

I think this is an excellent topic for a writing discussion. I wrestled with this myself & have done a lot of thinking. In the end, I've found that (as Jami mentions) it's much more effective to SKIP the moment after. To end the scene with the terrible moment then let some time elapse or switch POV for the following scene.

I've had my work critiqued both ways & skipping the moment after has had the most powerful effect.

I'm really looking forward to reading what everyone else says.

Old Kitty said...


I'm sorry about your loss - grief is always a very personal emotion and very private. Capturing such a moment in words on paper is another matter altogether.

I guess it's just being true to that emotion. If you are able to remember those moments after a terrible loss honestly and truthfully then it'll translate in words.

Take care

Ellen Brickley said...

Guinevere, I'm sorry for your losses. I lost my dad to a heart attack when I was 21 and those terrible moments after are so hard to explain.

I got the news in a hospital room, the family room off the intensive care unit. Most of my immediate terrible moments after were spent walking home.

My MC doesn't really have terrible moments after. Her decisions seem like good ones, and only start to kick her in the teeth weeks, months or years later. There are also a few points in my MS where she doesn't get bad news - we just open on a scene where she's had the bad news and is now dealing with it. Cop out? Maybe!

Jen said...

Excellent post!!!! My MC is kidnapped and left for dead in a river, she wakes up to realize that she's lost and needs help, of course there is a twist... and a big one... but by the end she must face the fact that living the life she once had might not be an option.

beth said...

I call these "black moments"--I always try to include them in my writing, but they're often the most difficult scenes to write.

Theresa Milstein said...

Thanks for sharing a couple of difficult times in your life.

It's true that it is more difficult to write the aftermath. Concentrating on the stages of grief is a good way to go through it. I think it's harder to write when you've experienced it because you have to bring back that pain in order to write it.

My mother had a head trauma and wound up in a coma when I was a teen. I used part of the story in one of my manuscripts. At first, I didn't plan on it, but when it made sense for the story, I did. Reliving that was almost as bad as going through it the first time.

E. Elle said...

I know that the moments after are very difficult to write but I also think they are the most real moments we, as writers, can create. Maybe that's why they're so hard to write: what if we mess it up? what if what's real seems too lame or far-fetched? It's a difficult balance but one we must achieve if we're to write believable and authentic stories.

Good post!