by Lisa Hall-Wilson
I am frequently asked how to write a verbal disclosure of trauma in fiction. So, usually one character has a trauma backstory they’ve never told anyone about, and at some point in the story, they decide they need to share that history with someone. This is such a courageous and difficult thing to do in real life, right. I mean, lots and lots of people suffer trauma and often the quickest route to healing is to talk about what happened – often more than once.
This is so individual, there isn’t really a roadmap or set of instructions I could create. Rather, I’ve come up with some food-for-thought questions you can ask yourself and/or your character that will hopefully help shape the emotions, internal dialogue and internal conflict of this moment in your story.
The answer to this question is likely one you’ve already built into your story. Most writers have given thought to this. But to take it a step farther, get curious about how time and place affects the character’s decision to disclose. Is this a taboo topic?
I once interviewed a nurse doing volunteer work in Cambodia years ago. She had a patient complaining of intense chest pains, shortness of breath, exhaustion. She did a physical exam and couldn’t find anything wrong. The nurse began asking questions – does the pain get worse with activity? Has the pain gotten worse over time? Finally, she asked what the patient was thinking about when the pain always started. The woman said, my baby.
Her infant had been killed by the Khmer Rouge. Those who showed any emotion during the killings were killed themselves, and the nurse observed that as a society no one spoke of what had happened. The woman didn’t have a name for her grief, didn’t have any outlets, and it was only safe to disclose what had happened to a foreigner.
The reason why the character kept their secret shows the reader the stakes involved in disclosing. Historical context is important. For a woman to disclose she was raped at age 10 would be treated much differently now than twenty years ago than two hundred years ago. Also consider shame/guilt, fear, confusion and an inability to trust their memory or their emotions. One or all of these things may influence the character’s decision to stay quiet.
This is a super important question to ask yourself. Why does the character choose that person to disclose this most personal of secrets to? What you need this scene to accomplish is vital to making this scene have the emotional punch you’re probably looking for. Set aside your fears of being melodramatic, swing for the fences emotionally. Beta readers can help if you’ve gone too far, but more often than not we pull up short and the emotion deflates like a pathetic balloon zipping around the room.
When choosing someone to disclose to, we’re usually looking for someone who is trustworthy (they’ve kept past secrets maybe?), who is transparent (their reaction can be predicted, counted on to be honest), who will offer support and not judgment, who will empower the one making the disclosure. All this is what makes someone SAFE.
Build into the story the character observing or knowing all these things about the other person. Show this through interactions and subtext. Show this is someone worthy of this level of trust, so it makes sense that this person is chosen to hold this secret.
But now, what if the character has misjudged this other person? What if that other person isn’t as safe as they presumed? Or their reaction is completely out of line with what was expected? You can make your character an unreliable narrator if needed, or even just make them blind to what’s really going on. Let the reader lean in and feel the tension, knowing this is not going to go the way the character expects/needs it to. Or, have the reader be blindsided right alongside the character, they find out as the character does that this person isn’t safe.
There are a few common reasons people choose to disclose such a secret, particularly one that’s been kept quiet for many years. Why your character is choosing to disclose is super important for the reader to understand, because it speaks to the stakes involved. What is being risked?
Validation is one reason people disclose past trauma.
This happened to me and it was wrong and it shouldn’t have happened/been allowed, kind of idea.
The character is looking for someone to be on their side, to have their back.
The next question is why they feel they need that support right now. What’s changed? What’s different? What’s causing the fear or lack of security? What would it mean to them to have this moral support?
Some people hold onto their secrets until they see that others are being harmed or may be harmed.
If it was only them, it wasn’t worth fighting for, but they won’t let what happened to them happen to anyone else.
Some people make what feel like irrational decisions to those who don’t know about the trauma past: isolation, abandonment of relationships (even if completely unrelated to the trauma), dropping out of school, moving cities, divorce, etc. This could tie into needing moral support or validation.
Sometimes people feel they have to disclose because they’re in crisis, they feel they’re in danger, have been left without means or shelter, etc.
