Writing Reality: The Silent Story of Show don’t Tell

15/09/2013 at 23:08 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


When it comes to writing, Show don’t Tell can be a priceless component for exposing that which needs more audience interaction. It’s all very well for an author to speak at the reader when there are facts in the offing; but it’s only ever a one-sided conversation.

The truth of art is about interaction – bringing together that which the creator offers, and what the audience already holds as experience/applied knowledge. The result is a bond, a unification of source and meaning; the give-and-take of a ball passed across the court, and if the pitch is right, the audience will make the catch. Perhaps they’ll run off with their own ideas; as individuals, we bring personal inflections based upon memory and mindset.

But if the pitch is out of context – if a generalization is made, where more detail was necessary for emotional engagement – then the ball is dropped, the audience left cold.

Tell-Summaries work like a film’s passage-of-time montage or a video game’s Cutscene; a sequence of events that riffle over an extended period, in which not all details are made available or are necessary to the audience. Those which are displayed are compact, delivered as unassailable fact. A canny director / author knows when such editing is required; perhaps for a shorthand narrative that, while informative, doesn’t require high audience interaction. Narrative and plot points wash over, inform, but don’t necessarily engage.

The intro to Bioshock is an example of Tell; an informative Cutscene, in which the player becomes a backseat audience, unable to control the protagonist for any decisions made. This funnels the audience’s attention onto the facts being Told – setting, circumstance, objective characterization, plot progression – for absorption, and referencing at later points in gameplay. There is no immediate distraction from needing to engage, to keep the protagonist alive.

It’s essential to find the balance between what an audience wishes to – or can – engage in, and what reaction/conclusions they are fine with being led towards, for the sake of narrative progression. Too much Show can bog the latter down. Tell-summaries act as the foundations on which audience engagement is layered, in personal inflections such as dialogue and reactions. They may be paragraphs or pages long. The key is to find which technique fits which context.

Sometimes, a summary of events may be a safer stance for a sensitive subject. Audience engagement is drawn upon in terms of imagination – they’re left to close the gaps in the Tell. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs can be used as a point of reference, with the infamous ear-cutting scene.

The camera moves away at the last moment, but the build-up of tension in the dance-shuffle, upbeat range of Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You”, and close-ups of the victim’s bleeding face, creates a juxtaposition of fact and imagination – infused with empty air and muffled off-screen cries – that’s more emotionally engaging than any actual portrayal of violence. This can be a critical point where film ratings are concerned, or indeed the level of interaction your audience wishes to have.

An inferred Tell can be a handy way of filling in the blanks, particularly when the primary instinct of fear of the unknown, is engaged. On the flip side, basic human curiosity is pinged like an elastic band, calling the participants back … just to check. If the audience doesn’t have all the answers on the page, they’re more likely to turn to the next one.
If a memory is invoked in a story’s narrative, they will be curious to see what it’s point was, where it might lead:

“At first I was alarmed. Then, as I lay still, gathering my wits, I reflected on how long Eel Marsh House had stood here, steady as a lighthouse, quite alone and exposed… And then, those memories of childhood began to be stirred again and I dwelt nostalgically… I lay back and slipped into that pleasant, trance-like state somewhere between sleeping and waking, recalling the past and all its emotions and impressions vividly, until I felt I was a small boy again.” – pg 123, The Woman in Black, Susan Hill.

Contrast this abbreviated segue between past and present, which invokes a mood of security and trance, with the needle-sharp dialogue and paralinguistic features exchanged between the narrator, Arthur Kipps, and local countryman Samuel Daily:

“He sighed and shifted about uneasily in his chair avoiding my eye and looking into the fire –
‘For God’s sake, what is it you are holding back, man? What are you so afraid of telling me?’
‘You, Arthur,’ he said, ‘will be away from here tomorrow or the next day. You, if you are lucky, will neither hear nor see nor know of anything to do with that damned place again. The rest of us have to stay. We’re to live with it.’
‘With what? Stories – rumours? With the sight of that woman in black from time to time? With what?’
‘With whatever will surely follow. Sometime or other… It’s changed people. They don’t speak of it, you found that out. Those who have suffered worst say least – Jerome, Keckwick.’
I felt my heart-beat increase, I put a hand to my collar to loosen it a little, drew my chair back from the fire.” – pg 147.

