What makes the difference between a well-written piece of fictional entertainment—and a soulful story that leaves a lasting imprint on your reader’s heart? There are many reasons, but today I would like to touch on what I think is one of the main ones…
The scars woven through a novel.
There’s a Stephen King quote that says: “A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is the ability to remember the story of every scar.”
Regardless of how you feel about King’s writing, he does certainly know how to evoke emotion in his readers. In this post, we’re going to talk about how to write about heavy topics.
Your scars are your greatest tool to reach your readers’ hearts.
The experiences and pain and fears you have traversed are uniquely you and allow you to pour your viewpoint into your novel in a way no one else can.
They let you weave your humanness in—and connect that broken humanness with your reader’s heart.
That humanity is a touchstone we all share, and the best tool to lead your reader on a journey to that climactic moment of redemption, without it feeling cheesy or like they are having someone else’s opinion forced on them.
All right, so our scars add a depth of emotion and soul to our stories—but how do we actually do that?
How Do We Write The Scars?
How do we write about heavy topics?
Especially if we want to touch on a scar that maybe we ourselves have never experienced. What if you feel the tug to delve into a sensitive scar that fits your story and will make the narrative that much more powerful—but you have never experienced it yourself?
These are all questions that I have thought over many times. I have written novels that dealt with many different types of scars—physical and sexual abuse, anxiety, depression, miscarriage, suicide, cutting, loss and the list could go on.
All very weighty subjects, and most of them I have never experienced.
I eventually learned how to weave scars I’ve never had through a story in an authentic and powerful way that both connected with my readers—and led them toward the light.
I’ve found seven ways that have helped me to authentically write about heavy topics in my fiction, and I would like to share them with you all.
7 Practical Ways To Write About Heavy Topics
1. Identify the purpose behind the scars.
Think through and pray about why you feel you should include a certain weighty topic in your fiction. It shouldn’t merely be for the shock factor.
Is this theme right for the context of your story?
Does it feel natural for your character’s arc?
Does it add depth to the plot?
Is it something close to your heart?
Is it a theme that you are passionate about?
Is it a theme you think you can write about clearly, without simply guessing how a person may respond in a situation?
If you feel deeply passionate about writing about heavy topics in your fiction—then good! That is oftentimes our Storyteller impressing something on our hearts because we—or someone else—needs to hear them.
2. Draw on the emotions behind YOUR scars.
You may have never experienced a specific scar, but you have lived quite a bit of life, young writer.
You have experienced a tapestry of emotions—fear, anger, hatred, pain, etc. You can draw on what you know of those emotions to add depth to a scene. Most of the time, when writing, we are describing things we have never quite experienced—especially a fantasy-type genre.
When writing about heavy topics, you can draw on the emotions you do understand to develop what a character may have felt in a situation.
Your character may be hiding from an angry stepfather, bruised and hurt—and while you have never experienced that, you do understand what fear and pain and numbness and panic feel like.
You can draw on those emotions, your own scars, to add depth and authenticity and realism to your story.
3. Identify who you are writing these scars for.
It is important to know who your audience is. Who is your novel being written for?
Is it a YA book, so for teens and older ages? Is it for Middle Schoolers? Is it a woman’s fiction book that may be picked up by an older lady?
Each of these audiences will be expecting—and be able to handle—a different calibre of scars. You wouldn’t want to include something more scary and dark, such as a situation with sexual abuse, in a book for a child.
However, if done tactfully, such content could be applicable (or even needed!) in a novel for an older age group.
So as you try to decide what types of content to place in your novel, be certain to think through who will be reading your novel and what they most need to hear.
4. Try not to focus solely on the physical side of the scar — let the emotion carry the impact too.
This is a very important aspect of the practical side of writing about heavy topics in your fiction. Often a scene dealing with a heavy issue can feel depressing, overbearing and/or too explicit.
Yet, focusing on the emotion behind a difficult moment can not only help to make the scene more palpable but also give it even more impact.
Instead of telling us about the girl being whipped for her faith, and describing each lash and her skin being split open—show us her wincing, her pain, and her determination.
How even through the numbing agony, she is holding onto one thought: that her God took death for her, and if this is the end, she will be welcomed into His arms.
The first description makes your gut wrench a little—but the second one connects to your heart.
And those are the types of connections that will last with a reader and make them come back for more and keep recommending the book to their friends.
5. Learn how to show a scar without tearing open old wounds.
When writing about heavy topics, using the above tactic of focusing on the emotion rather than the scene itself can be very helpful—especially if you are touching on a subject such as suicide or sexual abuse that can be triggering for certain readers.
Keep that at the forefront of your mind—that you want the scene to have impact, but not drag a reader back through the shadows of their pain. Not to rip open an old wound.
A really good way to get an idea for how much can be too much is to have sensitivity readers in advance who can let you know how your content came across (this can also go for touching on racially diverse subjects and many other aspects too).
You can also become involved in ministry with people who have dealt with those scars, meeting real hearts and hearing their stories, as often people are willing to share their journeys.
You will be able to learn first hand both what their experiences are like—and even gaining training on how to help them with the restoration process.
6. Be sure to understand the scar.
Reading up on the scar and its effects is hugely helpful. Be certain to become familiar with the content you are going to include in your novel.
If you as a writer are going to touch on a sensitive topic that you lack experience in, you’ll need to do a lot of research if you want to avoid stereotypes and accurately depict an issue.
7. Show the darkness so that the light shines brightest.
This is an aspect of writing that I don’t think is often touched on but can allow a writer to delve into weighty topics without finding themselves overwhelmed by the shadows.
Because, if we write with our focus only on the darker themes, we can be in danger of allowing those themes to become the core of our story, and sometimes lose sight of the light.
Whereas if we walk into a darker theme with the intention of including the darkness to powerfully point readers to the light, keeping that hope in mind can help to avoid indrenching ourselves too deeply in the weighty subject matter.
Write the character arc and themes with an intention of already seeing where your character could end up—seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, as it were.
Focus on that light as you write and it can help you to not be drowned in the weighty content, but balance the darkness in a way for the stars to shine.
Everyone will have a different level of description and thematic matter that they are comfortable with divulging in.
However, through it all, we must remember that we are not meant to wither in the darkness and pain—but to acknowledge it with grace and authenticity, and then turn our eyes to the healing hope of the light.
That is, after all, what the darkness guides us toward—the need for a savior in whom there is no fear or shadow.
Why Should We Write The Scars?
So, yes, our scars are important.
Writing about heavy topics is powerful—because someone needs to be reminded that they are not alone, and that there is hope.
Maybe even your own heart needs that reminder.
And maybe the scars you want to write about aren’t as intense and heavy-hitting as some of the ones mentioned above.
Maybe you are the one who needs to write about another type of scar—maybe something more emotional. Whatever the case, your words and your experiences and your passions and your battles have so much value.
But, I don’t think our scars are the most important aspect of writing.
I think the scars are vital because they point to the most significant aspect—the healing.
I think what King was getting at in his quote is even more impactful for those who write for the glory of the Master Storyteller. Because the Greatest Story Ever Told is full of scars.
Particularly the two etched into the hands of the God-Man strung on a cross.
And by His scars, we are healed.
You see, that’s why I think scars are so powerful in writing a story—because exposing the darkness can be the greatest tool to point readers to the hope of the light.
In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that we should write the darkness in some way because through it the light shines brightest.
As believers in the Author of our lives, we have a perspective of hope despite the brokenness that no one else has. We can see the beauty in the scars.
So, go write powerful stories, young writers. Tell stories with scars and heart and darkness and hope. Tell messy, beautiful, glorious stories.