Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
March 23, 2022

4 Ways To Write The Lived Experience Of Trauma

by Lisa Hall Wilson

Trauma can create great internal, external, and interpersonal conflict, but readers are not interested in clinical definitions or objective recitations of symptoms. Trauma needs to be more than emotion-theatre. It should make your character’s journey more difficult and be specific to the journey ahead of them.

If you can take out the backstory, the flashbacks, and the character remains unchanged, maybe you don’t need to use trauma in your story. Stephen King wrote that fiction is the truth inside a lie.

Be honest about living with trauma. Entertain with your fiction, but be honest about the lived experience of trauma.

What Is Trauma?

We misuse the term “trauma” all the time in regular conversation. When many people say they struggle with “trauma” they mean they were betrayed, disappointed, embarrassed, ashamed, hurt, sad, grieving – whatever. These are legitimate emotional hurts that can FEEL traumatic, but this is not what is meant by mental health professionals when they talk of trauma.

Trauma is ubiquitous, but it’s also specific. Trauma is any event or situation where a person feels overwhelmed, helpless (loss of agency, voice, autonomy, mobility, hope), a sense of horror, sustains a serious injury, or perceives a threat of serious injury or death. Trauma is a visceral experience.

Trauma is a failure of recovery.

Everyone experiences things that are troubling or hurtful, and that haunt them. Everyone. But not everyone struggles with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder (BPD), PTSD, c-PTSD, bipolar disorder, dissociation, panic disorder, agoraphobia, suicide ideation, self-isolation, etc.

These are the real-world consequences of trauma. There’s an escalation of harm, of injury, a sense of being “stuck” or “broken” that is intrinsic to struggling with and managing trauma; an inability to “just get over it.” Be honest!

The Lived Experience Of Trauma

Most people will do almost anything to avoid being reminded of the worst moment of their life. These are not the sorts of things people navel-gaze over. They don’t reminisce about that time they almost died. They don’t share the nightmares or night terrors they relive every night with friends.  Instead, they avoid going to sleep, they medicate in order to sleep, they have poor sleep because their brains won’t allow them to reach deep restorative sleep.

Follow that thread.

What other consequences would one face if chronically exhausted? There are medical conditions, attention, and focus problems. They’re probably prone to overreacting. They may be forgetful, accident-prone, and/or make a lot of errors. They may self-medicate to mitigate these issues, chugging cups and cups of coffee and then drinking themselves to sleep at night for instance.

Show the reaction to the emotions the memory brings up, rather than have your character THINK about the emotion they feel.

“Trauma comes back as a reaction, not a memory.”
~Bessel Van Der Kolk

Writing Tips for Trauma

Instead of your character spending time thinking about their trauma; instead of writing out all that backstory or flashbacks, show what they avoid.

Where don’t they feel safe? What lengths do they go to in order to feel safe? Some people need to have their backs against a wall so no one can sneak up on them. What clothes do they wear to avoid feeling a certain way, to avoid attracting certain looks or certain kinds of attention? Maybe it’s the opposite, and they wear certain clothes in order to attract attention. Do they react to a hard day by hooking up with the first available prospect disregarding their own personal safety – compulsively?

The reader will pick up on how this behavior is about something else that’s happened in the past.

There have been studies done on young men who suffered abuse by priests as young boys. Those who struggle with anxiety (of any sort) often become gym rats because they don’t ever want to be overpowered again. This obsessive need to be strong is the reaction, but they may deny what happened, avoid anywhere that reminds them of what happened, and many won’t talk about what happened.

We FEEL Trauma, We Don’t Dwell On Memories

Our brains don’t record memories like a director films a movie. Our brains crave context, continuity, and closure. So, trauma memories appear unreliable because events are recorded with skips and gaps. Details that are too overwhelming may not be remembered in the moment, but come back after days or months. Things that are too overwhelming might be recorded initially, but then forgotten in time.

You can use the unreliable and faulty function of memory to show a character with past trauma. They may believe they’re crazy, or struggle to trust their own memory of what happened and question everything. They may obsessively seek to create a narrative about what happened or use other sources to fill in what they can’t remember or don’t want to be true.