This is an example of Show. Dialogue carries the narrative forward with hinged explanations, a drawing-out of events; not only to hook the audience and lead them on, but to invoke the fearful reluctance inside Daily. He is genuinely disturbed by the knowledge he holds, weary of carrying it; there’s faint envy in his tone – “You, Arthur …” His sentence structure is simplistic and staccato, falling from his mouth like stones.

For the same reason, Kipps’ dialogue and narrative are structured along jagged lines, as of hitched breathing, a tight chest – “hand to my collar to loosen it a little.” There’s no need for him to narrate his fear, as Hill creates this effect through his actions, choice of words and repetition:
God’s sake“, “So afraid“, “With what? Stories – rumours? With the sight of that woman in black from time to time? With what?’

When it comes to characterization, an author would do well to Show the truth of a narrator’s personality through interaction with others. Not just dialogue, but paralinguistic features (body language, tics, tone) and that which they do and say (or do not say); these infuse a character with 3D personality and subtext. More often than not, people do not speak aloud their true thoughts and intentions – based upon social mores, natural reserve, or a reluctance to be pinned down to an actual interpretation of meaning.

Because The Woman in Black travels between past and present, there is some leeway available when older-Kipps refers to his younger self as having a “youthful and priggish way”. Retrospect is his filter in this Tell, and a rueful one at that. In the active past-narrative, this “youthful priggish” nature is made apparent via Show:

“I began to be weary, of journeying and of the cold and of sitting still while being jarred and jolted about, and to look forward to my supper, a fire and a warm bed.”
– The repetition of “and” gives a drawn-out quality to the sentence, as of childish whining en route to a destination that at first held much bearing. Now he’s tired, and peevish with it.

Upon first meeting Sam Daily, his first appraisal is less than positive:
“He was a big man, with a beefy face and huge, raw-looking hands … nearer to sixty than fifty”
– There’s a trapdoor negativity where Daily’s aged, weather-beaten appearance is concerned. Though Kipps reins himself in before becoming outright critical in language, his tone is patronizing:
“His clothes were of good quality, but somewhat brashly cut .. he wore a heavy, prominent seal-ring on his left hand, and that, too, had a newness and a touch of vulgarity about it.”

Hill employs Daily as both protector and foil to unpin Kipps’ character through Show. The countryman’s consistent politeness and willingness to help, effectively send up the young man’s assumptions by subverting them:

“I decided that he was a man who had made, or come into, money late and unexpectedly, and was happy for the world to know it.”
(compare this with Kipps’ reaction to Daily’s questions about his destination):
“I nodded stiffly.
‘You don’t tell me you’re a relative?’
‘I am her solicitor.’ I was rather pleased with the way it sounded.” – pg 36.

This from a man who has already taken mild affront to the “vulgarity” of Daily’s display of financial well-being. He goes further towards making himself less than endearing, by paraphrasing Daily’s description of the local mist and its dangers:

“‘One minute it’s as clear as a June day, the next …’ he gestured to indicate the dramatic suddenness of his frets.” – pg 36.

By deliberately overloading the adjective-fork, Kipps conveys surprise at the other man’s exuberance; the implication is that he believes Daily to be exaggerating. There’s the distancing effect of ‘his frets’. The tone is patronizing, as of an adult hand patting an excitable child’s head.

“‘It’s a far-flung part of the world. We don’t get many visitors.’
‘I suppose because there is nothing much to see.’
‘It all depends what you mean by “nothing.” There’s the drowned churches and the swallowed-up village,’ he chuckled. ‘Those are particularly fine examples of “nothing to see. And we’ve a good wild ruin of an abbey with a handsome graveyard – you can get to it at low tide. It’s all according to what takes your fancy!’ – pg 38.

– Note the repetition of Kipps’ words back on himself, in conjunction with one point of interest after another; the lesson-recitation sentence structure; personification of the graveyard with ‘handsome‘; reference to local knowledge with ‘get to it at low tide”, suggesting authority through Ethos.

