Take the 2-minute tour ×
Writers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for authors, editors, reviewers, professional writers, and aspiring writers. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I've just written a chapter in which one of my protags witnesses her entire family massacred during an invasion of her home city. This is obviously an extremely traumatic and horrifying event, and in writing the chapter, I realized that I'm out of my depth trying to describe a realistic human reaction to such an extreme event. I've never experienced anything remotely approaching this kind of horror, nor will most of my readers, so I need some way to present the protag's reactions in a way that's effective to the average reader. In this first draft I attempted to portray the protagonist in a state of shock, observing what was going on around her without much by way of reaction. From what I understand this is pretty realistic, but on the page it came off as very flat and two-dimensional.

What would you recommend for making this chapter more? Are there any good non-fictional resources describing what happens to people under extreme trauma like this? Stories of people who've lived through such things? Really good fictional examples of this kind of trauma?

share|improve this question
1  
Additionally, I would be grateful to anyone that could suggest some better tags than these. –  JSBձոգչ May 24 '11 at 14:28
add comment

4 Answers 4

This is one of those things where I find minimalism to be a good thing. Rather then delving into detail, let the reader's imagination do most of the work. They usually can fill in far more detail then you can. Unless you are trying to write some horror porn, of course.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Not that I've actually ever had to do what you describe but were I in your shoes I would tend to gloss over the moment of the traumatic event happening quite quickly. Making the happening quite matter of fact will get you (and your protagonist) through chronologically. Then, the detail, the horror, the physical impact, can be examined at length as the protagonist's brain allows the full detail to leak back into the brain in dreams, moments of reflection, unwanted recollection of detail etc.

The traumatic experience is not the trauma. It's an experience, in circumstance, that leads to trauma. Often in the middle of such events adrenaline and instinct kick in to get the physical body out of immediate danger. Peppering a matter-of-fact detail of "what is happening" with soupy visceral descriptions of heart-beating, mouth-drying adrenaline high: semi-automatic scrambling away from the next source of danger; the constant head-whipping scan for the next dangerous noise; trying to take in everything whilst painfully conscious of the poor vision provided by everything not in the direct field of vision, should get you through the chronicle of the times.

The bite is going to settle in when all is calm, after the fact. That's when the horror starts.

The key word here is "extreme" when applied to the trauma. I think a lot of genre writers, particularly in the horror arena try to deal with common or garden trauma and Indoril's reply gives you the dramatic convention for dealing with trauma. I would warn you that there's been a lot of horror written in the last thirty years and this method of conveying trauma has become something of a trope. This could be what's troubling you so I'll move on.

You specifically refer to extreme trauma, and the scene you describe reminds me of the rather operatic murder of Frank Castle's entire extended family in the movie "The Punisher" from a few years ago. To a certain extent that movie is about the operatic notion of The Punisher as a character. The idea that his mission is born out of circumstances so ridiculously heightened that it is almost impossible for the human brain to contemplate a reaction to them.

I think that there's a scale of trauma which really depends upon the cause of that trauma. The state of mind where one finds oneself obsessing over little details is part of the process of discovering the body of one's loved one hacked up in your kitchen upon returning from work (for example). Your system floods with adrenaline but it has no where to go, you're on high alert but all is quiet. This is the experience of PTSD where people's minds have conditioned them to go into high alert at the slightest stimulus.

If danger is present many descriptions of perception centre on people becoming robotic, although they still get the PTSD effect later at the time survivors tend to describe a mental space of "just acting".

That's in the case of a single dangerous traumatic situation being dealt with by a human being with a strong survival instinct.

In "extreme" circumstances, I would imagine that the personal danger and threat would escalate to a level where rational thought would cease to be possible if one is to survive. In such event I would imagine that perception would shut down into a sort of systemic tunnel vision where, if someone is to survive, their hindbrain just kicks in and wipes out both ego and superego. The really intense part about such a situation would be that a person would be capable of doing anything that furthered their survival while in that state. To a certain extent their own identity would be compromised.

A person in this state of mind would be able to just kill any person that threatened them, ignore the dire straits of loved ones, and lose all awareness of pain.

Whether such a mental state exists is debateable, even if anyone has a capacity for it they wouldn't be the norm. Not only that but the likely effect on the psyche when the sense of identity returns would probably leave someone who experiences it mentally ill for the rest of their life, possibly unable to effectively communicate what happened to them.

However, we are writers and we lie to entertain others. The business of dramatic license gives us the power to examine such cases as if they could be sensibly articulated; we could even invent a person who eventually bounced back from, or even leveraged, such a mental state, such as we are told Viking warriors experienced the baresark during battle. The question of what happens when humanity tries to cultivate such an animalistic state has been explored in some werewolf fiction, these are places to consider the extremity of your protagonist's mental state upon a scale from "heightened awareness" to "running on instinct".

share|improve this answer
    
Great points - horror and trauma arise after the incident since we rarely have the presence of mind, time, or even the need to judge events in this as they occur. –  Erik Westermann May 24 '11 at 18:43
add comment

Everyone deals with trauma in a completely different way, depending on their character.

One Monkey is quite correct in his excellent answer that the traumatic event is not the actual trauma. It's the source of the trauma, and this (along with the personality of the character) will affect the recollection of the event, and how that event has a lingering hold on their life from that moment.

The reason that your description likely sounds flat is because it's probably an accurate description of the event, yet that's not likely what the person remembers of the event.

Often, certain things can be blanked out completely, and only resurface many years later. Perhaps the protagonist looked away, and berates herself for not helping, and only remembers sounds. Perhaps she closed her eyes, and stuck her fingers in her ears to block out noise, and hummed a song her mother used to sing. Perhaps she clammed up, and didn't move, just watched, detatched, thinking about other things like the colour of the dress someone wore, the way the eyes looked, the ticking clock in the corner, a vase that broke during the event, someone's favourite piece of clothing was ripped or dirtied ...

Like Indoril Nerevar's list demonstrates, as strange as it may sound, it's often little details that people focus on, primarily because this is the way the human mind deals with traumatic events, by withdrawing from the actual event.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Details. Out of context, fragmented details.

  • Blood on carpet. How shall I clean it?
  • My little brother cries like a cat
  • Broken window. Daddy will be angry.
  • Damaged school building. Today, we can stay up late.
  • Clothes are torn apart. I need to thread a needle.

Et cetera.

share|improve this answer
2  
+1 Oh, excellent: how to clean the rug? to fix the window before Daddy gets home? Lovely, really. I'm right there when I hear your thoughts, looking through your eyes. Write some more in your blog, please! –  Pete Wilson May 28 '11 at 22:12
    
I am getting used to seeing through my eyes for decades. You do not want that sort of expericence. It would drive you mad. –  Nerevar May 29 '11 at 21:00
    
This is one of the best examples of "show, don't tell" that I've seen. Very good! –  Pete Wilson May 30 '11 at 16:42
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.