How to Avoid Hurting Readers When You’re Trying to Help Them Heal

July 21, 2022

Editor’s Note: This is the third part of our series exploring the merits of Coral by Sara Ella. You can read the first installment here. Beware that this article and its companions will contain spoilers.


As a Christian storyteller, trauma scares me. I want to touch readers and leave them with more hope than they carried in. My concern makes me hyperconscious of how they might respond to unsettling content, and I’m tempted to cushion gore and grit.


But pain is the rudder of a story. Without it, characters can’t move. A hero needs ghosts to conquer or he’ll never reach the climax. This obligation traps writers between the instinct to shelter readers from waves of unpleasant emotions and the urge to take them on a voyage that will challenge them.


Coral reveals a solution to that tension. Sara Ella’s reimagining of The Little Mermaid swims through the murky, treacherous waters of depression and suicide with a spirit of love instead of fear. Ignoring heartbreak severs the bond that all humans share and doesn’t offer readers any examples of how to cope. Safely addressing it, however, requires an awareness of how and when harrowing memories could intensify the visceral experience of a story.


The Danger of Harming Readers

As studies on mental health have expanded, authors have become more cautious about descriptions of abuse, grief, addiction, and other ordeals. Every reader has a threshold, and when a scene crosses it, she can no longer process the story separately from her own problems. For instance, if her negligence recently caused a car accident that paralyzed her best friend, guilt will warp her impressions of a character who survives a wreck.


As I emphasized in my introduction, though, deletion is not the answer. In Coral, both protagonists face a loved one’s suicide. Although Sara Ella doesn’t include any play-by-plays of the deaths, Merrick does stumble upon Hope after one of her self-harm attempts, and Brooke waits for her in the hospital after another. Panic attacks strike, family members reject each other, and recovery necessitates an extended stay at a therapeutic boarding school. If Sara had skipped over these moments, readers wouldn’t have understood the stress the characters wade through or the growth that arises from it.


The difference between a poignant and a triggering portrayal of trauma is not the framing or the amount of detail. It’s the mindset of the author—and the reader. You can’t possibly foresee everything that might upset someone (you need to lay that in God’s hands!), but you can practice wisdom in three areas.


1. Don’t Choose a Topic Because It’s Urgent

When you start to fret about collateral damage, you probably examine your scenes and weigh which portions are essential and which ones signal you’ve gone too far. But evaluating the visual components without considering your overall knowledge of the subject reduces the effectiveness of your edits.


Perhaps you’re writing about domestic abuse. If you fade all the violence to black but end the novel with the victim converting her abuser, your discreetness won’t matter because you’ve pointed readers to the wrong answer. The notion that an abuser will change with enough prayer and cajoling is a lie that imprisons women and children in potentially life-threatening circumstances. Ignorance can be as harmful as exposing readers to graphic debauchery. The more unfamiliar you are with a topic, the less trustworthy your judgment about how to represent it will be.


Before Sara Ella published Coral, she consulted multiple sources about mental illness. Her note to readers explains that she invested in research and listened to testimonies of individuals who have traveled through similar turmoil. She didn’t base her characters and their hardships on her perceptions alone. But she didn’t approach the story detachedly either. Her personal encounters with depression, loss, and anxiety informed her ideas and made her passionate about the project.


If you feel called to tackle a complicated issue, the accessibility of information can be a relief. But before you raid your library and the internet for commentary on abortion, identity politics, or the drug pandemic, remember that your own experiences are valuable too. In your desire to bring peace to a chaotic world, you might assume that news headlines dictate which tragedies and controversies are relevant. The truth, however, is that thousands of people fight unseen demons every day, and when you draw attention to those conflicts, you’ll inspire both courage and empathy. God has instilled you with a specific story to tell that will impact a specific type of reader, just like Sara Ella.