Know their WHY and what they’re risking by disclosing. This character will have spent a lot of time (most likely) thinking through the inevitable common questions they’ll be asked and will have an answer for them, such as why they haven’t said anything until now. They will probably have given thought to why they’re disclosing face to face instead of through a letter or over the phone. The where and when details will usually be considered in advance. This could be a spontaneous disclosure, but usually for serious trauma it’s something the character has perhaps obsessively analyzed.
The character who isn’t absolutely sure of positive support may get stuck in analysis paralysis.
Do you see how much will be on the mind and heart of someone about to disclose past trauma? This won’t be something they’re emotionally objective about unless your goal is to show dissociation or emotional numbing (maybe the character has voted certain emotions off the island because they’re too painful or overwhelming).
The whole body will echo the inner tension of this disclosure. Their body language will likely be protective, they may struggle to make eye contact, their voice may stay very quiet or they might stumble over their words.
But their internal dialogue will be exploding with the what ifs and why they musts. The voices in their head will be clamoring for attention, and among the objections will be voices convinced that this has to happen. We FEEL emotions, we don’t often think about them, so the emotions will be shown in body language. Use the character’s thoughts to show their doubts, fears, whys and musts.
Will you have a character disclosing a secret in your story? Why do they feel they MUST tell this secret?
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Lisa Hall-Wilson is a writing teacher and award-winning writer and author. She’s the author of Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers. Her blog, Beyond Basics For Writers, explores all facets of the popular writing style deep point of view and offers practical tips for writers.
She runs the free Facebook group Going Deeper With Emotions where she shares tips and videos on writing in deep point of view.
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Past issues come forth in some of my writing, but so far no secrets.
Your Cambodian interview reminded me that some people consider mental health problems a weakness and instead complain of physical illness. Although there is a link between them anyway.
Terrific post. You've given me a lot to ponder. Thanks Lisa!
There's actually lots of true physical ailments that are tied to trauma, as well as the psychosomatic ones. Being able to disclose and talk about trauma is a huge step forward in healing, so it's important to get these details right (if your goal is to be sensitive to readers suffering these things, or readers who know someone struggling with past trauma).
I wrote more about that aspect of it here:
My characters don't seem to suffer from trauma.
Is there a shrink for authors in denial?
You might just need to expand your definition of trauma. Lots of people think it's just big things - natural disasters, rape, violent crime, car accidents, etc. But in fact, it's anything that leaves us feeling overwhelmed and without agency or voice. So, think about divorce (from adult or child perspective), moving, losing a job, medical procedure, bullying, abandonment -- it's SUPER common.
Good one, Dave! Any author's shrink worth their salt will tell you you're too nice a guy, lol. How does that make you feel? 🙂
Great article and very timely article for me as my WIP heroine is a trauma counselor who is still dealing with her own past w verbally & physically abusive father, and she married a man who turned out to be emotionally and sexually abusive. She doesn't know that she can connect with the hero sexually as when she tried to date after her divorce she froze up when things started getting intimate. She has to share with him that she doesn't think she can give him what he needs and discloses what she did to get away from and feels ashamed of it.
Sounds tricky with lots of high emotions. Good luck!!
I do have a character going through a simple guilt trip of wishing a close friend of her then boyfriend dead. And she does die so guilt abounds. When she meets the guy years later, she has to reveal the secret to have a HEA with him so she chooses a joint friend who has kept her secrets before. Doesn't quite go to plan when the friend reveals he was deeply in love with the girl she wished dead.
Ouch! Lots of high stakes there. Good luck!
I'm writing a memoir about trauma, and you've made me think. I'm afraid my disclosures will hurt innocent parties, so I might write under a pen name. Thanks for the input.
Brilliant, Lisa! Very helpful. I am right at the point of disclosing her secret in my WIP. Needed this. Thank you!
Perfect timing then!! Glad it was helpful.
Oh, wow! This is good. Thanks.
This was very insightful!