Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 31: Tragedy

Tragedy. It’s just TRAGIC. Tragedy is also one of the classical forms that writers need to know how to work within. Why? Well… because the Greeks thought we should be forced to have strong emotional responses to literature.

Writing Prompt: Write a delightful story about happy, cheerful anthropomorphic creatures who all die horribly.

This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by Audible. Visit http://AudiblePodcast.com/excuse for a free trial membership*.

*Note: From the Audible website, here are the terms of the free membership. Read the fine print, please!

Audible® Free Trial Details
Get your first 14 days of the AudibleListener® Gold membership plan free, which includes one audiobook credit. After your 14 day trial, your membership will renew each month for just $14.95 per month so you can continue to receive one audiobook credit per month plus members-only discounts on all audio purchases. A very small number of titles are more than one credit. Cancel your membership before your free trial period is up and you will not be charged. Thereafter, cancel anytime, effective the next billing cycle. Any unused audiobook credits will be lost at cancellation.


30 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 31: Tragedy”

  1. Very nice podcast. I agree, GRRM does a great job at using the tragic flaw. I’ll make sure to make good use of it in my writings. Maybe I’ll throw some happy, innocent animals being slaughtered somewhere in there. What’s a good tragic flaw for a bunny? Excessive cuteness?

  2. I don’t think you need to worry about spoiling Dr Horrible. Even aside from the fact that everybody’s who’s going to see it has probably seen it by now, anybody who has ever heard of Joss Whedon probably knows it won’t end well. =P

  3. My favorite tragedy is perhaps Shakespeare’s King Lear. I really wonder though if a story like that can really be a top-seller nowadays. I know there’s lots of books out there that don’t have happy endings, but it seems to me these are categorized more as “artsy literature.” I think most readers at least don’t want main characters that are so flawed that they won’t be able to root for them… Perhaps some balance just needs to be found in order to make the tragic story remain enjoyable? Even King Lear had its comic moments, after all, and was to some degree the protagonist was sympathetic despite much of his troubles being his own doing.
    At the very least I hope to keep my characters from getting too “emo,” or melodramatic. I think too much tragedy all at once could come off as silly if not handled right.

  4. Great Stuff! I think I’ve been wanting to put tragic arcs into some of my writing, without even knowing what I’m doing.

    Would you say that 3:10 to Yuma also has a sympathetic villain?

    And Dr Horrible was amazing! I think Brandon described it best.

    Not to say that Dan was wrong about video games, since it still applies to them in general, but I do have an example of a video game that is just one tragedy after another: Mother 3 (which unfortunately wasn’t released outside Japan.) It’s not widely known outside of super-geek circles, though.

  5. With video games there is so much time invested by the player into “winning” the game that if it ends tragically for the player-character then the majority of players won’t be satisfied with the game. Gamers want to be empowered and accomplish something and if their player-character is done in by a tragic flaw they’ll feel that they lost. They’ll feel betrayed even. Unfortunately, this limits the scope of videogame plots to some degree. I had a story line for a tragi-commedy video game and my story got shot down by my design team because they didn’t want a game where the main character has to die to win the game (nevermind that it was a funny tragic ending).

    I know that there are some developers who are experimenting with more so-called “adult” games that may branch into tragedy but your average North American gamer won’t accept a videogame that is tragic because it feels like you don’t “win”.

    It all has to do with understanding the needs of your audience and the limits of the medium you’re working within. I think it is possible to make a successful tragic videogame for the right audience but it would have to be handled by an adept team who could craft a strong story with enough of a reward for the player that they would feel they achieved something by playing the game.

    That’s not to say you can’t have tragic arcs in video games. Final Fantasy 7’s Aeris anyone?

    I think that for any medium understanding your audience is a major key to creating a successful tragedy. Like the guys said – tragedy is about an emotional response. To make it work you have to understand the audience well enough to manipulate their emotions.

    Oh, and thanks again guys for covering tragedy – one of the few topic requests I’ve made and you handled it well.

  6. Thanks guys, another enjoyable and educational podcast. I continue to keep learning and honing my skill as a writer and thanks in large part to you guys, I believe I am beginning to understand what it is that I am trying to do.

