occasion we have need to write a therapist or therapy session into our
manuscripts. It stands to reason that fictional characters need therapy
just as much as real people (and I have a blog that proves it). Whether
the shrink is briefly mentioned or has a recurring role, it’s worth it
to learn how to write a fictional therapy session.
If you’ve been to therapy, keep
reading, because chances are you’ve not gotten a therapist’s
perspective of a session. You should use your experience in therapy as
a template for your character only after you’ve explored what else is
involved. (And there’s a lot. I guarantee that nobody else had your
exact same experience.) If you’ve never been to therapy, the following
tips will help fill in some gaps.
1) Consider what role
the therapist plays in the story. If the therapist has a
minor role, or you only hint at some life-changing therapy session your
character had, then it’s not important to go into credentials or how
the therapist conducts therapy. If the therapist has a recurring role,
then it’s a good idea to give him or her more of an introduction.
Readers need to understand if this therapist is someone who knows what
he or she is talking about or not. How do you do this? See #2.
2) Give the reader a
glimpse into the therapist’s office. An easy way to paint
the therapist as an ally or enemy, intellectual professional or quacky
wacko is to show the reader the surroundings. In the point of view of
the client, have him or her notice the degrees on the wall. Are they
from an Ivy League school or some unheard of online program? Nice
furnishings suggest successfulness; shabby second-hand pieces suggest
the opposite. Picture frames on the desk, crayon masterpieces on the
wall, books on shelves, papers piled high or not one in sight . . .
each description reveals a little bit more about the therapist and
gives you a chance to share the POV character’s internal thoughts about
what he or she sees. Is she intimidated? Relaxed?
3) Consider how the
therapist will approach clients in session. For younger
children, I use the name Miss Jeannie instead of Mrs. Campbell. This
lets them know I’m not like a teacher at school but more like a family
friend or church member. For teens and adults, I usually go with just
Jeannie, because I want to build rapport the fastest way possible. I’ve
read several books where the therapist introduces herself as “Dr.
So-and-So” never adding, “But you can call me Cindy.” How would you
feel about a counselor who expects you to bare your soul to her yet
won’t even bare her first name to you?
4) Don’t write too much
of the actual therapy session unless it moves the plot forward.
It’s easy to start the therapy scene with introductions and mindless
chitchat, but while this time period—up to ten minutes or so—is crucial
to make clients feel comfortable, it’s not going to hold the reader’s
interest for long. You don’t need the client to “fill in” the therapist
on why she is there. Skip it. Readers will get that the client probably
filled out an intake form and the therapist knows exactly why the
client is there. Get to the meat of the session quickly. Tears, anger,
resistance, storming out . . . these are things therapists look forward
to! It means the client is working.
Identify who the client(s) will be. A therapist can see an
individual or a family or any combination of family members, but it’s
important not to mix “clients” and therapists. Once you’ve
see a person, he or she is the client, not the family. It would be too
difficult and unethical to add their family as “the client” later, when
your loyalties already lie with one member. When an entire family comes
in for counseling, the counselor can see everyone together, a child
individually, or just the parents; and that’s okay, as long as the idea
of those sessions is to always bring things back to how it affects the
family. This might seem a trivial distinction, but to anyone in the
field, this is a really big deal. You want to look like you’ve done
6) Things to do while
Notice body language.
Eye rolls, staring off into space, head down, arms crossed: These are
great visuals that therapists definitely notice. Good
therapists, that is.
Use silence. Nowhere
is it written that every second of every session has to be filled with
talking. Silence is powerful; don’t be afraid to use it. You can have a
great tension-filled moment with silence, describing the uncomfortable
shuffling and hand fluttering that can happen.
Think of family therapy as group
therapy. It’s appropriate for the therapist to bounce from
one to the other and ask, “What are your thoughts on what X just said?”
A therapist will be interested in what the individuals in the family
have to say and think about the other individuals in the family.
Throw questions back at clients.
Clients quite often ask
therapists questions. They come seeking some sort of magic response to
fix their problems, but instead of answering, therapists frequently
say, “What do you think?”
Never give advice.
Therapists want clients to arrive at their own solutions. If a
therapist gave advice that the client took and had negative side
effects from, the client would blame the therapist and it could affect
the rapport between them.
I hope this gives you a starting
place to write authentic therapy sessions. A well-written therapy
session can be the catharsis your characters need to complete their
inner journeys or to free themselves from their pasts in order to
embrace their futures.