If You Only Knew How Hard it is to Say*

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).