How to Write Tragedy
- Start with the hero. The hero is the main element of any tragedy. The hero should be doing well in the beginning – respected, skilled, and usually honorable. But there’s also a key flaw in the hero’s character. Pick a flaw that you feel your readers can relate to, something that they may find in themselves from time to time. Despite the hero’s flaw, the audience should still be rooting for him as they read – otherwise the ending won’t be sad for them.
- Plan out a series of snowballing events. It might start small. The hero might overstep his authority at work due to overconfidence; or she might have a relapse of addiction. But from the first event, something else happens, which then leads to something else, and slowly the negative events start to spiral out of control.
- Begin with the end in mind. In terms of structure, the most important part of a tragedy is its ending. The ending has to show the hero’s final destruction, usually (but not always) meaning death. You should have an ending in mind as you write, so that you have some idea of what you’re building up to. How will your hero be destroyed? What fatal flaw will result in the catastrophe? And how will you describe the end so that readers feel the sad and pitiable emotions of pathos?
When to Use Tragedy
Tragedy is a kind of story structure, so it’s most relevant to creative writing. However, tragedies also need space to develop – you can’t write one overnight, or within the space of just a couple of pages. So if you’re going to write a tragedy for a creative writing class, you should make sure you start way ahead of time and that you’re prepared to write a pretty long piece with a gradual story arc from beginning to tragic end. If you’re writing your tragedy outside of class, of course, you won’t need to worry about deadlines and can give the piece the time and attention that it needs to become a really great tragedy.
Although tragedy is generally used in literature, it can also be a useful concept in essays, especially biographical essays. A good biography needs to take a particular viewpoint on the person in question, and it helps to have an overall narrative structure. Tragedy fits both requirements: it gives you a structure for the piece, and also helps guide how you portray the subject. You might argue, for example, that Napoleon was a tragic figure whose fatal flaw was hubris (see Related Terms).