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?)

36 comments

  • All of the series I mentioned yesterday (spoilers ahead if you care about such a thing) contain elements of this now that you mention it.
    Dresden Files: Dead parents, dead foster parent, betrayal, true love turned into a curse repeatedly, and at the capstone saving the world by killing a man’s true love.
    Nightside: Dead dad, mom is Lilith, the sidekick is a rape survivor and the support cast makes her look like the cheerful one. Hell in book one the main character has to brutally murder his best friend in an alternate future timeline.
    MiddleMan: You get hints at the sorrow the Middleman has for not having a real life, and his sidekick (the actual protagonist) is sent onto the work of being a hero because her dad died under “mysterious and as of yet unexplained circumstances”, she has no job and her boyfriend left her as part of a film project.

    I think you are nearly right with this post. Stories without an emotional core are, well, flat dead things. But I’m not sure that sadness is quite right. It’s more that the world in general and the life of the protagonist must be broken and unhealthy in some way. Sadness is the emotional result of this but I think the center of it (the heart of the cyanide seed if you will) is loss and a broken world that leads to sadness.

  • Oh just hell. The problem with being someone who hates saying, “Yes! Me too!” is that you end up writing comments only when you disagree. And then people see you as being disagreeable. Sigh.

    So. I disagree, but only with regard to the specificity of sadness. You and your pink milky beard have delved too deep. So to speak. Go back one space.

    I think you could pick any emotion and do the same analysis. Plutchik’s “eight basic emotions” are: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, anticipation. I suspect there are elements of those emotions in any good story. In fact, I suspect the really good stories contain ALL of them. Not that I’ve examined any. I’m totally just making this up because, you know, it’s Monday. Not only is it Monday, it’s a federal holiday and I have to work anyway. Talk about sadness.

    I think it’s more accurate to say at the heart of every good story lurks the ability to resonate with our emotions. All of them. Not just sadness. I could be wrong.

    • @KD:

      Heh, no worries, your comment doesn’t read as contrary.

      I think to a degree, you’re right — all good stories both feature a host of emotions and offer those emotions to the audience.

      But sadness, for me, is a very special case. To be clear, I don’t just mean that all good stories feature sadness — I mean that sadness is a prime mover, a critical driver. It is a thing that squirms at the heart of the tale. While I think that, yes, most stories resonate with a host of emotions, I don’t think that good stories automatically have joy, or disgust, or surprise at their heart. Joy is not the prime mover for Die Hard. Disgust is not a prime mover for Star Wars. They aren’t at the heart of Winter’s Bone, either. Or The Social Network. Or the work of James Joyce. Or ancient mythology. Or, or, or.

      Sadness does, though. Again, in my opinion.

      Now, I will cock an eyebrow at the inclusion of “anger.” And, I wonder if the same could be said about anger at the heart of storytelling, perhaps a yin to sadness’ yang. Anger definitely is a prime mover in Star Wars. I’m not sure it’s at the heart of Die Hard, exactly? One supposes that McClane is angry with his wife, so maybe there’s that?

      — c.

  • I love a plucky character who is overcompensating for sadness: Starbuck, Deadpool (F’n Deadpool is sad–“I was almost Wolverine”…*roll tear*) the “Rebel” from the Breakfast Club.

    While Gremlins is actually a capitalist rant warning against the horrors of Chinese imports, it is also the saddest Christmas movie ever. Protagonist’s Dad is a traveling failure, protagonist is a doodling man-child who hates his job and hangs out with a goofy kid. Love interest’s dad *spoilers* died impersonating Santa on Christmas leaving her a traumatized tavern wench. Eventually they are saved by the town paranoid drunk.

    While fear for a character may keep the pages turning, in some sense sadness is that feeling over one’s shoulder that the character is being followed. At any moment their past or present may overwhelm them–look at Inception–it may be integral for the completion of some narratives.

    I find sometimes that sadness can be the rocket fuel of the hero. If a writer sees great accomplishments ahead, have the hero suffer or have suffered great sadness. Of course, I will not mention Robin Hobb because that’s obvious and I do it every time.

    K

  • I think why sadness is so important is that we need to see characters overcome – or at least try and overcome – something and not just their antagonist in a fair fight; they need to be handicapped in some way (physically is good but psychologically’s better) because we love rooting for the underdog that’s why it’s not enough that Superman is affected by Kryptonite, he also carried on his shoulders the loss of his planet, his adopted parents and his complicated relationship with Lois.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you. For giving me permission to write sad stories.

    Yeah, I have some guns, and some weird shit going on, but at the bottom of most of them, there’s a sad person, trying to not be sad, but then getting kicked in the groin for his or her sins.

