How To Write A Tragedy

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Tragedy is one of the oldest forms of literature, along with epic and lyric poetry. It was first invented by the ancient Greeks and has been studied and written about ever since. Tragedy is a very serious genre, as its goal is to move the audience to a profound sense of sorrow and fear. Tragedies often deal with characters of high status and involve a significant amount of suffering, usually followed by death.


Choose your genre wisely

While there are many kinds of tales a writer can tell, certain genres have higher risks of being labeled “tragedies” by someone who doesn’t enjoy reading them. If you’re planning on writing a tragedy, you’re going to want to choose your genre carefully. Political thrillers are going to be more difficult than light comedy to pull off. You’ll want to make sure you understand the conventions and expectations of your audience, in order to give them a moving and memorable experience. However, this is all subjective — although literary fiction narratives may be considered tragedies, their genres may vary widely, as do the experience of the readers.

The genre you choose is ultimately up to you. If you don’t know whether your tale can be a tragedy or not, have someone whose opinion you respect read your drafts and help you figure it out. Just be cautious — one of the more critical jobs of a writer must be their ability to identify and avoid their own sociological biases. This means you should consider not only how different groups of readers may or may not enjoy your work, but also samples of text from similar books. Often, when you are writing, you’ll focus less on the dramatic and more on the mundane. 

Focus on relationships of opposition

Broadly speaking, your main characters in a tragedy should be of the same type of person, distinguished by their attitude toward society for instance. Or they can be opposites of each other, but have the same goals. Though some tragedies have traditional villains —sometimes even foils to the author — most tragedies focus on the characters. Some examples of tragedies include Hamlet, Macbeth, and Things Fall Down, by Ngọc Diệu.

Tragedies concern themselves with very serious, very broad themes, like faith, justice, and feelings about society. This makes them especially well-suited for explorations of existential questions, or moral dilemmas. When writing a tragedy, consider the bias and prejudices of the characters that they bring with them to the story. Hamlet, for instance, begins with the legacy of a very popular play, the revenge cycle. The ghost that torments Hamlet is all about revenge, as is also most of the court. Think about the views about honor that Hamlet holds, and how they can set him up for conflict later, as he begins to doubt the ghost’s motivations. Do not make the mistake of thinking that tragedy is only applicable to dramas with sweeping, historical themes. Tragedy can actually be deeply moving when its characters only have a few years to live.

Write deliberately

Tragedies happen for one of two reasons. The inciting element could be internal, as in Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother, or external, as in Antigone, where Antigone defies the king. Regardless of the inciting cause, in order for your tragedy to be believable, your characters must have serious flaws that doom them to failure. Hamlet, for instance, has an unfortunate tendency to overthink things. Several times, he hesitates to a point of inaction and loses the opportunity to take action that could have saved his life. The inciting event kicks off everything that follows, but it is the flaw in the character’s sel

Otherwise, your main character might just seem somewhat out of luck. Take a long hard look at the antagonist in your tragedy, too. Is your main character’s flaw the primary conflict, or is it the villain’s sinister plan? Poor misfortunes can result from small choices, as in the case of Macbeth, but it’s the witches’ idea that gets the show running. Be sure to give your characters the agency that they need to live a great and tragic life. Focus on your characters and your plot by taking time to carefully consider what’s happening.

Build your antagonist

Of the foes that confront your protagonist in his or her tragic fall, the most critical will be your antagonist, who acts against him or her. Your antagonist need not be a person, but can be a character, an event, or something else entirely. Regardless of its nature, you’ll need to do quite a bit of work to bring out its negative character while also allowing the reader to know why it’s such a factor in your main character’s life. A great way to do this is to make sure that your protagonist is still sympathetic even if the action of your tragedy occurs as a result of pure revenge between two characters. This is a costly maneuver, however, so try not to involve too many characters in this exchange — and maybe create some sympathy on the other side, too.

The harder work you put into giving your antagonist a two-dimensional personality, the more interesting your tragedy will be. The anguish and conflict your main character experienced before his or her decision should mirror the emotion of the overall story. An excellent way to do this is to tell your main character’s story in alternating chapters. The luxury of telling the story from different perspectives allows the reader to understand the character better, helping the reader to experience the dramatic reversal along with your character. If you’re having trouble writing a tragedy, try writing your story as a commentary on an existing work. You could also try mixing genres — tragedy, for example, is often mixed in with crime fiction, often focusing on the conflict between murder or espionage, and the will of the main character to prevail.

