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3 Ways to Use Time to Engage Readers in Traumatic Events


As writers we play with characters motives and emotions. We give them seemingly insurmountable tasks, drop them into depression and lift them to conquer their problems. Take a minute to consider how we use time and setting to lead readers into and out of traumatic events.

Three techniques are useful: begin in the every day world, share the traumatic event through slow motion and return the reader to the every day world.

Part one: Begin with the every day world. As we approach a traumatic event, share a soothing, relevant non-event that occurs five minutes or a day before the trauma. Why? If we show the character's day-to-day routine, a time when the character has no idea of what's to come, when the traumatic event occurs we'll rocket the reader into that event. through the change in depth.

Example: A young woman stands in a living room, watching the fire burn down. She's thinking about her day, her new boyfriend and their plans for the snowy weekend together.

Part two: Share the trauma through slow motion. To deepen the reader's engagement, show the traumatic event in slow motion. The freeze-frame idea allows you to pull the reader into the traumatic act, to engage the reader in the physical tension or reactions of the character as the event occurs.

Example: The young woman walks onto the porch to collect an armful of logs for the fire. She slides against the porch railing and breaks through. She falls, feeling every twist and turn of her body as single freeze frames. Thoughts of her family, her boyfriend, how beautiful the night sky looks flash through her mind as she falls onto the hard-packed earth. She's now injured, freezing, and alone as she waits for help to arrive.

Part three: Return to the every day world. After the traumatic event ends, we often return to a state of calm. The trauma has created a dramatic change but our character must return everyday life. That day-to-day routine needs a subtle change as we pull away from the event. The character steps back, sorts through the trauma, answers the "what-if's" and the "if only's" and attempts to resume life that existed before the event.

Example: (The change) In the quiet of her night in the hospital, she relives the trauma remotely as though watching a movie. Her focus shifts to how she'll cope with the damage she'd created to the porch railing, how her injury will affect her ability to work and pay for her expenses, how it all affects her career, as well as how she'll handle the embarrassment of the accident.

These three techniques work well whether it's a fall, a gun battle, a person running from an enemy, or a character learning of an unexpected demotion, injury or death. They are also useful when a character receives positive news: an engagement, an award or a huge surprise. Beginning in a calm place, learning of the life-changing event, breaking it down second by second, then attempting to return to a second calm state reveals a lot about the character and provides a powerful tool to add to your writing bag of tricks.


Paddy Eger is an award winning author of two ballet-themed Young Adult novels: 84 Ribbons and When the Music Stops-Dance On. She also writes Educating America books and materials for training adults to work in classrooms.  

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