For those who’ve had troubling experiences, those emotions and memories will often fade over time. But those struggling with trauma will involuntarily relive those trauma emotions over and over and over. Many trauma survivors describe it as a movie in their brain that they can't stop playing.

So anytime the character feels vulnerable for instance, instead of THINKING about how vulnerable they feel, or how this moment feels a lot like that trauma moment, show the reaction instead. 

  • Do they immediately reach for alcohol?
  • Do they punish themselves (because in some way they blame themselves for what happened) by doing three extra laps around the block when jogging?
  • Do they abruptly leave, or constantly cancel?

Jessica Jones is one character where this coping/denial spiral is very clear. The Netflix show Unbelieveable captures this aspect of memory with compelling realism.

Choosing Trauma Details

[Trigger Alert: Detailed trauma in this section. (Labeled for ease of reading.)]

I have watched and read a lot of survivor accounts of various types of trauma: holocaust, domestic violence, natural disasters, car accidents, victims of crime and abuse, terrorist attacks, etc.

The brain captures those details that aren’t as they should be. What is out of place, what is wrong, and the implication of those out-of-place things will be highly upsetting (not forgetting the sense of hopelessness and the real or perceived threat of injury or death).

Holocaust

One holocaust survivor recalled being discovered by the Nazis. She hid, but her mother was dragged outside in winter without a coat. Through a crack in the doorway, she saw a soldier point at her mother’s head and heard a crack (a gunshot). In vivid detail, she recounted how the snow turned red. She stared at her mother for hours from her hiding place after the Nazis left, waiting for her mother to get up.

These were the details that haunted her. These are all details that were out of place, and all pointed to something being horribly wrong. She didn’t remember understanding that her mother was dead, but she certainly perceived a real threat to her life.

Molestation

One survivor of molestation recalled how the hook and eye to lock the bedroom door (in the room where she was abused) was up high, near the top corner of the door. How the weight on top of her was too heavy and she struggled to breathe. These adult memories point to what most traumatized the child – the inability to escape, and the perceived threat of suffocation.

Keep in Mind

When writing memories like these for your character, instead of seeking to capture the complete horror of an event, try narrowly focusing on what would be most upsetting to them. Be visceral with the sensory details. Sound and smell are two senses very closely linked with memory. This will be specific to your character, unique to their experiences and threat levels.

How can you be strategic with the reaction to the trauma emotions your character suppresses or tries to avoid? Do you have questions about writing about trauma? Please share them in the comments if you feel comfortable doing so!

* * * * * *

About Lisa

Lisa Hall Wilson

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. 

Leave a Reply

28 comments on “4 Ways To Write The Lived Experience Of Trauma”

  1. Thank you Lisa. Your timing is perfect. How did you know I needed this right now? I am also going to forward this to my daughter. She is not a writer, but runs a nonprofit that teaches yoga as an alternative to violence and victims of trauma. I think she might find this helpful.

    1. Glad it was helpful and informative!! I think fiction can both entertain and inform or at least raise public awareness of what it’s like to live with these conditions for greater understanding. Put an end to the shame and othering that happens.

  2. Powerful. Practical. Putting to work right now on my WIP...WWII love story set in Hiroshima. Traumatic? Oh yeah, on so, so, so many levels. Your wisdom about "out of place" details...that will be priceless while I'm editing. Many thanks!

    1. Ooh - interesting setting. Haven’t read any set there. So much trauma to explore that would be evident from the beginning but also surface in later years. And to also consider the role of culture in how trauma symptoms are allowed socially to be expressed. Many many layers to explore. I’m glad this was helpful.

  3. As a survivor of severe childhood abuse, and rape, I respectfully have to disagree that "those emotions and memories fade over time." I wish. I've had years of therapy but I can still see the "movies" in my head. I will agree that they are "fragmented details" but they're powerful movies, nonetheless. However, I do agree that as writers we need to show the resulting behaviours as key to what lies beneath, instead of just interior monologues. As long as the reader eventually gets to see those two things tied together so that they learn something about the depth of trauma, I think these are good techniques. I can always tell when an author has just researched PTSD and when they've actually experienced it.