Know your Tragic Flaw

The Greeks used the term hamartia, often translated as “tragic flaw,” to refer to the structural problem that makes tragedies so effective. In his Poetics, Aristotle defined this flaw as some sort of error in judgement on the part of the protagonist that ends up causing terrible suffering. In other words, a person’s misperception of reality leads them down the spiral of tragedy. In Oedipus, for example, Oedipus’s determination to discover the identity of the murderer of Laius causes him to refuse the oracle’s instruction. His failure to listen to the oracle leads to the need for the plague that afflicts Thebes, his downfall, and his death. Misunderstanding reality is the error, or tragic flaw, at the heart of the story.

The audience’s intuition tells them the mistake is coming, and they hope the protagonist avoids or wins through the error. Hamartia, then, is inseparable from the very structure of tragedy — but it depends on its audience recognizing, and agreeing with, the importance of that structure. The point of a character’s suffering is to teach them a lesson, or in simpler terms, cause and effect. Through a tragedy, the character can learn how to improve. If they don’t learn the lesson they are meant to, audiences agree — that’s not fair. King Lear, for example, doesn’t even try to learn from his mistakes, and ultimately does not deserve his suffering and death. So remember that dramatic irony defined by the knowledge of the audience — even if the audience doesn’t remember everything that will happen — cannot be changed if you want your tragedy to be “correct”.

Know exactly where the tragedy will occur

Tragedies often follow a protagonist who is of high status, likable, and even in some cases a tragic hero. By the third act, that protagonist will undergo a major reversal of their values, often a devastating tragedy, sometimes death. All of this set against a background of a tragic flaw. Use absolute strictness when constructing tragedy and adhere to each part in order to produce a high quality work. There are several things to keep in mind, such as the trial of misfortune and prediction of reversal in the end.

If you craft a tragedy carefully, the work will reflect the effort you put forth. You need to determine how you will structure the situation, what kind of pattern it will take, and how to reflect the outcome. One of the structures to consider is the Freytag’s Pyramid, the dramatic structure used in classical and Shakespearean tragedies. Once you are familiar with its five key acts, you can actively modify the shifts in narrative and story progress. Tragedies use exaggeration and spontaneity to portray the widest possible spectrum of a situation, in order to better show a philosophical picture through a physical picture. A tragedy can teach a selfish and unscrupulous lifestyle without glorifying or excusing it. This is what distinguishes tragedy from any other literary work.

Manipulate a sense of hopelessness

As with any tragedy, it all comes down to characters and emotions. Feelings like pity, fear, anger, sadness, or surprise can create a sense of dread that creates dramatic tension, which is essential if you want your story to land. Protagonists who are irrevocably damaged or flawed by their own actions can create a terror that makes audiences truly fear for their characters. Make your audience really care about your characters, and you’ll have an easier time manipulating the emotions that will bring your story to a profoundly tragic end.

 Uncovering new information can also drive the plot forward. Information that threatens the protagonist’s narrative can be particularly useful — scandals involving royal figures, new discoveries that shake people’s worldview, or tormenting coincidences can all raise the stakes and increase the tension, without necessarily being related to the tragedy itself. It’s also impossible to write a brilliant tragedy without vividly imagining all ranges of possibilities to put forth the scenarios that may lead to it. Always envision the “what ifs”, so that when you reach the climax of your story, you can make the most of all the possibilities.

Meet the fate worse than death

The difference between a tragedy and a mere disappointment in life is the extent of the misery and destruction. For a work to truly be tragic, it needs to push past the bounds of the human condition. Typically this means the suffering of one or more characters to the point of meaningful and moving tragedy. In a musical, for example, tragedy can be represented by the tragic death of a lead character. In life, that’s also true of the death of a child for a parent, or a partner for a lover. In a story, though, tragedy can be represented by anything from the death of a parent to the death of a thousand paper cuts for a character. You may also consider death something more personal than a particular character’s death — death of a certain situation, or even a change in mindset.

Because tragedy touches on the serious issues and themes that lend themselves to natural tragedy — death, grief, fear, joy, greed — it has at times been considered monstrous. If you’ve ever cried during a movie, or been shocked into silence when the theatre lights came up, then you’ve encountered the power of writing tragedy.As with most literature, the purpose of tragedy is to teach the audience through the experience of others. They discover what makes for a good and moral person and learn the consequences of making bad decisions. Even though tragedies are not meant to be enjoyed, audiences still flock to see plays like Hamlet and Oedipus Rex, and read works like Macbeth due to the intensity of the emotions they elicit. Ultimately, there will always be a draw to tales of mythological creatures and kings and the complex human personalities behind them. The best tragedy stories will give the audience that, as well as plenty to discuss as they strive to come to terms with the larger picture of morality.

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