Storytelling And The Art Of Sadness

The Little Sad Flower

Sadness is not a particularly jazzy topic, is it? It’s actually rather enervating. You bring up “sadness” and it’s not like — “Whoo! Haha! Fucking yes. Wendig is talking about sadness! Grief? Regret? Sorrow? Loss? Uhh, hello — yes, yes, yes and yes. Hot diggity dog! This is like an amusement park ride inside my brain!”

*rad guitar lick*

*fills pants with the effluence of joy*

Who the fuck wants to talk about sad shit? Blech. I don’t know what day it is in your house, but it’s Monday all up in mine, and on Monday, I’d much rather be looking forward to more delightful topics: “Yesterday, I had a wonderful spot of tea with a particularly irascible leprechaun and his wombat steed! The finger sandwiches were made of children’s laughs! Unbridled wonder and pegasus dreams!”

Alas. It just ain’t to be. Because today I want to talk about sadness in storytelling.

I’m going to say something now — a thing that is unproven and only barely thought of (shut up, it’s Monday, I can hardly feel my legs), but slosh it around your brain-mouth, see how it tastes:

At the heart of every good story lurks sadness.

I’ve talked in the past about a story’s “emotional core” (in a post where I also refer to it as the “narrative vagina”), but here I’m wondering if the emotional core has a core all its own — like the black cyanide seeds at the heart of an apple — and that core is composed of raw, unfiltered sadness.

I don’t mean to suggest that sadness lurks at the heart of only sad stories — to that, I offer an exclamatory “duh!” and I roll my eyes and make jerk-off motions with both my hands, to which you then say, “Chuck, both hands? That’s overkill, don’t you think?” And I nod gamely and then cry into my big heaping bowl of Frankenberry cereal. (This should at least explain why my beard is both pink and milky.)

What the fuck was I talking about?

Oh! Right. Sadness doesn’t merely lurk at the heart of sad stories, but rather, at the heart — the heart’s heart — of all stories. Or, at least, all good ones. The sadness needn’t be overt or outright. It doesn’t have to be the driving force behind a protagonist’s goals and desires, but it feels like it should still be there, behind the scenes. Let’s take two films that are not ostensibly sad and find the sadness in them.

First up: DIE HARD.

Die Hard is not what anybody would call a “sad movie,” unless you’re someone who gets choked up at the needless loss of yet another charming, smarmy German terrorist-thief. Ultimately, it’s a tense, kick-ass, high-octane and sometimes hilarious action movie. It is, in some ways, the Big Daddy of all actioners.

And yet, I posit that at the heart of the film nests a squirming knot of sadness.

Think about the motivations behind the protagonist: John McClane hasn’t seen his wife in a while because they are ultimately distant and estranged. They have children who are with her, not him. He’s a guy who’s too good at his job, and she’s a lady who’s too good at hers, and we get the sense that only some kind of cataclysmic movement is going to shatter their pride and get these two crazy kids back together.

Holy shit, that’s fucking sad, man. Isn’t it? Broken marriage? Disrupted family? The sadness is only exacerbated when their first meeting ends with a fight which is in turn interrupted by, ohhh, a bunch of cranky Germans with automatic weaponry.

Then you have Powell, who is a sad sack if ever there was one. He’s not pathetic, not exactly, but his story is tragic: he shoots a kid, ends up at a desk afraid to use his gun, gets fat, is played mostly as comic relief until we realize at the heart of this underdog is a goddamn police dog — loyal and ready to come off the leash.

Note that the story doesn’t have to end on sadness — I’m just saying that sadness has to be in there, it has to be in the mix, it has to live at the very nucleus of your fiction.

Second not-sad-but-secretly-actually-sad: STAR WARS.

Sure, sure, at it’s heart is a giddy yahoo space opera galactic romp across the Cosmic Wild West, but goddamn, you peel back the skin and you find a lot of sadness in there across both trilogies: in the “first” movie (A New Hope), we’re punched in the face by sad news time and time again. Dead father (who, okay, isn’t so much dead as he is evil machine guy)! Crispy aunt and uncle! Exploding Alderaan! Tortured princess! Sacrificial mentor! Porkins asplodes into bacon bits! The other films don’t lack for sadness, either: Daddy issues, dead Yoda, murdered children, lost limbs, executed Jedi, a mother who gets… I dunno, molested by Sand People, and so on, and so forth. Sadness runs rampant.

Shit, the very end of Return of the Jedi features what is ultimately a happy triumph over evil, but even buried in that is a deeply sad and common human experience: a son’s death-bed reconciliation with his estranged father. Yes, the reconciliation is ultimately a positive thing, but it is an event supercharged with the power of regret and grief. Makes you blubber and weep.

Sadness is a powerful storytelling component.

So. What does this mean for you, the storyteller?

I think it means this: when you embark upon a story, you should ask yourself, “What sadness lurks at the heart of this tale?” Find it. Dig for it. If none exists, create it. It’s a fucked up thing we have to do — manufacturing sadness — but it’s ultimately as necessary to good fiction as conflict. In fact, one might wonder if sadness is the secret impulsion that fuels good narrative conflict.

Find the sadness. And keep looking for it as you write, too. Nothing is more powerful to us than grief and loss — we then look to the storyteller to answer a fundamental question of, can we overcome it, or will it overcome us? What can be done with sadness? How will we ever reconcile grief and tragedy?

What I’m trying to say is —

Happy Monday, everyone!

(Feel free to throw more examples below in the comments — or, alternately, challenge the assertion. Is sadness really a necessary component to good storytelling? Or am I just talking out of my ass?)