A study of tragedy during Tragic Times

It’s safe to say there’s a bit of tragedy happening in the world at the moment, and while I wish I had a cure-all for the sadness that occurs during these times, instead I began to think about how could this be used in writing. The thought occurred to me that it might give some people a sense of release to be able to write a tragic story, or to at least include some tragic elements in their works.

It may sound like the exact opposite of what one should do, but it seems to me like it might give some people a sense of control during these times when we seemingly have none.

It’s also the topic of our Writer’s Chat this weekend…

What is the most important element required to make a story truly tragic?

All my research leads to the same conclusion: A Tragedy requires a sad ending in which the hero dies or wishes he was dead. So it makes sense to begin thinking about the ending first when you are plotting your Tragic story.

This brings us back to our discussion a few weeks ago about the shapes of stories. A tragedy needs to end down like the “Riches to Rags,” “Icarus,” and “Oedipus” story arcs.

It also makes me think about what lesson* we can learn from the story we’re telling. In real life, there might be a lesson that should be learned, but the real tragedy is that most times it isn’t (bigotry in all it’s forms is still a thing, in spite of all the outrage and the obvious wrongness of it). Meanwhile, in a truly tragic fictional story, we as readers know before hand that the protagonist is going to come to a definite bad end. So, when plotting, it’s important to keep that moral lesson in mind.

*As a side note, we saw that mentioned in another post a few weeks back, one about plotting your story. It’s nice when things connect like that!


What is the plot structure of a Tragedy?

A tragic story of course needs a tragic hero, someone who is not inherently evil, but has a flaw that leads him astray. Often that “flaw” is a desire for something, and that is where our plot begins:

  1. The hero wants something. He wants it bad enough he/she is willing to do something that damns him/her. In Romeo and Juliet, it was love. In Hamlet, it is vengeance. In a lot of stories, it is power. Whatever it is, the protagonist wants it badly!
  2. In the next stage, the hero will begin down the path to achieve what he wants, but the reader almost always knows this is a bad idea. One of my favorite short stories to teach is Young Goodman Brown, and in that one, it is made quite obvious that the titular character is going down the road with the devil on some terrible deed. We, the readers, know (simply because it’s the devil) that this can not end well for our protagonist, even while he believes that he will be strong enough to triumph over the devil. It’s not always that obvious, but there is always some hint (even if it’s something that has to be seen during a second reading) that the hero’s chosen path is the wrong path.
  3. During the next stage, the hero begins to run into obstacles. Obstacles happen in almost all stories, but in a Tragedy, the hero will begin to do things that will seal his tragic fate. It might be acting against his/her nature, or actually committing evil deeds, but there is always something. We’ve reached a point of no return. When Hamlet spurns Ophelia or when Satine pushes her lover away in Moulin Rouge, for example: pushing away love in order to maintain some ruse is definitely an obstacle and the wrong way to deal with it.
  4. The unraveling begins. Everything about the protagonist’s plan starts to fall apart, leading him/her to become paranoid or a bit unstable. The most obvious classical example is Othello’s increasing jealousy as he is manipulated by Iago (and Iago’s jealousy for that matter). Any movie where the tragic character begins to shut him/herself away from the world to avoid losing their precious (insert thing from stage 1 here) is at this stage.
  5. In the last stage, the main character dies or wishes to die instead of facing some horrible fate. According to Aristotle, we should feel some sort of pity or release at this stage. The main character has been tortured enough, and we should recognize that they weren’t really deserving of this treatment, or perhaps they learned the lesson which led to their release from torment. To go back to Moulin Rouge, Satine changing the final scene of the play she’s in to be with her true love because she finally realizes love is more important than the wealth she wanted in the beginning, only to die…

But that isn’t the only way to use the tragic energy of the current state of the world in our creative writing.

How could you channel current events to create a tragic scene in a not-so-tragic story?

Yes, you could absolutely embrace the tragic feelings and write a story that is equally as tragic. After all, you should be able to adequately describe the forlorn sense of dread and depression, but what if you took all of that and put it into a scene or two before writing that happily ever after that we are all hoping might one day happen in real life?

If you were to take the current events and use them for just a scene or two, how might you do it?

Well, what is the most effective way to describe a tragic scene? It’s by focusing on something that contrasts with the tragedy, or something that shouldn’t be there. In my research, they talked about a scene in Les Miserables (the book) where Victor Hugo describes a bloody street full of corpses, but what stuck out to the character recounting the scene was a white butterfly. That contrast of something innocent and pure in a place of such death and destruction makes for a powerful image.

It reminds me of the girl in the red jacket from Schindler’s List, and then to see the jacket on a pile so you know what happened without ever having to be told…

So powerful!

And tragic…

Certainly right now we have a slew of images that are new and might be considered tragic when you think about what they represent. The face masks for one. They are a symbol of hope and yet also a reminder of this disease and the death it causes.

It’s fair to say there is a lot of source material in the real world if you want to tackle tragedy.

I don’t even have the words to discuss the most recent tragedy: the death of George Floyd and the riots that are now being done across the country to express the people’s outrage *. In my mind, both are tragedies because I fear that the riots won’t be seen as justifiable outrage, but simply as “proof” that the absurd actions taken by some officers is somehow necessary.

It’s a vicious cycle: Someone does something terrible (or racist), then the people revolt because we shouldn’t still be dealing with racism in this day and age, but the revolt is seen as proof that the people being mistreated (or killed) are more violent. Then someone does something terrible out of supposed fear (or racism), and the cycle begins again.

Weren’t we just saying that in tragedies there is a lesson to be learned, but that lesson is often missed or ignored in real life? Maybe we can break the cycle. Click below to go to a site where they are trying to do just that. And then, go take all that sadness and anger and create a story with amazing tragic elements!

*This post was written when the protests had just begun, and I was afraid that it would be the same as we’d seen in the past where the protests worked for a time, but in the end people discounted them. Now, nearly two weeks after the death of George Floyd, I do not think these protests will end in the same disheartening way. These protests have been primarily peaceful on the part of protesters; it has been those in power who have been inciting violence, and I believe/hope that it will bring about a long overdue change of the system.

About Elizabeth

First and foremost I am a teacher. What I teach is a blend of grammatical art, literary love, and a smidge of spiritual awareness. My blog tries to combine the best of all three over a cup of tea.

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