    Tragedy is an important element to learn how to use properly, like perhaps taking your cute cheerful little anthropomorphic creatures and killing them off one at a time so the reader remains hopeful that by the end of the book at least one of them will live. That puts the writer in a position of power, does the last one live? Or does it end up like “Romeo and Julio A Gay Tragedy”. It’s up to the writer to read many of books that contain different degrees of tragedy in order to get a feel of just how much pain readers can handle and then try to stay just below the threshold.

    Personally for me, the biggest tragedy will be the day Writing Excuses calls it quits.

  7. Personally for me, the biggest tragedy will be the day Writing Excuses calls it quits.

    I’m hoping that when we do that we’ll manage to pull off “Surprising yet Inevitable.”

  8. This comment is really off topic unless you consider it a tragedy that I have little interest in the genres written by our witty podcasters. This is my second comment but likely the first read by most of you. I left a comment at the end of podcast 28 (series 3). I hope some will go back to it and read it (and respond to it). (As of this posting Matthew Whitehead has noticed it and responded.) I put it there two weeks after the podcast because that is when I got to that podcast and that is where it fit.

    Most of my reading is not fiction because I am a v-e-r-y s-l-o-w reader and much of my reading time is spent trying to support my non-fiction writing. I have read Brave New World, Animal Farm, 1984 , and the Harry Potter series (and seen all the HP movies). A long time ago I attempted to read some Stephen King but could not get into it. I did, recently, read Cujo. Also, I could never get into the Lord of the Rings. Most of what you talk about on the podcast I have not read (or seen). Star Trek and Star Wars never appealed to me although I’ve seen some of them. Once I start a book (or movie), I will finish it 95% of the time. What I am trying to say here is horror, sci-fi and fantasy are not my preferred forms of fiction but I usually enjoy them if I get started.

    My hope to get published someday is the primary reason I listen to these podcasts. I probably would not choose this source for my education if the podcasts weren’t so entertaining – but you guys are funny. Also, while you mostly speak in terms of your own genres, much of your information will help any aspiring writer.

    I love good humor and hope to find that in some of your writing. With that in mind, I would like to read at least some of what each of you podcasters have written. Brandon and Howard: could each of you recommend what I should read of yours to get started with. With you, Dan, I know my choices are limited unless you have something available other than I am Not a Serial Killer.


  9. Derby- As a fan of Brandon’s works, I’d reccomend either his “Mistborn” Trillogy: 1. Mistborn: The Final Empire 2.The Well of Ascention 3. The Hero of Ages or, if you appreciate good humor, his Alcatraz Smedry series which is a lampooning (good naturedly so) of both Harry Potter and “The Davinci Code” (IMO- In My Opinion). Also, Howard’s Schlock Mercenary web comic is funny, but you would need to suspend some major belief as it pokes fun at things like “Star Trek” and those ensemble-type military SF stories and movies.
    It does have a wonderfully snarky sense of humor.

    Take it from a full-fledged geek- you can’t go wrong with the podcast OR the things being written by these guys! (End of Shameless Plug)

  10. This podcast was pretty timely as I just read a book today that’s essentially a tragedy. It’s a novella by Doris Lessing called The Fifth Child, in which a young couple decide they want a large family. It all goes well for a while, they have four nice children. The extended family is close, everyone is happy. Others advise them to at least wait before having more children, maybe don’t have any more at all, four is a big family in this day and age. But they do have another child, the eponymous fifth child, and he’s not normal.

    The story has a touch of horror about it. The boy is maybe some kind of throwback, he’s described as a troll, a goblin, a changeling etc. But essentially, it’s a tragedy, as the problems the boy brings end up destroying the family, alienating the other children until they are eventually living with other relatives, breaking down the marriage. So by pursuing their dream of having a large family, they end up actually destroying that family.

    That seems like the best kind of tragedy to me, where the characters sow the seeds of their own destruction, even with the very best of intentions. They don’t have to have a “tragic flaw” as such. I don’t even tend to think in terms of characters having flaws and virtues but rather traits and tendencies that can have upsides and downsides.

  11. Listening to the past three podcasts consecutively, I was reminded about the podcast about non-linear storylines. In the podcast about unreliable narrators, somebody mentioned that the one about tragedy would be the next week, and in this one, it was stated that the one about antiheroes was a few weeks ago.

    Sorry for being so critical. I just found it humorous.

  12. Ah, I wish someone hadn’t mentioned Mother 3. That video game always makes me want to cry (in a good way).

    Aside from the aforementioned, my favorite tragedy is probably Shakespeare’s Othello. And I find that the most tragic figure in the whole play is the villain, Iago. His plans are so brilliant, you almost want them to succeed. But in the end, he’s made everyone else miserable (which was part of his plan), but he hasn’t made himself happy, either.

    My least favorite tragedy is probably the Hitchhiker’s Guide series (the books, not the radio or TV series). You get to the end of the last book and (spoiler alert) the good guys all die, the bad guys win, and their triumph is so absolute that there is really no pathos or silver lining or lesson learned at all.

  13. For tragedy, I have to go with anything written by Thomas Hardy, but especially Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge. Two of my favorite novels of all time, precisely because of the catharsis of the ending.

    On a timely note, I just finished A Farewell to Arms this morning before listening to the podcast. I have to agree that i love tragic endings; perhaps it is that disturbed part of our nature that makes us look at horrible wrecks, but I generally like anything that leads, inevitably, towards a conclusion that all along you are hoping will not happen. It wrenches your gut right out. That particularl stillness you find after turning the last page of a tragedy is one of my favorite feelings.

  14. That seems like the best kind of tragedy to me, where the characters sow the seeds of their own destruction, even with the very best of intentions. They don’t have to have a “tragic flaw” as such. I don’t even tend to think in terms of characters having flaws and virtues but rather traits and tendencies that can have upsides and downsides.

    You could make a case that they’re (thematically) inviting the Beast into their house, but that’s probably getting into something far separate from tragedy in which we end up talking about things like Orson Scott Card’s heirarchy of foreignness, and what constitutes a monster vs what constitutes a person. And even beyond that there’s the question of what constitutes a person vs. what constitutes a human being. Maybe worthy of a later podcast? *shrug*

  15. For all the potential problems with frustrating the players, I do think that video games offer a very interesting way to present tragedy. In a book or movie you are forced to watch or read tragic events unfold, while you watch helpless on the sidelines. In a video game you can be forced to enact these events themselves, which I personally think is a wonderful way to get an emotional response. Most games won’t do this, of course, they’ll leave the tragedy to cutscenes if it’s really there at all (Not saying this is bad). The biggest problem is that this suspends choice, which is one of the things often expected in a video game, and this can frustrate players. That, or it completely disconnects players from the story or the character they are playing as(which in some cases can also be a good thing).

    I personally love the Prince of Persia game released last year (If anyone bothering to read this has wanted to play this game, I am attempting not to spoil anything, but be advised) because I thought it managed a tragic ending fairly well (I suppose someone could contest my definition of “tragic”, but it certainly wasn’t a happy ending). Many other people hated it because they didn’t think the same thing (often among other reasons). It’s just interesting because the only way to truly complete the game is to…well, I can’t really say with out spoiling it, but your only other option is to turn the game off. This article:
    goes into depth about it and has some interesting points for consideration, the last page in particular. I’d recommend having played the game before reading though, unless you really don’t intend to.

    The creators are technically cheating though, because it was heavily implied that there would be a sequel and that there was some hope. Though at this point there seems to be a chance that there will not be a sequel to this particular story-line…

    Having played the Lord of the Rings video game though, I would have to agree that they do not handle it as well as the book.

  16. Just to ramble on the subject for a moment, while a friend of mine loves fantasy, she will not read anything with a potentially unhappy ending. I find this horrible as I am a firm believer that tragedy is more important than “comedy.” One of the bits of stuff that is likely true, as proven by some study that I’ve only really heard about, that I like to bring up is that people are reportedly more violent after seeing happy movies as opposed to sad movies. I’m sure there are various different reasons for this but one of the most important things about fiction is that it allows one to identify with other people and broaden your understanding and sympathy for other people. To me, happy stories only reinforce a separateness, as it affirms the both the reader’s and the character’s lives while tragedy calls for something else, something more. Once children have reached an appropriate age of development to be able to handle tragedies (my first was Where the Red Fern Grows in 6th grade), they are the books that change lives. Tragedies are the books that make you think, make you listen, and make you long for the world that could be completely happy, but like real life almost never is.

