Have you ever read a book that included scenes that were very hard for you to read? I don’t mean difficult to comprehend; rather, I mean scenes that were emotionally difficult. Certain scenes just tend to be hard for people to read, and there could be any number of reasons why. A scene might strike too close to home, so to speak, for comfort. Or it might be something terribly sad, like the death of a character you’ve grown to love. Some people find it hard to read about hardships such as drought, poverty, and so on.
The interesting thing is, sometimes those scenes that are hard to read also help to make a story memorable. That’s especially true if the scene falls out naturally from a story and helps drive the plot. Everyone has a different set of difficult scenes they’ve read; here are just a few.
In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda pay a weekend visit to the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. On the Sunday, Lady Lucy has planned a luncheon for the house party, and has invited Hercule Poirot to join the company. But before Poirot arrives, Christow is shot. Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the killer is, and how the shooting happened. One of the house party (and one of the suspects) is Henrietta Savernake, a cousin of Lucy Angkatell, and mistress to Christow. She is, obviously, a person of interest, and Poirot has several conversations with her. She is a sculptor who expresses herself through her art, rather than through emotional displays or a lot of words. Still, Christow’s death has hit her hard. We get a real sense of that at the end of the novel, when she chooses a unique way to face that burden:
‘I cannot grieve for my dead . . . Instead I must take my grief and make it
into a figure of alabaster . . .
“Exhibit N. 58 Grief, Alabaster. Miss Henrietta Savernake.”
She said under her breath: “John, forgive me … forgive me … for
what I can’t help doing …”
It’s a difficult scene, because the reader can really feel Henrietta Savernake’s grief, as well as her sense of futility that she can’t really mourn.
Many readers found it extremely difficult to read Elizabeth George’s With No One As Witness. In it, Inspector Lynley and his team are searching for the person who is responsible for killing young boys. That in itself is hard enough to read, especially for those who do not like to read of child deaths. What makes it even harder is another shocking event that happens in the story. Some readers still have not forgiven George for that; it was that difficult to read.
Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone begins when Boston-area PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro are approached by Lionel and Beatrice McCready. Their niece Amanda has been abducted, and they want the detectives to find her. Kenzie and Gennaro aren’t sure what they can do that dozens of police officers and lots of public interest haven’t been able to do. Still, they are eventually persuaded to look into the case. It’s a complex case with several twists and turns. There are several difficult scenes in the novel, including one where the PIs meet Amanda’s mother Helene. She is not an attentive mother, and doesn’t seem overly distraught at the fact that her daughter is missing. In fact, she’s more interested in her appearances on TV news programs. It’s hard for the PIs to cope with that, and hard to read about it. The book raises several moral and ethical issues; it also includes some scenes that are very hard for some readers.
It can be very sad to watch a character self-destruct. And those scenes can be difficult to read. For instance, Ken Bruen’s The Guards introduces Jack Taylor, a former member of the Garda Síochána who was removed from the force for excessive drinking. He’s set up shop as a private investigator, and has an ‘office’ at his local. He’s trying to put his life back together, and it’s proving challenging. Then, he gets a new client, Ann Henderson, who wants him to find out the truth about her daughter Sarah’s death. The police claim it was suicide, but she doesn’t believe them, and wants Taylor to get some answers. He has a real chance at starting over with this case, and goes into it with good intentions. And, in fact, for a time, he succeeds. He learns the truth about Sarah, too. But he continues to implode, and there’s one scene in particular where he has a very sad conversation with Ann about it. Especially for readers who were hoping he’d make it, this is hard to read.
Scenes like this can also be difficult to write. Trust me. In A Matter of Motive, I had to write some difficult grief scenes as one of my main characters had to face her husband’s murder. It wasn’t easy to create those scenes, and it took a toll. And right now, I’m working on a novella (a standalone) that features a fifteen-year-old runaway who witnesses the disposal of a body. It’s not easy to write some of what she deals with, although the story isn’t nearly as gritty as it could be. But that’s part of writing a story that (I hope) will be engaging.
How do you feel about those hard-to-read scenes? Do they make a story more memorable for you? If you’re a writer, how do you deal with it when you’re writing those hard scenes?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s If I Only Had the Words (To Tell You).
18 thoughts on “If You Only Knew How Hard it is to Say*”
The grief scene in Matter of Motive was exceptionally well done. I defy anyone to read that and not cry. 🙂
As an author (who has killed a few characters), each death of an important character stays with me and requires a grieving period. You can’t just pick up and move on as if they didn’t exist. Try and explain that to a non-writer!! 🙂
Thank you, Cat. That means a lot to me.😊 And you’re so right that you have to grieve when you kill a character. I can only imagine what you’ve been through. It’s been hard on me as one of your fans. I’m still getting past a few of them… And it is hard to explain to someone who isn’t a writer, isn’t it? 🙂
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It’s almost impossible to explain what it is like to lose a character to a non-writer. It’s family we’ve lost. It’s very difficult to hold a funeral for an imaginary person! Although, I do hold a wake for each death. Me and a bottle of tequila xx
You know, I like the fact that you have rituals, Cat. I ought to think of doing something like that, because as you say, you can’t hold a funeral for a someone who doesn’t/didn’t exist! But doing something as a bit of a memorial can help us move on and also keep the story genuine. That’s a really good idea. And you’re right; it’s hard to explain this sort of thing to non-writers.