2. Set Appropriate Expectations

Coral presents readers with two opportunities to stop and consider whether they can handle what’s ahead. First, the blurb mentions a mermaid cursed with human emotions, a girl who relishes the numbness of sinking into the cool ocean, and a boy who believes that locating his absent mother will mend his dysfunctional family. Second, the note in the interior pages flashes a warning about suicide, abuse, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and unwanted sexual advances.


The first few chapters deliver on those promises: Coral’s older sister weeps in her bedroom because her father insists that she “get over” being jilted, Brooke has her first panic attack, and Merrick watches an ambulance carry away Hope. The current gently and steadily swells to push readers with low tolerance levels out of the story before they crash onto a shore they would rather not visit.


Although trigger warnings aren’t universally necessary, a story’s blurb and beginning chapters should prepare readers for the onslaught. Does a shooter threaten a school? Does a parent pass away from cancer? Does the cult the protagonist escaped from recapture her? Foreshadow disturbing events early on to reduce the shock factor.


Even if you hit all the right beats in the right order, though, you still can’t control readers’ reactions. Sometimes an action that seems innocuous, like shoveling snow or throwing a birthday party, might yank them into a nightmare they wish they could forget. Sara Ella packaged Coral with compassion, and then she let go. Your story isn’t meant for everyone, and straining it through filter after filter will only ensure that it never resonates with anyone.


3. Write to Open Eyes, Not to Repair Wounds

Warnings fulfill a goal that sane authors ordinarily wouldn’t pursue: convincing readers to shut a book. Although a few individuals appreciate being able to commiserate with a character, many others can’t bear to relive the trials they’re going through (or have gone through). A story about suffering may not reach the people in the trenches, but it often gifts outsiders with perspective.


I couldn’t relate to some of Brooke’s and Merrick’s troubles, but claiming their anguish had no effect would be false. Negative self-talk and the worry that no one cares reminded me of my own tendencies. Even though I’ve never wrestled with suicidal ideations, I formed a connection with the characters because Sara Ella dove headlong into a complex assortment of anxiety-centric issues that made me feel heard and understood. The result? I began to more consciously correct my own thought patterns.


The characters’ different socio-economic backgrounds and nationalities demonstrate that mental illness can afflict anyone, in any lifestyle, for any number of reasons. Brooke and Hope and Merrick teach us to be kind to everyone we meet, because we may never realize who’s silently drowning. Whether you’re depicting depression, natural disasters, or chronic disease, if you’ve coaxed one person to adjust his habits or extend mercy to others, your story has worth.


Your Stories, and Your Experiences, Have a Purpose

Stories are not meant to cure the world’s brokenness or replace therapy and medication. If you write with that burden on your shoulders, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Your role is to comfort, encourage, and recalibrate perspectives. You don’t need to provide all the answers.


When readers witness a character’s tribulations, it can dredge up unexpected truths about their own, identifying problems they weren’t aware of and incarnating vague emotions in a comprehensible form. And when the character finds peace, it can surprise readers with a catharsis that gives them hope for their own pain.


That, my friend, is why your life is so important. How God is growing you through His Word and His Holy Spirit can impact people struggling with today’s biggest challenges. God is in control of who your story helps, and when you listen to how He wants you to write it, you’ll put readers on a path to healing.


Return on Saturday when we interview Sara Ella about the lessons she learned while crafting Coral. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What are other measures Christian storytellers can take to show sensitivity toward readers?


1 Comment

  1. Candy

    I originally had a posible triiger scene as a flash back in my story but later on had it the first chapter then I had an editor suggested putting it in a flashback scene..lol 🤷‍♀️ But now you’re saying put it early on but the flashback scene may serve as a more gentle telling of the traumatic event if I curve the details as I have gone back and forth with myself about that..like how much detail to disclose and should I make it like a fade into the background kinda of scene where it’s just implied or have it as an attempt that wasn’t completely finished because it was interrupted but I also have a scene where it is attemped again but she’s saved by her future mate.


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