    Maybe we should invent a new genre: Sad Writing.

    Great post, as always.

    • @Gerald —

      Heck yeah.

      See, I think the thing about sadness is that is creates empathy not just from the audience but also from us, the writer. When I wrote Blackbirds, the protagonist Miriam Black comes from a very distinct place of sadness. Her story is tragic (in the truest sense of that word) and… well, I feel for her. And if I feel for her, then I think the audience does, too. Or so goes the hope.

      Sadness helps us relate, helps us feel for characters, helps us as an audience to have our own goal (meta-goal?) outside the narrative which is to overcome the sadness that the author has placed before us.

      — c.

  • Without some sadness, some misfortune, we have no sympathy for the characters. Life is full of sadness and adversity. If the story is all rainbows and gum drops, we hate the characters for not taking part in the human condition. We hate them for complaining about their gumdrops.

  • I think what makes Sadness stand out above and beyond those other 8 primary emotions is the fact that sadness is a starting point, and a universal motivator. If you are happy at your core, or in love at your core, there really isn’t much you are motivated to do (unless of course you don’t have your love with you. But that brings us right back to sadness, now don’t it?)

    Even before you get into all the deaths in A New Hope, you also have Luke sad that he can’t go to the imperial academy, and that he has to stay on Tattooine while life passes him by. This actually makes the deaths of Owens and Beru even more sad in its own way.

    I’d peg sadness over anger, because a character who is angry needs a reason to be so, and generally that reason is sadness in some way. Sadness leads to anger in ways that Fear and the Dark Side wish they could harness. Being anger will prompt someone to vent, and perhaps destroy. Sadness will prompt someone to try and do something about it, and when those plans get stalled or messed with, then you get anger. Anger with something right in front of it to destroy.

    So, I’m not sure if sadness needs to lie at the core of the story, but there should be at least some nugget of it at the core of the characters. At least the interesting characters.

    • @Anthny —

      Yeah, I think you nailed it. Sadness is the prime mover for anger — the first emotion, if you will.

      I do think that sadness at the heart of the characters ends up being the same thing as being at the heart of the story because ultimately, the characters *are* the story.

      — c.

  • Having just finished GRRM’s A Storm of Swords, I get what you’re saying completely. Some of the things that man does to his characters made me want to reach through the pages and throttle him with his own beard. Counterpoint to the sadness, though, were moments where I was nearly in tears, either from a genuinely heartwarming moment or because I was laughing my ass off.

    None of these reactions would exist without sadness.

  • Fantastic ideas. After reading this last night I took a quick look at some of the stories I’ve liked and/or written and realized that in all of them sadness was at the emotional core. Not something I’ve thought of before, but I’ll have to pay closer attention to it from now on.

  • February 21, 2011 at 11:08 AM // Reply

    Couldn’t agree with you more on this one. Happy people don’t do shit.

    Story moves through conflict, conflict is defined by want, want is driven by loss.

    Sometimes that thing has been lost, sometimes it’s a thing that could be lost. An estranged wife, freedom, bravery, a heart, brain or Kansas.

  • I always tell people that alienation is the perfect fuel for fiction. John McClain and Luke Skywalker are indeed alienated individuals. And seeking a way to cure this nagging feeling of alienation, this sadness, as you put it so well, drives them through adversity. Sir, you sometimes sound like an angry Kurt Vonnegut, which a very good thing you got going.

  • I just stumbled upon this website four days ago (searching for “Turtle Truth Alerts”, which apparently is unmistakably close to “Turtle Penis”) and I’m not sure whether I am ravenously, lustfully enamored with this site or woefully sad that it has taken this long for me to find like-minded individuals doing one of the things I am most fond of.

    Either way, I believe you are incorrect about sadness. Not so much because of your premise but mostly because uh I dunno it’s Monday. Then there’s also my believe that sadness is only a result of our ability to love and be compassionate. So one might say that love, or the lack there of,is really the ONE emotion that is at the heart of all good stories fictional or not. So, sadness is only made manifest by the loss of something loved. Conflict only arises out of our inability to love one another enough to be on the same page to begin with.

    Okay I’m putting down my wand and taking off my pink dress now. Nah. . . maybe I’ll just leave it on, it’s so warm and fuzzy in here.

    Keep writing I can’t wait to read more!

  • I think you’ve made a good point. I wonder though, if the reason behind this is because at the core of the story is conflict.

    Imo, most of conflict involves the shift of power from one person to another. The main character is trying to shift the power back to themselves. So it could be win back your wife from terrorists, or stop the Dark Side from taking over, or whatever the main goal of the story is.

