How to Write Believable Trauma Stories

A woman sits at a white desk as she writes her trauma story in a notebook using a black pen.Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash.

Are you writing trauma stories for the first time? Have you been told to “dig deeper” in your novel? Writing believable trauma stories is all about using a narrative technique called deep point of view, whether you have lived through the traumatic events in your story or not.

A deep point of view dives into the reality of the situation. It’s about how real people react to challenging situations and how they overcome strife. The technique closes the gap between the reader and your character’s point of view in a novel.

This artile will show you how to write trauma stories into your novel using this technique. I’ll even explain a few tips to make your story come alive. First, let’s gain more understanding about what makes an event traumatic.

Understanding what makes an event traumatic

A traumatic event becomes part of a person’s deepest self. Experiences on the traumatic side are the events that bring about the toughest life lessons you face in adulthood. The challenges create the biggest changes, both good and bad.

Trauma comes from events like:

  • Natural disasters
  • War and combat zones
  • Life-threatening illness
  • Intrusive medical procedures
  • Sexual assault
  • Psychological abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Verbal abuse or violence
  • Neglect (emotional or physical)
  • Loss or separation from a parent in childhood
  • The death of loved one(s)

Living through a traumatic event affects every person differently. Some have post-traumatic stress disorder, continued distress, anxiety disorder, dissociative disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts, and a variety of other mental health issues.

No two people react the same. The younger you are when the trauma takes place, the length of time the trauma took place, and many other aspects determine how you may react. The more anxiety, the more consequences become evident in adult life. The devastation comes out in adulthood, even for people who don’t remember the traumatic event.

Image for postPhoto by Jen Theodore on Unsplash.

If you write about a traumatic event in your life

Writing stories about your trauma is therapeutic. The process allows you to get over any negative emotions you still harbor about the event (even the anger, guilt, and resentment you may not realize is there). Coming to terms with the past allows you to move forward in life.

Slow down the process

When writing about a traumatic event in your life, slow down. The writing process opens you up to reliving the event. It’s tempting to rush through difficult scenes or skip over details. Take your time.

Feel every emotion. Remember the small details, like scents. It will hurt. Meet your painful memories with insight and follow where your thoughts lead. Try to find understanding and acceptance in what was.

Consider this portion of the writing process valuable for you. You might need to spend more time writing than you would a nonfiction piece on birds, but remember, you are doing this part for yourself. This is where you heal.

Many studies show psychological trauma patients who process past events fully through writing suffer from fewer illnesses, visit the doctor less often, and notice fewer depression symptoms. Their emotional and psychological well-being improves. Physical health soon follows suit.

So please do it for yourself. If what you write doesn’t fit your story completely, store it for another time. You might be able to use the material later. Or, you could dispose of it when you’re ready to start a blank slate.

It’s up to you whether or not to tell your stories. They’re yours to do with as you see fit. But if you choose, you can tell your story and transform your life.

Use the present tense

Therapists also recommend writing trauma stories in the present tense. The view allows the events to occur in the present moment of your mind rather than keeping them in the past, where many people store negative thoughts to avoid dealing with them.

Present tense provides vivid and emotional descriptions. Write without a filter. Copy down what you are thinking and feeling. You can go back to edit and organize your thoughts later. Focus on what occurs to you when it does. Trust your experience.

The process of writing in the present tense is also more therapeutic and healing for people who have experienced trauma. Allow yourself to become vulnerable. Writing your story is worth the fear of your friends and family finding out the truth. If the possible blowback is too much to handle, turn fear into fiction.

Find what lies beneath the surface

Many people who have experienced traumatic events block part or entire memories from consciousness. It’s your brain’s way of protection. You may not know or understand everything that happened to you yet. Conscious thought is tricky like that.

You can suppress memories for months, years, or decades. But humans retain memories, whether you can bring them to the forefront of your mind or not.

Two things may help: recall and recognition. Writing the trauma story is the recall part. As you put more words down, you might remember more. This is the recognition. Triggers are sometimes enough to bring back forgotten memories. The less accessible portions may come up as you write.

Memories are fickle, though. They may come to you like puzzle pieces snapping into place, or they might never return. Try not to feel discouraged if the details are lost to you. Just focus on what you can find and dig deep.

If you create a character with a traumatic backstory

You can cultivate stories about trauma without first-hand experience. But make sure to complete thorough research first. Good fiction reflects reality. No one wants the story to sound unbelievable, or worse, offend your readers.

Complete extra thorough research

The most important thing to understand in writing a character with a traumatic backstory is representing them accurately. Even if you have no experience with the issue, you can learn from real life.

Research how people react to traumatic events, particularly the type of trauma you include. Is there a common reaction? How would your character react? What could come back to haunt them later?

Understand that your character, like most people with trauma, will struggle. They typically try to suppress hard-to-deal-with memories, thoughts, and emotions. Unresolved issues always find a way to resurface. Personal experience often affects life when we least expect it.

Write this into your story as a way to create believable characters, explain your character’s backstory, or initiate drama. True life events bring up old memories naturally. Show the characters processing their trauma and trying to resolve their issues. How do their brains connect the moment to reminders of the past?

Give your characters a backstory, but don’t let the traumatic event dictate their entire lives. Real people never want to be defined by a single thing that happened. The device is great for creating inner tension because it leads to conflict between characters (and an interesting storyline). Just don’t let it consume every aspect of the characters.

Layer emotions and mold realistic reactions. Give the characters inner desires. Show their motivations through internal dialogue or external choices. End the story with growth.

Take a tip from psychology

You don’t have to be a psychologist. But you do need to research how these people may react. Psychology is insanely helpful here.

Dive deep to learn how people are triggered by emotions like frustration, fear, guilt, self-doubt, loss, hopelessness, powerlessness, denial, depression, loathing, and anger. Explore how emotion becomes character motivation. Layer these emotions with primary characteristics to express the loss, anxiety, and trauma with readers.

Psychological symptoms, like emotions, are signals to your readers, letting them know the character is reliving past trauma. Look at what symptoms a person who went through a similar event in real life would exhibit. Do they dissociate, throw themselves into drugs or alcohol, or participate in risky behavior? How do they cope with harsh memories?

The most likely reactions include fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. These survival instincts show up in day-to-day

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