In this brief paragraph, Daily undermines Kipps’ first appraisal of him with a teasing that, by its very gentleness, sets him in higher esteem than the protagonist. The latter’s surprise is made interestingly clear with Hill’s use of a symbolic sound-conduit, which effectively ends the conversation’s stand-off mood and sets it on another route entirely:

“‘You are almost making me anxious to get back to that London particular!”
There was a shriek from the train whistle.”

– Another train emerges from the tunnel, reminding them of their shared destination. Perhaps it’s the sight of the “line of empty yellow-lit carriages that disappeared into the darkness” (Show of desolation, cold, the unknown) which appeals to Daily’s kind nature, for he chooses to see past Kipps’ thinly-disguised rudeness, to offer hospitality:
“‘If you care to come with me, I can drop you off at the Gifford Arms – my car will be waiting for me, and it’s on my way.”

Kipps’ disbelief and pragmatism – “exaggeration of the bleakness and strangeness” – have a hollow echo to them, following so soon after his staccato exclamation of wishing to return to London. The inference is that, through a reconsideration of his situation as the foreign element, he’s willing to be mollified:
‘He seemed keen to reassure me and to make up for his teasing exaggeration of the bleakness and strangeness of the area, and I thanked him and accepted his offer.”

– There’s no need for a Tell, nor for an apology. Hill makes Kipps’ feelings clear through Show. He is the alien, on unfamiliar territory and out at night, with its symbolism of the unknown and universal fear. This is imagery that an audience can latch onto.

Using weather to convey the typical mood of a setting (pathetic fallacy) works only for as long as the latter remains objective. For example, the moors of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, tend towards a naturally wild climate that can be easily set to personification – either as stand-alone imagery, or through the behaviour of characters such as the willful Cathy and dark-souled Heathcliff.

To avoid breaking the fourth wall with steering an audience’s perceptions too much, it’s best to stick with what is a natural progression of weather patterns in your setting. Don’t let a character’s mood influence the weather, or there is a risk of creating an unrealistic standpoint (this holds true across genres; even if used as a trope in fantasy, it should fit the context of a character’s powers.) It can’t be stormy everyday in a horror genre. Far more unsettling, is the upending of audience expectations. Keep things normal as a backdrop to the Unusual. The rickety old house set against a bright blue sky and piercing white sun; the children’s playground, wind-torn and empty of life but for lowering nimbus-clouds. This is using setting and scenery as a Show of mood, on a subversive level.

Setting and circumstance can certainly be employed for subjective Show when it comes to cause and effect. Imagine your character in their normal state of mind; perhaps they’re a stickler for neatness and order. What happens when something upsets their life, throws them out of regular habits and safe patterns? They may become lacklustre at the death of a family member or friend; life may cease to hold meaning. Their clothes, so pristine before, may hang wrinkled and loose as their thought processes, from not bothering to iron anything; weight loss from lack of appetite may also be a contributing. Makeup may be applied haphazardly, or not at all – large black circles may ring their eyes, from insomnia. Their garden may go untended, full of weeds where only prim flowerbeds once lay; the house may fall to rack and ruin, by slow degrees of separation from reality and consequence.

There’s little need to Tell an audience that your character is suffering, when it’s plain to see. Dialogue and character interaction can build this further. Last week, after a crazy night of editing, I got into work two hours late after oversleeping the clock.
A co-worker took one look at me and said, “I’ll get the coffee on.”

Were I to put this into a written scene, I’d add a line where, with one hand, I scraped the mass of knots I once called hair out of my eyes, and with the other supported myself in the doorway. Dialogue
(as a direct quote here) would run thus:
“You know me far too well.”

They do at work, when it comes to my caffeine habits – this is through experience, past interaction. But how does this work for the audience? An author has to be careful with how much they let hinge on perceived knowledge. Coffee makes a good caffeine-kick reference; a near-universal fact that can carry a shared joke better than something more specific, such as Red Bull energy drink.
When setting a brand name to your work, check context first – does it belong in this scenario, this genre, this time-frame? Is it an easily-accessible Show, or does it run the risk of dating your work / throwing the audience out of their suspension of disbelief? When making an in-joke about a character’s habit, does it dovetail with the rest of their life, or stick out as an unnecessary plot point?

