Writing about Therapy Sessions

therapy

Writing about Therapy Sessions

What can I say? Writers, while not necessarily crazy (sorry, with mental health issues), nonetheless seem to be not infrequent users of therapy in various forms. And there is the whole write-what-you-know thing. So, sooner or later, we try to depict a therapy session.

And it almost always falls flat.

Not because you are a crummy writer but because of the nature of therapy. As those of us who have addressed our problems this way know, it is iterative, repetitive and slow process which takes a long time to get results. All things anathema to story.

So, if you try to truly reflect conversation in a session, you’re likely to get a boring, going nowhere mess which contributes little to the story.

How about speeding things up?

One option is, of course, to telescope the process in the novel. This compression in other areas is often quite justifiable to maintain the momentum of the story. So, the main character is completely open to all the suggestions made by the counsellor, integrates the learning with lightning speed, and is back on the right track in no time. She goes from mistrusting the world to complete and utter belief in the innate goodness of humanity.

First of all, sucky tale. You’ve removed all the struggles and conflict that makes a narrative hum. But more importantly for our purposes, completely unrealistic. Because we know in our own lives, with or without guidance, change doesn’t happen that way. Change is iterative, repetitive and slow.

How to avoid writing therapist scenes

Despite this, the insights that come with therapy may be pivotal to your plot. So how do you write about it without writing about it?

First, you probably need a scene establishing that your protagonist is seeing a therapist. But it might be the first session, where the main character illustrates the real reason she is embarking on this process. She thinks it’s because her family is so difficult but her defensiveness and the sharp tongued way she communicates cues the reader that there are other issues. Tricky to write, but if done well, it provides the reader with important information early on.

From there forward, the therapist might not figure prominently at all. But the main character might recall something learned in therapy which she applies to the present point in the plot. You might even be able to get away with a short—very short—scene where the protagonist comes to a significant revelation which we then see her applying it to refocusing her actions and life.

So you might be able to get the juice out of these sessions without having to do all the peeling, pitting, and dissecting which actually occurs.

If you must write about therapy

It is possible that your plot is integrally tied to depicting therapy sessions.

The only thing I have ever seen which did this effectively was an originally Israeli series, adapted to North American audience called In Treatment. In it, a therapist treated four different patients. And it works. Even though the whole series takes place inside the therapist’s office and the patients are just basically telling the therapist their stories.

So, if you must, you would do well to study why this tell-not-show approach works. If it’s the acting or direction, then you’re sunk. If it is the extremely clever writing (and I suspect it is), study how the writers made it work. Unless of course, it’s just bloody magic.

Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

orwell

Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

So you know George Orwell’s famous novels like Animal Farm and 1984. In addition, he set down Six Rules for Writing which are:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

All good advice but I want to focus on two of them: #2 in this post and #3 in the next.  The action called for is self-evident but writers don’t always seem to understand the logic behind them. And because the reasoning isn’t obvious, it may not be clear why they embody such wisdom and are so worth following.

Rule 2: Never use a long word where a short one will do.

On the surface, it’s hard to imagine why it matters. Long words abound. Politicians can use them to cloud the issue. I would never obfuscate on such a monumentally portentous issue.  But medical people can use them for precision. It involves the integumentary system. Sports use terms particular to their activity. Wow, that guy just got posterized.

But generally, although long words might delight the writer’s instinct for the new and different, most readers are not fascinated with the words themselves but more focused on the unfolding story.

Here’s an example and an alternative.

Example—meandered

She meandered through the forest, her ambulatory exercise freeing her mind to address the shattering decisions preying on her psyche.

Applying rule 2 to the example

Walking through the forest freed her mind up to think about the decisions worrying her.

Discussion

I know the first sentence is over the top but it’s possible that the second sentence might feel as if it lacks drama or even interest. You might be right. However, if you look carefully, the drama in the first example, such as it is, comes from the writer telling you how to feel about the heroine’s issues (shattering, preying).

In the revamp we know the heroine is worried, but we’re not directed by the writer on how to feel about it. Presumably, he’ll show us what’s worrying her and we can decide ourselves how shattering and predatory the issues are.

