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I'm writing a war (sci-fi) novel. The MC dies in the end. It's not as thoroughly depressing as "All Quiet on the Western Front", but Remarque's work is definitely one source of inspiration.

Now, partway through writing, I find that writing is too painful for me to continue. It's not that I'm writing a particularly depressing passage - on the contrary. At this point my MC is eager and full of hope. What gets to me is the projection of the story: there are many ups, there's love and camaraderie, but the ultimate trend is down, until finally, inevitably, the MC is killed.

I desperately want to write this story, but at the same time, I find myself unable to sit down and continue writing it. It's not a writer's block: I have whole scenes sitting in my head, dialogues, you name it. It's that every scene I write brings my character one step closer to his inevitable death.

How do I manage this/get through this, and continue writing? I want to write this story - not another, and I don't want it lighter and softer - I want it to tear at the reader. (Of course, the reader, unlike me, would not know the end until it happens.)

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    The MC dies in the end. Spoiler Alert! Gosh! :) – Möoz Apr 20 '18 at 5:32
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    How about you get your ideas down in another way. Try telling the story aloud and recording it. Particularly if you concentrate more on expression, on telling an exciting tale when your characters are excited, let the tone of your voice lead your emotions. This is more important than the precision of language. Then it's just a case of transcribing from the recording and tidying up language as you go. – AJFaraday Apr 20 '18 at 13:11
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    Naïve question: Would it possibly help to write the "inevitable death" first, then write the happier stuff? – T.E.D. Apr 20 '18 at 14:57
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    Charles Dickens was famously overcome with grief when writing the death of his character, Little Nell. So, at least you're in good company... – Chris Sunami Apr 20 '18 at 16:01
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    I keep hoping that if I reach that part organically, I'll have the courage to write it Your current question shows that the opposite is the case. You're conflicted writing a happy passage because you know you're going to have to build a more negative future. Your negative emotions are caused by the negativity you're expecting between where you currently are and where you will end up. It's also a bit weird to write a story organically where the outcome is already fixed. That conflict might be adding to the issue. – Flater Apr 23 '18 at 6:40

11 Answers 11

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I'm not sure that you do get through this. A story is an experience. To write the story, you have to live the experience, emotionally at least. When a story does not ring true, I think that is usually because the writer chickened out of really putting themselves through the emotions, of fully immersing themselves in the experience of the story.

I remember hearing it said of some poet or another than when a visitor asked the poet's daughter where her father was, she replied, "Daddy is upstairs, hurting himself." She meant, writing.

Some writers seem to do it to lay to rest the fears that haunt them. That seems to be the case with Stephen King. Sometimes, in other words, the writer experiences the story and its emotions and all the pain and fear that go with them, and can only escape from them by writing them down.

For others, it would seem, the difficulty is that they would (like most healthy people) turn away from the things they fear and focus on the good things of the moment. Writing then requires that you force yourself to imaginatively visit those things, in detail, and for a long time. If you have a choice about whether to do this or not, that is going to require a lot of courage.

Maybe the question you should be asking, therefore, is how to find the courage to put yourself through the pain of finishing your story.

  • It's very important that an author be able to believably write about things they haven't experienced, or aren't currently experiencing. Being able to "put one's self in another's shoes" and understand how that other person/thing is feeling without actively mirroring those feelings yourself is an absolutely necessary skill for writing. To a degree "method writing" can help, yes, but going as far as calling writing "hurting one's self" is just silly. – gucciferXCIV Apr 22 '18 at 17:57
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    @gucciferXCIV I do agree that it would benefit an author to maintain a degree of emotional distance, though I am not sure if this is a matter of discipline or temperament. Stories do exist to provide a degree of emotional distance from the tragedies of the world, or perhaps a kind of inoculation against the horrors of the actual world. Why else would we read tragic tales? But I don't think emotional distance can become clinical detachment without the work becoming clinical as well. And the author has to spend so much longer with the emotions compared to the reader that it must take a toll. – user16226 Apr 22 '18 at 19:01
  • Agreed, but I don't think it should take such a toll on the author that they're having serious trouble working on their story or likening writing to hurting themselves, except for something like a true story about a very hard time in the author's life. Either way, everyone's got their own methods! :) – gucciferXCIV Apr 22 '18 at 22:09
  • Sad stories are like high-quality condoms for the brain - all the feelings without any of the risks. – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica May 31 at 17:59
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I think the biggest thing to remember is that you are not your character. You are writing a story, but not actually going through this yourself.