Sensory language and figurative speech can help Show an audience what is unfolding within a scene, at what pace, and – with the right words – how to find the world immediately surrounding a character. Jeffrey Eugenides is a fine example of an author who has mastered the art of Show/Tell-characterization. The following scene dissembles the projected image of sexual power surrounding the character Lux in The Virgin Suicides, and invokes a very real sense of despair at the futility of her situation:

“Through the bronchioles of leafless elm branches, from the Pitzenbergers’ attic, we finally made out Lux’s face as she sat wrapped in a Hudson’s Bay blanket, smoking a cigarette, impossibly close in the circle of our binoculars because she moved her lips only inches away but without sound.” – pgs 145/146, The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides

– So near yet so far; the girl of their dreams may well be just this, an illusion brought to some kind of reality through the depth sensation of binoculars. What they see, and what they hear and know for certain, are separate quantities. It’s the equivalent of looking at the moon through a telescope and fancying that you know its face, every contour; how it feels to touch. A sense of yearning is invoked. Lux, as perceived by the boys watching her, is a figure of sexual power. Even while under house arrest, she makes the appearance of preferring a casually arrogant role:

“True, it was impossible for Mr and Mrs Lisbon to see their own roof… but there was the unavoidable prior noise of sneaking down to let the men and boys in, of leading them up creaking stairs in a darkness charged with anxious vibrations, night noises humming in their ears, the men sweating, risking statutory rape charges, the loss of their careers, divorce, just to be led up the stairway, through a window, to the roof, where in the midst of their passion they chafed their knees and rolled in stagnant puddles.” – pg 146

Powerfully evocative language – “creaking, charged, vibrations, risking” – spread out over a meandering sentence structure, which draws the tension out to its somewhat brutal climax (for the egos of the men, brought low into puddles and against their better judgement, by a child.) Contrast this with the description of Lux that follows:

“All sixteen mentioned her jutting ribs, the in-substantiality of her thighs, and one who went up to the roof with Lux during a warm winter rain, told us how the basins of her collarbones collected water…They spoke of being pinned to the chimney as if by two great beating wings, and of the slight blond fuzz above her upper lip that felt like plumage.” – pg 148

The juxtaposition of positive connotations/abstract imagery – “carnal angel”, “plumage” – with negative concrete reality, “collarbones collected water, jutting ribs” – creates a scene of pathos, and unreliability where Lux’s personality is concerned. For all her power over these men, she is wasting away in body and soul; apparently taking no pleasure from the “measureless charity” she deals out, falling into cinematic pretense of Self that is in no way true to her circumstances:

“She told Bob McBrearley that she couldn’t live without ‘getting it regular’, though she delivered the phrase with a Brooklyn accent, as though imitating a movie.”

Imitation. Phrase. Through the collective narrative of the boys, their observations, Eugendies layers up the sense of a girl living vicariously through the imaginations and expectations of those around her. She distances herself from the painful reality of being housebound with her sisters, losing weight from malnutrition. To her adoring audience, she is a “succubus of those binocular nights” – but the narrative itself tells the audience a very different story:

“Dan Tyco … stepped in something soft at the top of the landing and picked it up. Only after Lux led him out the window and up to the roof could he see by moonlight what he held: the half-eaten sandwich Father Moody had encountered five months earlier…Mrs Lisbon had stopped cooking for the girls and they lived by foraging.” – pg 147

Emotional investment is crucial at times like this. If an author is not willing to allow their audience more than a back-seat view of what is going on, through a generalization where details were needed, then the latter will be unable to engage. The distance is breached when emotional investment and sensory integration are added; spicing up the dull porridge of “he was thin and tall” with the cinnamon of “his clothes hung from his frame; he was forced to duck under every doorway.”

Notice that this took a good deal more words to convey. This will equate to more time spent writing, more thought applied to intention. There’s a need for deferring to connotation (figurative) as well as denotation (plain facts.) As an author, you’re reaching out to meet the audience halfway; giving them the chance to feel as much a creator, as a participant-witness. In this way, the story becomes relative to their lives and the structure is made sound. The narrative becomes credible, and the characters stand as people.