    I can also see that maybe conflict has sadness at it’s core? Because conflict means that someone has lost something, or is in search of something. Maybe conflict can be seen as the state of needing something you don’t have, which is a sad situation.

    I don’t know if this makes sense or not…I am still musing on this subject, but I think you’re on to something Chuck. Does anyone else have further thoughts on the subject?

  • Hell, yes. Fiction requires misery. The more the better. Look at poor, abused, neglected, scarred, orphan Harry Potter. Dorothy Gale was a little orphan, too, with no family but her Auntie Em (and Toto.) And those Pevensie kids had to go to the country where that magic wardrobe was because Jerry was dropping bombs on their parents in WW2. Sad, sad sad. And don’t we love it!

  • This is less of a direct comment on the article and more of a tangent, mostly because I was catching up on your weekend posts and they all fused together.

    Isn’t it interesting that people enjoy reading about sadness and misery and the annihilation of Kansas, but they don’t enjoy being around sad, miserable, Kansas-annihilating people online? I wonder if the negativity on the Internet is a facet of humanity’s tendency to write sad things.

    We love to see people overcome, to participate in their struggles, but only if it ends. Blogs don’t (usually) end; they’re pretty open-ended. Same with comments and tweets and whatnots. Maybe our little simian brains are having spasms trying to combine and a positive attitude, because deep down, we know it isn’t the right way to tell a story. Skilled writers will be able to differentiate writing styles, but what about the rest of the world?

  • I don’t know, after further thought and reading these comments, I still disagree. To me “sadness” is too passive to be at the heart of storytelling — and when I say “at the heart” I mean the thing that is the genesis. Perhaps sadness is what you’re left with after a story ends, when you look back at the core conflict and say, “wow, that was a sad thing that happened to that character.” But sadness doesn’t lead to conflict and it doesn’t drive story. Sadness is characters sitting at home in a darkened room with tears streaming down their face, feeling sad.

    Now misery or suffering, yes, absolutely, I can agree with that being at the heart of story. Suffering is what makes your characters take action to alleviate the pain — whether physical, emotional or psychological — and makes them “want” something enough to engage in conflict.

    But that’s different from sadness. Sadness is part of the aftermath and is, almost by definition, antithetical to story genesis.

    You might say I’m just arguing over semantics, and maybe I am. But I’m a writer and the meaning and usage of words is important to me (as I’m sure it is to you). You’re making a good point in this post, but I don’t think sadness is the correct word for what you’re trying to say here. Even if it is, still, damnit, Monday.

  • I’m going to fall back on good old Greek catharsis. Sadness is at the core of life, and everything we love, we will lose one way or the other. Stories resonate when they either recognize that rather than trying to B.S. us with illusory platitudes, or they draw us into those transcendent moments of present beauty that have meaning because of their transient nature.

    Vader’s humanity comes from his acceptance of death. McClane’s character arc comes down to that impermanent kiss in the snow.

    The whole point of catharsis is the recognition that our fate is shared, and therefore we are not alone.

  • Sadness is very hip in writerly circles. Tragedy, despair, misery, all the various shades of pain — the Literary genre laps it all up like a cat with a sour milk fetish, and then tells the rest of us snottily that it is that love of suffering that defines “real art”. Well, y’know what, I don’t agree; I don’t read (or write) to be tormented. Life hurts like hell, and I don’t feel any need to have my time out hurt like hell too.

    I know that’s not what you’re saying, Chuck. But I suspect that we all have a bit of ingrained cultural cringe towards the Literary genre, and I wonder if part of your assertion isn’t coming from that — the idea that if your characters aren’t left in utter despair, your work is immediately frivolous.

    I agree that most strong characters have some sadness to their deep histories. But as KD James pointed out, a strong character should come with the full complement of emotions, and have things in their past that check all of Plutchik’s basics, and more besides. Almost everyone in reality has sad aspects of their past, and a protagonist, by definition, is someone who wants to achieved something, and so therefore at a fatuous level, must be “sad” that they haven’t already achieved it.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with the exhortation to take a step back. Yes, most protagonists are conflicted, and that means pained. But they are also mostly brave, and determined, and hopeful, and a whole heap of other things. Don’t get obsessed with sadness, in other words. It’s just one piece of the “proper character” pie, and a rather rancid-tasting piece at that. Focus on that, and you’ll end up with the sort of agony-wank which makes Critically Acclaimed Literary Masterpieces such horribly bad sellers.

    IMHO, of course :)

    • @Tim:

      It’s likely that it’s due to the writing in my post falling down (which is entirely on me), but I’m not entirely sure where some of this comes from. I’m definitely not saying that characters should have only sadness, and I’m not even suggesting they should themselves *be* sad. But the impetus for good fiction is conflict, and I like what Elizabeth Poole said down there which is a suggestion that sadness is what lies at the center of conflict.

