Poignant Writing

Written By: Timothy Fish Published: 11/6/2007

The recipe for writing a poignant scene is fairly straight forward. You start with a character that people recognize, put the character in a believable situation with another character that does something to the other character that the other character has no ability to stop. Mix it together and slowly reveal what has happened.

A scene with a wife and her abusive husband is often poignant. She is weaker, she has the kids to be concerned about, and she has no way out. All we have to do is tell about her wounds and how she got them. A scene with a child and an abusive parent works the same way.

Things get a little more interesting when the roles are reversed. Maybe the husband isn’t abusive. Maybe his wife leaves him for another man. There is nothing that he can do. Maybe the child gets mad at a loving parent and runs away from home. The child is found strangled. The parent is supposed to be the stronger of the two, but it is out of his hands.

One of the most poignant pieces I have ever read is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. It follows the basic formula, but the characters who play the roles are not typical. The first character is a woman, a very ordinary woman with a family. The second character is the rest of the town. We identify with the characters. She could be a member of our family. Her family could be our family. Perhaps she could be us. They all go to participate in a town event. It has always been this way. It is an old custom. They are holding true to the old traditions, though other towns are not. We see our fears in their fears. We aren’t sure what this tradition is all about, but it is as sure as Christmas or Easter. It is part of the way things are. We know that she can do nothing to stop it; we believe that the town will refuse to stop it; but we feel remorse because of what happens to her.

Perhaps the hardest thing about writing poignant scenes is convincing the reader that the first character is not partially at fault. If a parent yells at the child and then the child runs away, the scene is not as poignant as it could be. Instead of thinking, the child shouldn’t do that, the reader is left thinking if he hadn’t yelled….

Poignant scenes tend to be very simple and this may be the reason that many people see them as some of an author’s best writing. For the scene to work, there must be a clear disconnect between right and wrong. The author doesn’t have to tell the reader that something is wrong, it just is.