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Hear my Cry: Finding answers beyond the Silence

02/09/2013 at 08:18 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )


This article carries a Trigger Warning, for references to sexual abuse, violence and eating disorders.

It took me two years to tell my family about the sexual abuse which happened in my teens. By that point, I was a shadow of my former self. The vivacious girl who had been voted “Most Likely to strap herself to a rocket in protest” on her school prom night, was in the spring of 2002 a shivering waif, tied down by anorexic silence. Shame and guilt far outweighed the benefits of unburdening myself. They even took precedence over fears of recrimination from the instigators of the abuse. The latter’s damage had already been done. They had left their mark. Physical wounds heal soon enough, the body is remarkable in that. The mind and the soul are abstracts, though – still capable of being broken, but there’s no handy cast to put them in. No Key Word to unlock the residual pain, setting free the life caged behind it.

Back then, I believed that to even articulate what had happened would only worsen the situation. I didn’t allow myself to dwell on it. To do so would only embed deeper the feeling that I had somehow deserved the treatment. That I’d gone along with things. I’d let myself be made vulnerable, turned into a victim; had swum to the deep end without bothering to check if I could put my feet down.

I was fifteen years old, and falling away from the path happily trod in childhood, full of its daydreaming and writing, reading on windowsills and long walks through woodland. My parents were caught up in their bitter arguments, and the divorce proceedings that would dog my teens. Exams were looming. Those woods, formerly green-gold and populated by faeries, became dark. The magic turned its face from me, and I felt unworthy, couldn’t seem to grasp the old whimsy. My writing felt clichéd, the words dropping as stones from my mouth. I became one of many grumpy teens, with that twisting fear inside that breeds unrest. I longed for escape, for reality.

I fell in with that bracket known as the “wrong crowd” – though who truly has the right to say which child is right or wrong? We all came from the same broken/breaking backgrounds. We were all in pain. They had trust issues and parent issues and drug abuse, alcoholism; dark movements through the claggy night. We shared illicit cigarettes in the alleyway up from our school, daring each other like young pages in jousting. We imagined ourselves to be brave, rebellious; talked about love and fucking, the intrinsic knots between. We swore vengeance on teachers we hated, then ran laughing through the rain when they came upon us at the end of Lunch Break.

But it didn’t matter who we bragged to, or how loudly. Our eyes were still wide with fear. I remember several girls in particular, already showing the chicken-scratch signs and hollow cheeks of a life of suffering. The boys often took things a little more literally, painting the ebony night with flaming angels thrown across the wide bowl of our local recreation ground – rags stuffed into bottles of petrol. The way they burst into flames was a brief respite, a gleam in the eye and on the teeth of our grinning mouths, as we sat on the kiddy-swings and talked about escape from this tiny-mind town.

The girl who became my best friend at that time was one such lost soul. Always on the move, an orphan swung from one family to the next, she was more live-wire than girls our age. She’d boast about school scraps with either gender. She had vibrancy singing from every attractive curve, and God she knew it. She moved like a dagger piercing skin. She knew what she wanted, was a woman, and God help anyone who stood in her way.

She appealed to my baser instincts, my constant search for the Real Deal, which still holds true today. I was an easy target. A social butterfly, unable to settle to any one group or image, which I now recognize as unwillingness to conform to cliches. She broke the mold. We were raucous and at the same time, obsessively secretive about our movements. Our bond was almost frightening. She once told me how she’d knocked out the front teeth of a girl who crossed her. I pinky-swore never to get on her wrong side, though her right one was easy enough to stoke, with ego-brushes. She loved flattery.

No longer the skinny waif of childhood, I was self-conscious enough about my developing curves, to smother them in as many layers of clothing as possible. I dressed like a twelve-year-old going on forty. Never wore a scrap of makeup, frequently forgot to brush my long blonde hair. I’d walk barefoot into town (still do, weather permitting.) Back then, I told people it was because I wanted to feel the earth moving under my feet. Truth is, I was ready to run away from every situation, as fast as I could go.

The girl had an older boyfriend. He lived in a nearby town, a coastal region that still causes a nauseating snag to rise in my throat. He worked in the music industry, was only a little bit older than us, so she said. The girl decided to set up a recording at his house, citing our park-nights spent under the lamplight haven, warbling at the milky swirl of stars. She wanted to lay down a demo tape. I said Fine; it’d be one way to snag the attention of a guy I liked in school, a drummer. She knew who I meant, agreed that it’d really do the trick to catch his attention.

The warning signs were all there. The bad hunches, which I’ve learned over the years to pay closer attention to. Signs are to be searched for, and anyone who sees them lying in wait and decides to shut their eyes at the last moment, is a fool. To this day, I can’t get past the guilt of allowing myself to be talked onto that bus ride across the towns, swigging from our respective liter bottles of cheap fizzy cider. I knew better. The fuzziness in my head – it was my first experience of alcohol – wasn’t the pleasing experience I’d heard about. It was a softening of the limbs and deadening of the staccato warning in my heart. She’d made it explicitly clear that we should be drunk by the time we got there; said it’d make the experience more fun, as well as loosening my self-acknowledged stage fright.

I went along with it out of fear, didn’t want her to turn away from me. She had some renown among our group. Worst of all, to my mind, I wanted to appear grown-up for the first time in my life. She assured me I’d seem very professional, that this was standard procedure – everyone did it.

I was hammered by the time the bus pulled up, and we slugged our way down the pavement to his house. I have flashback-memories of that place. To walk past a row of terraced houses with a blue-painted bus stop, still brings a foil-bright fear clawing up my throat.

I don’t remember his face, or much of the interior. I do know that there was another boy-man there, an unexpected and nasty surprise. I was warned to stay away from him, he was lechy – the truth being, he was the one who left me alone. To this day, I don’t know his involvement. I slunk away to the garden to smoke, reeling from residual fears of childhood experiences around men and boys. Their hands, always finding me as something they could possess. Suddenly, this didn’t seem such a good idea. But by that point, I couldn’t walk straight, let alone think coherently.

Music was put on, pop hits of the time and some older tracks that were once beloved to me and are now tainted forever. Weed was sparked up, and more bottles opened. I have a distinct memory of being curled up beside a sofa, knees drawn to my chin and wondering if this was what it meant to be adult – to feel like an undercover agent, watching yourself be someone you’re not. Faking to make it.

A whole afternoon unraveled, gluey with alcohol. Scenes are fragmented, with long stretches of time between, when the sun moved across the walls and I wasn’t awake to mark its passage. I remember sitting on the carpet of the spare room at one point, reading sheet music that had been left lying there like a trampled prayer book. The girl walked in and found me there; laughed and called me “Samantha” by mistake, then laughed again and added sorry, that was the other one.

I’ve never found out how many other kids they lured back, how many others had their trust breached. Days later, the girl had disappeared with the man to London. Theirs was a relationship built on the need of a lonely, frightened orphan, and a man with a desire to control. I remember staggering up the stairs to pull him off her, when his hands went to her throat. The next moment, they were kissing. My memory fractures again. It’s not something I’m willing to pursue. There’s a white-out space that I go to when under threat, known as dissociation. My novel’s protagonist, Joe, is bound by the same instinctive need to separate himself from reality; asking of the movie posters on his wall, what would you do? It allows him access to heroics, by proxy.

For years, I’ve done the same – often becoming a monster so vile that none want to be near me. Problem solved, to my mind.

It’s taken years of therapy to bring back even those piecemeal memories, after flashbacks and nightmares sent me on a downward spiral of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, anorexia athletica (over-exercising) and starvation. My mouth couldn’t articulate what had happened. Unable to hold down employment, due to the constant need for routines and control born of OCD, I lived off benefits. It only fueled the guilt, as I’ve only ever wanted to be self-sufficient. Not only was I broken, I was bloody useless too. Couldn’t pull myself up, as others had. I saw all other users of the benefits system, as far more in need.

Any emotional or physical appeal that the human race might have had, was crushed. I couldn’t be alone in the same room as my father. That’s how deep the fear ran. Seeing what I figured to be a deep lack of self-control in those around me, I strove to be stronger, mind and body. Strict starvation, punishing exercise. No one would touch me again, or want to.
The upshot of this are a ream of physical ailments long as my arm. Suffice to say, my longevity has been somewhat diminished. This would never have occurred to the girl or her partner.