I know this is difficult, but if I felt everything my protagonist is going through, I'd go insane. The theme of my story is "identity." The protagonist dies right before the beginning of the story and another soul (well, it's really another part of his soul) is put into his body. But he has the memories of his last life, plus increasing memories of his first life. Since the memories of his last life as Harry the Hobo (set in late 1920's) is still with him, the memories of an elf from Atlantis don't really fit into his mindset. Plus, he feels as if he's being taken over.

I would hate to have to go through that. Constantly questioning who I am would be painful to me, especially when all the evidence indicates that I am this elf rather than myself.

But I know I'm not Harry (nor the elf). This is easier for me because it's an Urban Fantasy and these things don't happen. Your story would be probable. People die in war all the time and have since the dawn of time.

Some writers empathize with their characters more than others. One thing to remember is that you, as the writer, are doing these things to the character. The character isn't going to die because he is killed in a war, he is going to die so that you, as a writer, can make a point. The character doesn't really suffer, but obviously you do. I think that you need to keep a distance between you and your characters.

However, make sure that the emotional connection is there for the readers. Writers and readers have a very different view of a story.

Lastly, if for any reason you can't put what is in your head onto paper, you have writer's block. It doesn't matter if you have the entire book, including proper punctuation, in your head, if you can't write, you're blocked.

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    Good point. It may be a similar issue as the professionalism which oncology nurses, abuse counselers or drug case workers must have. One one hand empathy is a requirement and probably a reason these professions are chosen. On the other hand the worker must establish a professional distance to their clients, or they will perish with them simply by suffering. Similar reasoning applies to authors. An author of fiction has the advantage of their case being "only" imagined; they are a puppet master of sorts. They are also allowed to be manipulative of their audience. Exploit these advantages. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Apr 20 '18 at 10:33
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    @PeterA.Schneider The difference between me and many of the people around me is that they live completely in the physical reality, while for me my inner world is just as real the one outside. What I imagine (and then write about) is not "only imagined", it is the world that I live in. And it affects me as intensely as what happens in your reality affects you. – user29032 Apr 20 '18 at 16:49
  • @Cloudchaser But there is a difference between "my inner world" over which I have only partial control, and my novel which is an artifact that is distinct from my actual "inner world". Of course it's possible that I have to revisit my inner daemons (or my ecstatic experiences!) if I want to write about what I personally find important; but what I write is then the product of a semantic and formal artistic process. Typically (unless one engages in some sort of automatic writing) that process involves putting some (factual, intellectual, emotional) distance between the author and the work. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Apr 20 '18 at 17:33
  • @PeterA.Schneider For me writing is an exploration of my inner world. I don't control my writing, at least not the first draft. I'm a "discovery writer". – user29032 Apr 20 '18 at 17:49
  • @Cloudchaser, I am also, for now, a discovery writer. But I do control my writing, to a degree. I also have to keep a distance from my characters. Otherwise when I found out the hatred that Merlin (a minor protagonist) had a huge hatred for two other (more important) minor protagonists it could have hurt me. Instead it made the story more compelling for me. And yes, my writings are one way to explore my inner world also. – NomadMaker Apr 20 '18 at 21:31
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Write the ending. Do it now.

You can revise it later, or scrap it and write it over, but get your tears out of the way. I think you dread writing the outcome; face that dread and write it. Make it a done deal in your life, you won't dread it as much while writing.

I am a discovery writer; I often don't know who will live and die even amongst secondary characters. However, the biggest problem with discovery writing is always The ENDING, so I always keep some ending at the end of my writing document, in detailed notes (i.e. it is not crafted in prose, but the notes tie up my loose ends).

If I am writing along and find a twist or logic demands some char act in an unexpected fashion (to me), I demand of myself I revisit that ending and see if it will still be viable. If not, I must either find a new ending and commit to revising the whole story to fit with it, or abandon the char's action in favor of something else plausible, or kill the scene I was writing and find an alternative that fits with my ending.

I say that in service of this: Write your ending so that end-point is in your mind as you progress. Unlike me, perhaps do more than notes, do as much as you must to have your own cathartic release of the MC; so you have already experienced that death and finality. Then your other writing is like historical writing.

