5 Tips for Writing Tough Topics

Many books deal with some pretty heavy topics. Some handle it very well, while others might not. When I say heavy topics, I’m referring to the most awful parts of life: death, abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, verbal), suicide, addiction, eating disorders, etc.

What separates those who write tough topics well from those who don’t?

There are a few things to you’ll want to for sure do before you dive in to writing a difficult subject. This will be a major factor in your story and characters being authentic and relatable or not.

1. Lean on your own unique experiences. 

What in your life have you been through that will help you effectively write the emotions, thoughts, and actions that accompany life’s dark moments? Use these personal insights to fuel your character’s responses. The key is to feel and remember what it was like to go through it at the time.

2. If you haven’t experienced it personally, do your research. 

Read books on the same subject. Look up symptoms of grieving, or effects of abuse. There are plenty of resources online, in books, movies, or even people who can offer insights to make your writing authentic. 

3. Ask someone who has been there. 

If you know someone who has experienced what you’re writing about, or even something similar, have them offer insights or read what you’ve written (make sure you’re not going to cause them to trigger first!). Be gentle with this. Others’ perspectives can be invaluable, especially since each of us can react uniquely to the same circumstance.

4. Use empathy. 

Most of have at least some ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Imagining how you’d react to certain circumstances may help. For some situations, you may grasp only part of what it feels like and will still need to seek more authentic help. Exercising your empathy muscle will allow you to be a more compassionate and sensitive writer with your characters, but also with people in general. 

5. Ask a professional. 

Another great resource is therapists or doctors who have helped people through these difficult situations. They can offer invaluable insights to make your character’s emotions, responses, and thoughts ring true to readers. They can also inform you about typical treatment options, time it takes to heal, etc.
If you choose to deal with more difficult topics, don’t glaze over it. If it’s important enough to be in your plot, it is vital to give it the time and attention it requires. Be careful not to use a tough situation as a plot device. If that’s all you need it for, find a different reason.

When you’re writing something more like a memoir or a personal essay, be open and real about it as much as possible. If you need to add or remove stuff later, you always can. The best way to connect with readers is to allow yourself to be vulnerable.

One more thing . . . 

When writing about these difficult subjects, add in a healing aspect. Healing should be part of your character arc. Just like real life, your character will go through the difficult thing, but will find ways to heal and overcome, whether professionally or by other means. This is one of my favorite parts of a book. It gives the reader hope, especially if they happen to be going through something similar. It may be just the thing to help someone through a dark time in their life. That’s why it’s so vital that you not only keep it authentic, real, emotional, and open, but that you don’t glaze over it as if your character has a super power for getting over stuff with the wave of a magic wand. Healing takes time—likely more time than your plot will cover.

Keep it real. Handle with care. Don’t be afraid to be raw, emotional, and vulnerable. We need your unique way of telling these stories to help us get through the heart wrenching parts of life.


Wendy Jessen is the author of more than 300 articles—book reviews as well as family-oriented articles on familyshare.com . She somehow manages to do that with 6 spirited children ranging in age from 4 to 13 under toe. In the throes of writing her first book, she finds ways to procrastinate which usually involves scrolling through social media. Wendy often stays up way past her bedtime reading YA or other fiction. She loves kid-free date night with her husband, family vacations, and kids’ bedtime, aka, the human version of whack-a-mole.