So, you don’t need to, nor should you, have one sentence do all the work or all the reader’s thinking. Plain, short words present the action in a clear and understandable way. It’s up to you to build them into a compelling story.

Situations where Orwell’s rule 2 might not apply

Sometimes, the longer word is preferable because of its precision. Take the word disingenuous. Other, shorter, words—like dishonest—might be similar but ‘disingenuous’ has the particular implication of being deceitful knowingly. It is built into the word. A person might be dishonest without realizing it—from lack of knowledge, etc. Using ‘disingenuous’ removes that possibility.

So, use a longer word to capture accuracy. However, and especially if it’s an esoteric long word, don’t pack it closely together with others of the same ilk.

In short, long words if needed but not as a way to show off how learned you are (which I know you are).

Next post: Rule Three: Cutting out words.

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From the General to the Specific

specific

From the General to the Specific

Let’s talk specific rather than general. It’s very common for writers to pen something like:

Jen was very bossy. She was always telling her co-workers what to do. Even with her family, nothing got done unless she okayed it.

Not the end of the world as writing goes, either good or bad. But weak, I think. First of all, it has the air of telling the reader what to think about the character (which is bossy in and of itself) and no, following it up with corroborative examples from the office and home don’t make it less tell.

Now, if Jen is a very minor character, then I’d let it go. You presumably want Jen for some limited purpose which, once achieved, she will drop off the literary cliff into oblivion. If that’s the case, the example paragraph might work.

But if she is more major, then starting off with this sort of general descriptor doesn’t work as well.

Specific first

Let’s do the scene again.

“No, not there.” Jen moved the vase to the edge of the table.

“But it might tip over,” Clark objected.

“Nonsense. It balances things much better.”

“But I want Lilly to see them as soon as she comes in.”

“She can see them fine from here,” Jen held the vase firmly in place.

So, here we see Jen do something specific. The word ‘bossy’ doesn’t get mentioned but we get the message. And in a way which is more vivid and therefore more likely to stick in the readers’ mind.

This specific approach has other advantages. It allows the reader to come to his own conclusion about Jen’s personality and the act of doing so involves and commits him more to your story. You allow him to make an emotional investment in the character.

This applies in many places

This specific first approach works in many venues. Here are a couple of examples.

General Specific
The mountains were beautiful One peak, the tallest, had caught the sun on its tip and was holding it there, balanced, as if a daily trophy.
The man was old His hands. Not claws exactly. But not not. He shuffled over to pick up the glass.

Again, don’t need to do this for absolutely everything. But if there are points which you’d like the reader to remember, go with a specific example from which the reader can generalize to the conclusion you’re aiming for.

Do I hear, “Doesn’t this take longer?”

Yes, the old bugaboo. It does take longer to write and takes more work. But is your aim to write the fastest and easiest piece of literature known to man (sic)? Of course not. That’s writing jingles. Instead, you want to use every trick you can to engage the reader so that no matter how long you take, he is with you all the way.

Foreshadowing

foreshadowing

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is a literary technique used to allow writers to hint at an event which is in the offing. It has gotten a bad name and for good reason. It is often done clumsily and as a substitute for a good story. An example:

Mary entered the ballroom. It was all shine and glass. Suddenly, she heard a large clap behind her. She whirled. The floor to ceiling mirror had a large crack. And as if in slow motion, the pieces loosened from the frame and toppled to the ground. “I have a bad feeling about this,” she thought.

Okay, so I went for the clichés. But there are plenty others. Stormy weather to denote disturbance in the characters’ world. Ravens or crows abounding doom. Spilled wine presages flowing blood. A shattered mirror portents the destruction of a life, a hope, an idyll. Or even, as in the piece above, a character saying, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

The intent of all of these is to signal to the reader that something BIG is coming.

Foreshadowing versus building tension

The reason I don’t favor foreshadowing much is that I think writers can sometimes use it as a proxy. Instead of putting the time and effort into building tension in a story, they figuratively and sometimes literally tell the reader, oh, this is going to get exciting, oh, you’re going to be so surprised, look at how tense things are getting. It’s sort of a tell in that the writer isn’t necessarily constructing a plot which builds and builds tension so the reader can decide herself when she’s excited, surprised, or tense. Instead, the writer signals the expected response. Let’s try the Mary-ballroom thing again.