    1. Laurie, I am sorry for your loss of peace and safety. You deserved a better childhood than you received.

      I found that the only thing that successfully "faded" things for me was EMDR with a really good therapist. It made my childhood experiences stop lurking in the background and in my dreams. I don't know if EMDR would be a good fit for you, but for me it was priceless.

      https://www.emdria.org/

    2. I’m sorry my words came across that way. My point was exactly the opposite. I’ve asked for an edit to make that clearer.

      What I meant by “troubling memories” were those listed at the beginning as hurtful emotions but not trauma - being embarrassed, ashamed, betrayed, etc. I thought juxtaposing that against how trauma memories instead were relived over and over made that clear. I apologize for my poor wording there.

      Trauma memories do not fade over time without A LOT of heart work, healing, therapy, time — and depending on the mental health condition, depending on the trauma and the person, in many cases not even then. The struggle is one that’s lifelong.

      I write on this topic because I’d like to see writers use these conditions with more realism and sensitivity. I’m so tired of reading novels with a combat veteran as a Protag who has combat flashbacks (PTSD), but no other symptoms. That’s not helping those struggling to manage PTSD, nor does it inform the larger community of the lived experience of this condition which needs more awareness and advocacy.

  4. Thank you for this, Lisa. I've read trauma handled badly before, and I've seen it handled well. You clearly pointed out the difference.

    1. Trauma, written well, can be hard to read (and write), so I understand the temptation to gloss over the hard parts. I think it’s possible to capture trauma well (with authenticity and sensitivity), without necessarily being graphic or using language that requires trigger warnings (although I do think sensitivity readers are a great idea when exploring these hard topics).

  5. Beautiful piece! And so true. Just wrapping up a book about how God used two traumatic events to turn me to Christ, in describing the plane crash aftermath, my coach helped me write details the way they transpired. I realized some of my memories were not exactly what happened, rather what I perceived in a state of serious injury and shock. The actual act of writing (20 years later) was unexpectedly cathartic and gave me closure I thought I no longer needed. Thanks for this.

    1. That’s another really great point about trauma. Often there’s many many layers to healing and understanding. You think you’ve got things sorted about this or that and find out there’s another layer to work through. Thanks for sharing your journey.

      1. It's not that the content isn't relevant, but each person's trauma journey is different, and posts which are more explicit need the TW at the beginning. People who have experienced trauma don't always speak up, so I did.

    1. Denise, I added the trigger warning to the more explicit examples and it seems perhaps we needed more. I am sorry I didn't think to put it all the way up at that beginning.

        1. I apologize. I skimmed and glossed over details to avoid being specific for this reason. My intent was to keep the examples very focused and practical for fiction writing (and my lens is always tuned to writing in deep pov). Guess I missed the mark. 😔

  6. Hi Lisa,

    Trauma coming back as a reaction feels spot on, in my personal experience.

    I am thinking about the book, Lightning by Dean Koontz, and how the protagonist reacts to the sound of thunder. Horrible things as well as her beneficial guardian accompany that sound.

    Thank you for writing this post. It is most helpful.

    1. Thanks for letting me know! I appreciate that.
      Yeah - sound and smell are both very closely linked to memory and are very common triggers for past trauma. A song. A noise. A tone of voice. It’s a great way to drip drip drip in backstory, but by bit, instead of using info dumps or flashbacks to retell the trauma event.

  7. Really wonderful post on writing trauma! It's so in-depth with clear explanations of how trauma is truly experienced. Thanks so much for this info that will improve the writing of this subject, including myself. I've taken your course on deep POV, and read a lot of your posts- you're always so right-on and full of great info. I'm going to sign up to your blog & hope to take courses in the future. Thanks again!

  8. i am often thinking about how literature (writing, reading, sharing) can be therapeutic. this is a great post for guiding the writer to effectively convey these experiences so that it is both therapeutic for the writer (without re-traumatizing them) and for the reader (without triggering them)

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts

Search

WITS Team

Categories

Archives

Copyright © 2022 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved