This one is for my writing students. But aren’t we all students of writing? Don’t we all want to write well so that we can communicate clearly and be understood—whether we’re dashing off a text, composing an important email, or pouring our hearts out in a love letter?
Writers often do a lot of research to help inform their work, but you can’t just dump a bunch of expository material into your prose, unless you want to put your reader to sleep. This is especially true for fiction writers. You’ve got to keep the story moving. One way to get technical material into the flow of the narrative is to embed it into a scene and through dialog.
I had to do this in In Flight. The protagonist, Robert Besch, had suffered a dissociative fugue after surviving a plane crash. But how to explain a severe mental disorder without getting dry and technical?
Here’s part of a scene where Robert and his wife, Sasha, are in consultation with a psychiatrist, Dr. Shaw.
. . . He started right in with his diagnosis: Robert most likely had suffered from a type of identity disorder known as dissociative fugue, which was a form of amnesia characterized by temporary loss of your identity and unplanned travel or wandering without apparent purpose. It was a very rare but not unheard-of affliction. Typically triggered by extreme stress or emotional trauma. While in the throes of this dissociative fugue, Robert “forgot” who he was (husband, father, business executive, Westchester resident) in order to escape a stressful or fearful situation. “So it wasn’t the concussion that caused his disappearance?” Sasha asked. Shaw said that while the concussion could have been a contributing factor, it wasn’t severe enough in itself to have been the primary cause of the dissociative fugue, which by definition had an emotional, not a physical stressor. “In your case, Mr. Besch, the plane crash—undoubtedly a catastrophic physical event—triggers an emotional response, such as fear, which the mind is unable to bear and attempts to escape from.” Shaw paused to let this news sink in. No one spoke. The only sound came from the burbling filter on an aquarium in the corner of his office. It was a small tank stocked with unremarkable goldfish, fake plants, and multicolored coral rocks. . . . “It’s a lot to take in,” Shaw said. “Let me try to explain a bit more about the fear element associated with dissociative fugue.” Shaw spoke more slowly now, as if to children. He pointed out that fugue means “flight” or “to flee.” There could be other emotional stressors that Robert was fleeing from—unconscious fears possibly. We all have them. It’s human nature—but if you consider the timing, if you examine the facts, the logical conclusion is that the emotional trauma of a plane crash in which people were injured and died caused a reaction of unbearable fear, and the attempt to escape this fear most likely triggered the dissociative fugue, which Robert emerged from only when the police knocked on the hotel room door where he was staying. Robert spoke up. “Unconscious fears and . . . Come on. You just said it yourself—the plane crash is what led to this.” He faced Sasha. “You weren’t there. You don’t know. It was terrifying.” Sasha squeezed Robert’s hand in both of hers. His palm was damp and warm despite the room being chilly and dry from the air-conditioning. Dr. Shaw nodded knowingly. “I can recommend a number of strategies that may be of help to you. My first and most important recommendation is to seek out psychological counseling. It’s the most effective way of dealing with trauma. You’ll likely never remember what took place during your dissociative fugue. There’s even the possibility of forming false memories. A therapist or psychiatrist can help you work through these adversities. And it’s not uncommon to suffer from guilt, shame, and confusion in the aftermath. You might also keep a daily journal of your thoughts and activities and carry it with you. Or even a voice recorder. This can help you stay grounded in the moment and be more confident of your identity.” “I know who I am,” Robert said defensively. “I understand,” said Shaw. “I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. But if I may add something on the philosophical side?” Please don’t. “It was Socrates who said the unexamined life is not worth living. You might come to feel you owe it to yourself to explore the root causes of this disorder.”
Was I able to explain a dissociative fugue while keeping the reader engaged? You really can’t answer unless you’ve read the whole novel. So if you haven’t yet, you can get your copy of In Flight right here.