We know John Kennedy died and how, most of us have seen his murder on video. But we can still enjoy his speeches and appearances on video, his laughter and happiness, his embarrassments, even knowing the tragedy that awaits him. The same is true for other historical figures; I've seen video of John Lennon laughing and laughed with him. My advice is to turn your character into a historical figure for yourself, and it will be easier for you to write about his triumphs and failures, happiness and sorrows and embarrassments and angers. Write the ending.

8

It seems like the most pressing problem is that fear of the death is preventing you from writing the character's life. So my advice is to write "in the moment." Let go of that fated conclusion you've set for the character and just write his life. Be open to the possibility that maybe things won't end the way you originally thought. Fear of death is literally preventing this character from ever living, and isn't that even sadder?

But what happens when you've written everything but that last fatal scene? Perhaps, as you've anticipated, you'll finally be ready and able to write it as planned. Or perhaps you'll have discovered a new ending, and your character will live. Or maybe you'll just end the book right there. Your character is painted into a corner, there doesn't seem like there's any possible way he can escape, but your readers (and you) will always keep that scrap of hope alive.

It may seem like a cheat, but really, some of my favorite books and movies have ended that way. Some people prefer a bit of openness to complete closure. For instance, at the end of the movie Children of Men:

You don't ever discover what happens to the woman and her child. Are they seen and rescued? Or left to die? If they are rescued, is it better, or is it worse? And what does it mean for the planet? You don't know, so you write your own ending, and the movie stays alive in your mind.

7

There is only one thing you can do: Live through it.

It is the intensity of your imagination that gives your story the punch you aim for. If you dilute it by distancing yourself from your protagonist, you will dilute your story.

Many other authors have gone through similar experiences. The best strategy is to get through it without hesitation and bring the first draft behind you. Then take some time off to process the experience and return to your own self.

6

While other answerers have encouraged you to push through this, and that may be the right call, I thought I'd offer another suggestion. Put it down for a while.

Take a breather and do something else, something fun. Maybe write a fanfic-style short story about the same characters, but what if they met when they were kids? You may be surprised how much interactions and dialogue you come up with in a different scenario can be used in your original story. Or maybe step back from those characters entirely and work on something you thought of a while ago but put aside.

You could also take a step back from writing and do some reading for a while. Look at how books like Band of Brothers manage to show happy moments and camaraderie even though many of the real people the author was writing about died. Sometimes analyzing other author's works give you a better idea of how to approach your own.

6

This is not so much a writing question as a question about how to do things that are tough. If this is something you have to do because it is the right thing, then you need to figure out why it's the right thing for you to do and commit yourself to that path. Why do you need to tell this story? Why do you need to kill this character? If it's to show how valuable all these things are that are hard to write about it may help to realize you've already killed your character, perhaps years ago. You can love what you've already lost, but you'll never lose this character because at the end of the day the character only exists in your mind. Obviously your attachment will bleed into your story, hopefully to a positive effect.

If you want advice on how you should avoid depression the answer is you need to reframe what you're doing and put some distance between who you are and what you are doing and what this story is about. If this is a story you want to tell, or need to tell, then certainly its worth writing that a fictional person has died. They are fictional, you won't have actually killed anyone.

Your personal experience, while legitimate, is also a perhaps an extreme experience on the spectrum of how writers deal with this. If all else fails get help and consult a psychologist.

If you were asking how to finish the book? The answer would be easy: write it. If you're asking how to be ok with yourself for writing a truly excellent story, all I can say is you need to give yourself permission to not feel guilty about it because you're ultimately not doing anything wrong.

If you can't give yourself that permission, it's probably not healthy to continue. It would also be a sign that you need personal help and should reach out for it. I say that with no judgement or with any intention to insult. But, if you legitimately can't write something literally fictional because you're hurting someone who doesn't exist and this is harming your objectives for yourself in life, then you should take advantage of every tool in man's arsenal.

4

Here's a slightly different approach. Write the story in such a way the MC's death has something to compensate it, such as your character becoming irredeemable by dint of their actions of personality, or them dying to save someone else, or his death leading to a noble cause or vengeance against the killer.