    Perhaps that’s why the tragic ending is predictable- it’s the way things turn out a lot of the time, as we live in a world filled with many natural and human cruelties. Because it’s “real,” tragedy is also hateable. I love King Arthur and I dread watching as his perfect world of chivalry dissolves into anarchy and strife but I will read it over and over, crying every single time. However, it also makes me hope that if people can understand the downfalls, maybe we can also work to overcome them and make a world of peace.

    So seed freely tragedy (fictionally only please) and best wishes for a _Happy_ New Year on Earth.

  17. Did anyone ever play Portal? I never recovered from what GLaDOS made me do to my friend, the Weighted Companion Cube… That was truly tragic.

  18. This one went by entirely to fast. I wanted another ten minutes at least. Oh well. I guess brevity is the soul of wit, so I must be witless.

  19. At Mike: Per your advice I have ordered the Alcatraz series by Brandon and have started reading Scholck Mercenary (from somewhere in 2003) by Howard.

    Soon I will order Dan’s “I am Not A Serial Killer.”

    As far as your ‘shameless plug,’ I think it was more like accurate reporting.


  20. Ah, yes, the companion cube. That loss was very tragic, LoL. Quite an interesting game, Portal. We played through almost the entire thing in my game design class and I think the level with the companion cube was the best thing :D

  21. The comment that really hit me in this podcast was when Dan mentioned that the Lord of the Rings had several characters with tragic arcs. With all of the classical training I have had, I never made that connection until Dan mentioned it, and so many things clicked into place.

    I think it is great that LotR has so many characters with tragic arcs, and so many with comedic arcs. That is what made LotR such a rich experience for me. Though you never really expect your favorite characters to die, you do know that anyone can fail, and that failure is worse than death.

    When I think to my favorite books and movies, I realize that they all have tragic and comedic characters. These books have an extreme emotional impact on me because they are targeting every emotion that I have, and they are connecting with every aspect of my personality.

    An example, I recently watched Up for the first time. That is a book with both comedic and tragic arcs, and I really connected with it. It made me cry, and it made me laugh. The characters felt round because they all had comedic and tragic arcs.

    In any case, thanks Dan for your comment, because it really opened my eyes.

  22. I’m sorry, but I have to add…

    The fate of my Weighted Companion Cube scarred me as well.

    I don’t usually go for tragedy myself, but generally because I don’t enjoy the prevalent cliches that tend to accompany them, as well as the pacing which I find difficult to read through.

    Which is a tragedy in and of itself, since I do enjoy a tragic story arc with my fantasy.

    My favourite tragedy is in Where the Red Fern Grows. I first read it when I was 11 and I still have to stop myself from crying whenever I read it, even knowing how it ends. Perhaps not the best written, but I get so into the story and the fates of Big Dan & Little Ann that I can’t stop myself from reading it.

    It’s also a tragedy that this book gets so little notice… I had an English teacher in High School who had never heard of it.

  23. I was just thinking – why do we see so many more tragic (or at least only classically comic) stories in awards areas? I’ve always just put it down to True Art Is Angsty, but it occurs to me that the trope itself may have another source. If a story has a happy ending, it’s easier to like. But if we like a story despite the fact that it ripped our hearts out, it MUST be good. So because there’s a clearer divide between good and bad with tragedy, we find it easier to call tragedy “good”.

    I dislike trying to reduce modern stories to classical tragedy or comedy, though. Greek plays tended to be quite short, and could generally be classified according to their endings. Longer works – well, I’m remembering how Up broke my heart a thousand times before its happy ending, with tragedy and comedy both. I think there’s a reason Aristotle had a separate category for “epic”. Longer works defy simple categorization.

  24. What does it say about me that I was okay with sacrificing the weighted companion cube, but wept to learn the cake was a lie?

  25. Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.– Mel Brooks.

  26. omg …. Rand is going to fail ….

    but who is going to carry through?

    Wait … then again, Rand has gone through a transformation. He pulled away from his frodoesque leanings…

    Rand is going to succeed.

    The world is right again.

  27. So what about if you write a story about completele hopelessness, will adding hopeful story arcs give a story more texture?

Comments are closed.