      Also, I don’t think that what I’m suggesting comes from snooty literary convention — hell, I cited Die Hard and Star Wars. Not exactly literary canon. :)

      Finally, not only am I not suggesting that characters end up in utter despair, I even said the words, “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.” I’m seriously not trying to pick nits with you, and again I’ll accept that this very likely falls on my shoulders for what may be a poorly-written post. I guess I’m just not certain where some of your comment comes from — it feels in part like it’s coming out of preconceived notions of the literary genre? I dunno.

      The point wasn’t that all character need to be despairing, sad-faced literary losers. The point was that the audience connects to a story through its sadness first: sorrow and grief and loss live at the heart of even the happiest stories. In fact, I’d assert that sadness *must* live at the heart, not only to fuel conflict but also to confirm that any happiness that comes is both felt and earned.

      — c.

  • Oh, a fair chunk of my previous post comes from my diseased brain-meats. I’m not suggesting that you’re being a hipster literary scum or anything :)

    What I was really trying to say, in brief, is that although sadness *can* be the core of a story, I don’t believe it has to be. I’d argue that it can be anything which drives a person to action. I’ve read some great stories where the deep heart is most definitely curiosity, and others where it’s clearly fear. Sadness can be really important, and it’s a very handy tempering tool, but there are others in the box.

    • @Tim:

      An entirely reasonable opinion.

      Let’s look at it deeper, though: what great stories do you know that do not, in some way, feature some flavor of sadness as a prime mover?

      — c.

  • Anger is more often than not a reaction to sadness, pain, loss of some kind. If a story can’t offer us redemption – which I think we all crave for some reason or another – it can offer us catharsis. Either way, gotta strip the meat from the bones to get there.

    Also, you have Frankenberry cereal?!?

    *sob*

  • Oh gods, I’m an idiot with the reading comprehension of a tree frog. I’ve been thinking you were talking about emotions of the characters and was thoroughly frustrated by your insistence about sadness. I realized on the way to work this morning — that’s not what you’re saying at all. You’re talking about reader emotion.

    Well, actually, you’re talking about creating sympathetic characters. I don’t generally think of that as making people sad, but it’s true that sympathy presents itself as a feeling of sadness and often a sense of outrage for the misery of others. Even if the characters themselves are not sad. Geez, Chuck, why the hell didn’t you just SAY SO. Oh wait. Um, you kinda did. Say that. [ribbit] Tree frog. I am so sorry.

    Yes, you’re absolutely right, it’s imperative that we create sympathetic characters. When that Gulch woman takes Dorothy’s dog and puts it in her basket, anyone who has ever had a pet or wanted a pet or ever felt helpless in the face of authority feels sympathy for poor Dorothy. Dorothy’s not sad, she’s frantic — angry and scared and desperate. But we, the audience, feel sadness for her and also outrage that everyone who was supposed to care about her just stood there and let it happen. Without that sympathy, Dorothy’s just a bored irresponsible teenager who runs away from home and has an adventure and we don’t care about her. Same with Luke. He’s not sad so much as he’s pissed off and seeking vengeance. If he hadn’t been told his father was betrayed and murdered, if his aunt and uncle hadn’t been killed, events that make us feel sympathy for him, he’s just . . . a bored irresponsible teenager who runs away from home and has an adventure. Hmmm.

    Anyway. I am so relieved that I finally get it and can stop muttering imprecations in your general direction. [The rest of you can stop rolling your eyes at me anytime now, thankyouverymuch. I'm not usually this obtuse. Really.] And for godsakes, if that’s not what you meant, please don’t tell me. I hate it when I disagree with people I admire. Going back to lurkerdom now, where I (quietly) smile and nod in enthusiastic agreement with 95% of what you say. We’ll just have to agree to disagree about the sweet furry little cute-as-hell-squirrels.

  • I always felt super bad for the Rancor trainer in Return of the Jedi. You can just tell that the tubby shirtless dude’s world was shattered when Luke killed his best friend and pet. Brings me to tears every time.

  • Specifically great stories that in some way, feature some flavor of sadness as a prime mover? *grin* There’s quite a lot of hedging and personal interpretation in there…

    But OK, let me look around my (currently meagre) bookshelves. How about The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper, where the protagonist is swept along; or The Shadow Over Innsmouth, where the protagonist is just in the wrong place; or a Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny, where all involved are working for a cause. I’d even make a case for Ellis’ American Psycho, given Bateman doesn’t actually have much of an emotion response to anything.

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