They weren’t looking for physical attractiveness. It was about targeting vulnerability, about manipulation. Most of all, it was about subverting trust.

This is where we, as writers, have a responsibility to depict the truth. To dig deeper than a plot thread, which absolutely cannot be left dangling; nor can it be stretched tight over a gaping hole that appears to be begging for some dark content. Too often I’ve discovered some gratuitous trigger-fest among the pages of a bestseller, had had that raw nerve touched; have questioned the author’s integrity as well as their intentions. They didn’t see beyond what the incident did for their story; there was no consideration for the person receiving, or inflicting the abuse. They remained a victim. There was little progression beyond what happened in the incident, and the hours thereafter.

The party girl in tottering heels and belt of a skirt, becomes the archetype of looming trouble, as she winds her drunken way home up some anonymous alley. I certainly don’t discredit these random attacks – at the police station where I work, I see and hear enough to know their grim reality. But it’s a commonly-overlooked fact that an abuser is more likely to be hidden in plain sight, in a position of trust. They may well have been a victim of abuse themselves, carrying on the awful legacy. We practice what we learn, use our outlets.

Certainly, there’s no justification for the actions of an abuser. But if you’ve the courage to write from their perspective, the audience will at least have a fuller spectrum of emotions; they will gain insight into the desperately sad self-propagation of abuse.

Refer back to individuality, for not everyone reacts in the same way. For me, the world became a closed envelope. Relationships of any kind simply didn’t factor in. My trust had been broken beyond repair, or so I perceived. I wanted to be quiet inside, to vanish.
Others will lash out. Some may attempt to rationalize what has occurred, projecting their pain onto others. Whatever the fallout, the coping mechanism should segue with the character traits already established, or if a complete personality U-turn occurs, make sure the reasoning behind it is thoroughly explored. Cause and reaction.

I speak from an experience not carried lightly. You don’t need to have been through the same, to depict an accurate reality. Experience develops a thicker skin, while empathy softens the soul beneath. Only try to imagine how your own Universe would come unpinned, through the actions of someone / several someones you invested love and trust in.

And there again – where does the buck stop?

I dreamed of travel and writing in my youth, preferably together. Had a huge map of Manhattan pinned up on my bedroom wall, with points of interest I was determined to visit. I was going to be a journalist, setting my face to the West, which has always called for as long as I can remember.

Twelve years have passed, almost half my lifetime. I am only now coming back towards that light of living, breaking out of old routines, because the only other choices were stagnation of self, and death. The length of time hopping in and out of hospital meant I wasn’t in full-time employment until 2007. This is a sore spot on my CV / resume, something I used to have trouble owning up to in job applications. Over the years, I’ve come to terms with the fact it’s hardly my fault I don’t hold many credentials. But I did decide to do something about it, when the illness relaxed its grip somewhat, post-treatment.

I now hold top mark A Level grades in English Literature, Language and Film Studies. Education is the greatest provider in the world, spurring us on to new heights. I am a catalyst for my own future, an instigator – fighting back against demons, using experience as a tool for communication, not a weapon.

Don’t be afraid to write from the point of view of everyone involved. It drives me mad to find the lazy catch-all of “evil” applied to an abuser, because it doesn’t ask – or answer – questions. It only makes for a 2-D version of something far more frightening. We should never stop questioning.

Speaking out on abuse is about putting trust in people, about seeking compassion. There will always be givers and takers in this world, but this should be relevant to your characters as well as the plot, not for the kick of addressing something darkly gritty for a decent sale.

The choice lies in where the cycle of emotion-action-reaction stops. To work against remaining a victim, in real life and in fiction. Give your character the option of fighting for their individuality. I don’t say this lightly. The happy ending doesn’t come, because nothing truly ends. But we can work towards being at peace with ourselves, and all have a right to freedom of expression – for justification, clarification, or simply to sleep at night. Some years ago, given the chance, I’d have happily poked the eyes out of the man and girl, for what they did to me.

Now, I’d just like to ask what had happened to them, that they felt the need to prolong the cycle of pain.

This site is particularly helpful in terms of research.

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