Now, it's not normally a good idea to tell you what should happen in your story. But here's the twist: that's not what I'm telling you to do! When I said to write in a certain way, I never said those "sweet" parts of the text you write have to be in the finished story other people get to read. (In some software, such as LyX which I use, you can hide anything you like very easily without even using s separate file, because the finished product is outputted to another file type for readers.)

What's more, the parts that are just for you don't need to be well-written, so you can write them very succinctly. Now, my advice may sound awfully crazy, but the one upside is you can execute it in all manner of ways. For example, if you think you want to spend a while on hidden parts, e.g. because it makes you feel better or it's good practice, go ahead. And if you think some of the resulting plot points could go in the finished product after all, either now or in a redraft, that's also fine.

4

Even if there's nothing uplifting or redeeming, the protagonist's death will have a positive interpretation - you've thought enough about his life to tell that story. It's not death itself that's a problem - it's the idea of a meaningless death, and if your story has brought home the futility of war your character has not died in vain.

I've seen boys raised on war films stop while reading All quiet on the Western front, and I could see them thinking "Wait, what? You mean it's not all glory? Where's the slow motion bit? That's what war's like? Stuff that."

You know your character's going to die, but here's the biggest spoiler of them all : Everyone does, in the end.

4

Figure out how the negativity will bounce back. Your main character dies. Does someone else benefit? Was the main character partnering with someone, and the torch is handed to the partner who went on to do great things? Was the main character's plight written down in an article of a small newspaper, but then some person stumbles across the story and is impacted in a way that leads to great things?

Note that I'm not trying to say that the very negative thing (death) should be less negative. But don't let that be the end of your story, at least in your mind. Find some way so that when you think about the depressing concept, you can just remember that this is being responsible, as the death is an important part of a larger scheme, and then choose to focus on thoughts about the positive repercussions.

Then the pain may be less painful, so you can fully write things out.

I also have a few comments about:

I have whole scenes sitting in my head, dialogues, you name it.

Also, if you have great ideas bouncing around in your head, be sure to write them down. Even if it's just an outline/bullet points. You can flesh it out later. But once you've written them down, you can feel more free to think more about other things, instead of trying to remember details that you haven't yet written. It's quite liberating.

And then if life pulls you away from writing for a bit, but then you get back, you can think, "Oh, I had all these great ideas, but I forgot them, and now I have to go look at those notes I made to remember" instead of thinking "Oh, I had all those great ideas, but I forgot them, and now they are just simply lost forever".

Writing them down also gives you the flexibility to alter an earlier part of the story, and risk creating a scenario which causes your other good ideas to become non-viable, but knowing that you still have your bullet points that you can get back to. That means you have more flexibility when you're actually fleshing out your earlier ideas with words. Later, you can re-work in the details if you need to. But if you haven't written down those ideas, you may feel compelled to never get off track earlier in the story, because you don't want to miss out on some good ideas that you cherish. This ends up restricting your earlier writing, so it's not a good thing.

Remember, if you make a decision earlier in the book which ruins some of your later plans, you could still use those later plans by re-working them, or by simply using them in another story. Many successful multi-story authors have done that. So making choices that will complicate your ability to use some later ideas is an okay thing to do. Don't prevent yourself from making the most interesting choices.

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    i think you've hit on something really important here. The OP wouldn't feel compelled to write this in the first place if the death and the rest of the story didn't mean anything to them. Something good is coming out of the whole process and that should be important enough/positive enough to counterbalance the experience of writing it and feeling all the hard things involved in that process. – Joe Apr 24 '18 at 22:31
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I am a scientifically minded person who suffers from clinical depression and have a generally pessimistic outlook on life.

Realising that the existence of god was incompatible with my scientific views caused me grief, and I had to become used to the idea of no after-life. It took a while, but I've finally accepted it and now even dare to welcome the thought. It may even have contributed for a greater respect for life, however meaningless or fortuitous it may seem. I avoid killing things, and when it happens by accident, even if it's a bug, it brings me sorrow to the point of tears. But I tell myself I didn't mean to do it, I was just the agent of blind chance, and after a mental apology I get on with my life.

I learned to do that as a survival tool.

My point is you may have to embrace the suffering to get over it. Just plough through. Accept your own mortality, the inevitability of it. In my experience there is no other way. Perhaps try to think of your role as the grim reaper as that of a harbinger of mercy. After all, there is no suffering after death.

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