Mary entered the ballroom, checking to make sure she was alone. She sauntered down the large space, noting the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and the sunshine bouncing off the highly polished floors. “Like a downmarket Versailles,” she thought. And then she smiled.

Obviously, you need more than a couple of lines to build good, rip-roaring tension. But in this segment, there are possible clues in Mary’s actions. She makes sure that she’s alone which might suggest furtiveness but then she sauntered in the room which is more associated with being carefree. And what was it with the thought about downmarket and the smile? Why did she do that?

You can build tension through the character’s actions rather than tired old tropes.

Good foretelling

I don’t want to suggest that foreshadowing is never appropriate. But it needs to be subtle, perhaps so subtle that the reader, at most, takes it in unconsciously. Then it can be quite effective. The novelist Carol Shields advocates the use of foreshadowing so that “when the denouement arrives, it will both surprise and satisfy some level of expectation[1].” When used well, it can contribute to the reader’s feeling that the ending was the ‘right’ one.

So, when/if you use foreshadowing, apply with a light hand. Leave the hammers for stories that start out with It was a dark and stormy night.

[1] Shields, Carol, Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing Random House, Canada, 2006

Establishing a Character Trait

trait

Establishing a Character Trait

This might be another fiction is not life post in that what you do on the page, might not be what happens in real life. You want to provide your lead character (let’s call her Dani) with a trait, either positive or problematic, to create a rounded character. Say Dani is shy.

In real life, and over an extended period of time, you’d probably notice various actions—not talking much, avoiding social gatherings, spending a lot of time alone—which would lead you to conclude that Dani is shy.

But in fiction, if this shyness figures significantly in the plot, you need to establish this fairly early on in a way that sticks in the reader’s mind. Then you can build your story with that understanding firmly entrenched and avoid the reader being confused by what might seem like Dani’s puzzling or at least unexplained behavior.

Just a note—in this post, I am talking about a characteristic on which you might be building as part of your plot. It is NOT the character trait or flaw which you spend the entire novel unfolding so that the climax is partly the reveal of the presence or absence of the attribute.

All right, so it’s hard to think of a climax whose conclusion includes, “Oh, she’s shy. Now I get it.” But it makes more sense if we’re talking courage, self-sacrifice, selfishness, etc. The subject of this post is the quality (e.g. shyness) you want to nail down early on to support/mitigate/excuse/contextualize the final conclusion on the heroine’s personality.

Building a Character Trait

You already know that having somebody say of Dani, “Gosh she’s shy,” is tantamount to tell in quotes. Efficient but not effective. If you want this to stick in the reader’s mind, it needs to be more than a passing comment.

If you can, and it fits well into the plot, you might have a scene where Dani shows her shyness in a way which is memorable, probably because it embarrasses her or puts her in an awkward position. She might be asked a question whose answer she flubs, to the merriment of those listening and to her humiliation. Whatever fits into the plot.

Having established this fairly early on, you can even give the reader the pleasurable sensation of being in the know. Every time Dani is faced with a potentially difficult situation, the reader knows how she’s likely to react.

In addition, doing an establishing scene fairly early on means you just need to drop reminders of the trait occasionally without elaborate explanation.

Evolving a characteristic

Sometimes, it’s enough for your plot that you have shown that Dani is shy and she stays that way for the rest of the novel.

Other times, however, you might need the trait to progress because it helps the story. For example, Dani may need to overcome her shyness in order to help the climax, whatever it is, to come to fruition.

If this is the case, you can’t go from church mouse at the beginning to roaring lion at the end. It’s going to be jarring and not all that credible. Instead, in the reminders suggested above, you might consciously build in small steps of bravery which make the final fearlessness both believable and satisfying.

See what I mean? In real life, Dani’s road to courage would be haphazard, two steps forward, one back, and even long periods in hiatus. In fiction, it is a more linear progression. That is a writer’s reality.