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The scenes I find hard to read in mysteries are torture scenes, or scenes where one person has control over another person’s fate. I have also had problems continuing a book when I know that scenes with extreme mistreatment of people due to racial or ethnic bias are involved. I don’t want all my mysteries to be cozy, but I don’t want to read about extreme mistreatment of people either.
You’re not alone, Tracy. I think a lot of people are uncomfortable reading scenes, even if they’re not torture scenes, where one person has that much control over another. And reading about extreme mistreatment is just as hard. It’s a situation where one person or group sees another as less than human, and that’s hard to read.
Margot: I find it hard to read about cruelty especially when it is casual. I lack respect for those who are cruel especially the uncaring who do not even notice how vicious they are to others. No examples come to mind. I expect it is because I seek to forget cruel scenes.
I know what you mean, Bill. I try not to remember scenes of cruelty (especially casual cruelty), and I find it hard to read them, too. I honestly wish authors wouldn’t include them, although I am a strong believer that authors should write what they believe best tells a story.
I avoid any books with animals in them as much as I can, for fear of what might happen to them. Even if nothing does, I spend all the time I’m reading with an unpleasant feeling of anxiety. It’s odd, because I’m fine with humans being in danger, even kids, so long as it doesn’t feel too cruel or gratuitous. I genuinely blame a picture book I read when I was about three, when a foal was separated from his mother and it upset me so badly it’s left me with a kind of residual allergy to animal characters.
I know just what you mean, FictionFan. I hate it when animals are hurt or killed, so I always wonder what’s going to happen to the poor dog or cat or… Somehow, we really do feel differently about a person getting killed (as you say, as long as it’s not gratuitous). That’s part of the story, and crime fiction readers expect it. Animals are different.
It’s interesting, too, that you mention the influence of that picture book. Books we read in early childhood really do impact us, so I’m not surprised that you still feel the impact of that story. Now you’ve got me thinking about childhood books I read that impact me…
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Tears are flowing while writing difficult scenes. During editing, I dread returning to those scenes because I’ll have to relive the emotional toll (dealing with that now, in fact). But, like you say, often they impact readers. Our job isn’t always easy, is it?
No, it’s not, Sue. And yet, I think if we didn’t invest so much of ourselves when we write, our stories wouldn’t be as rich. I’ve read stories that seemed almost wooden to me, and I’ve wondered how much the author really invested in them. Perhaps I’m being unfair. You make a good point, too, about going back and editing. That can be hard, too, when it comes to scenes of sadness, grief, panic, or something else like that. But the end result is, I think, a better story.
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I’ve wondered the same thing, Margot. Peeling off pieces of our soul goes with the gig.
Oh, I think it definitely does, Sue. If you’re not willing to take that risk, the story won’t be nearly as meaningful, in my opinion.
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Found you again! I guess the problem isn’t that I lose you but I forget that I have to be logged in to WordPress, forget my stupid password, have to get another then lose the comment I wrote. Today I am determined though – so here I am!
I cried for two hours in the car after finishing the Elizabeth George you mentioned. My partner thought I was dolally but I’d lost someone I felt I knew. Why read if not to become lost in the fictive dream?
I only read some books in the day – currently I’m finishing American Dirt and Underground Railroad only in the mornings…
I’m so glad you visited, Jan! I’ve missed you. Thank you for going through the extra effort. You aren’t the only one who got terribly upset after reading With No One as Witness. It’s one of those events that really moved people, and I’m sure it must have been hard to write. And I don’t think it’s crazy at all to be that emotionally involved in a story. As you say, what’s the point of reading if you’re not going to be drawn into the book’s world? And that can mean tears.
A lot of people are changing their reading habits right now. This pandemic has taken a real tool on people, even those who haven’t had Covid, and haven’t known anyone who has. It’s a world crisis. Add to that the political and environmental issues going on, and it’s easy to see how reading can suffer.
Not ashamed to confess there have been a few books that have literally reduced me to tears, because of the power of some of the scenes. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving is the most memorable in that respect. I wonder if it was emotional to write?
I know what you mean, Col. I’ve had books like that, too, that impacted me that way. If my own writing experience is anything to go by, books like A Prayer… are very emotional to write. I think it’d be very difficult to write a really moving story without feeling it.