Before we get to that answer, I just have to mention how strange it is that I offered you a Dead Poets Society-inspired writing tip the week before Robin Williams passed away. I know that the tip was to eliminate the word “very” from your writing, but I must say that his death is very, very sad.
The thing about sad stories is that they can become depressing. And paralyzing. And stay-in-your-room-with-the-shades-down-horrible. I’ve had some sadness in my life recently and it is p-a-i-n-f-u-l. Sometimes you don’t even want to write about it at all—and you don’t have to. Some people prefer to keep their grief private. But since a good chunk of high school seniors choose to write their college essays about the tough stuff in their lives—battling cancer, the death of a pet, family heartbreak—I want to address it here.
The secret to writing a sad story is…
…to focus on everything but the sad parts.
Here’s what I mean by that: When you’re trying to write about how inconsolable you were about an event in your life, it’s surprisingly easy to get caught up in the overdramatic, belly cry version of the story. The problem with all that emotion is that reading about how sad you were just isn’t fun. It’s great for your diary and it’s great for your emotional growth, but it’s not fun to read. After a while, it starts to seem like white noise, generic, and we stop caring.
Now that sounds harsh, but let me explain. You know how you always have one friend who is a down-in-the-dumps Eeyore sort of gal? She’s sweet and lovely, but when you ask her how she is, she always says something like, “Well, I’m exhausted and overwhelmed. It’s awful. I just failed my history test, my mom is on my case about everything, and life just sucks.” Of course you want to help this friend, but don’t you get exhausted after a while? If there’s too much gloom and doom, none of it registers. On the flip side, take The Fault in Our Stars. Even though the subject matter is unbelievably tragic, the tone is often light and funny, which makes all the stuff that happens that much more gut-wrenching.
So how can you make readers feel your pain in a compelling way?
1. Focus on tangible things.
Remember that scene in My Girl when Veda Sultenfuss (great name!) walks into Thomas J.’s wake and says, “Where are his glasses? He can’t see without his glasses!” Man, that scene gets me every time. She mentions a specific detail that was so intertwined with his sweet, nerdy demeanor that you just can’t imagine the character without those glasses. How can he see in heaven without his glasses? Thus, it’s waaaay more touching than if she had just told us how she’s feeling. Maybe you want to write about your Nana’s blanket or the Kleenex your aunt always toted around in her sleeve. Maybe you want to mention that your beloved pooch had a particular way of circling his dog bed before falling asleep. Those details tell us a ton about the person and what you loved about him or her, which makes the loss feel that much greater.
2. Focus on joy.
I just discovered the photo essay of Duke’s last day. Have you seen it? Duke is a black lab who had to be put down. His family decided to celebrate and memorialize his last day by doing all of his favorite things and capturing them on film. Now, I’m not a dog person (by a long shot!), but these pictures made me sob. And the pictures that made me cry the most were not the sad pictures at the end. The pictures that made me cry were the happy pictures of the family with Duke at the beginning of the day. Highlighting joy often increases the impact of loss on your audience. And joy tends to be a much more engaging read than grief.
3. Focus on actions, not feelings.
Don’t tell me how you felt, tell me what you did. Instead of writing, “I was sad and angry,” write, “Even though I was crying so hard I could barely see straight, I punched that refrigerator box over and over and over and over until the box, and I, could barely stand.” The best way to do this is to think of your essay as a movie trailer. You know, the kind with all the short clips spliced together with a dramatic voiceover. If your essay were a movie and you were the star, what would you be doing in those short clips? Laughing about the good times? Hugging your mom? Putting on a black dress? Looking at a photo album?
Writing a sad story is extremely difficult. It’s tricky to allow people inside your head and show them what you’ve experienced. You might need to write a few paragraphs (or pages!) about how you’re feeling before you’re able to step back and write a story that shows how you’re feeling. The two are very different. Some sad things just can’t be shared, and some you don’t want to analyze over and over as you write and edit. There are some things that have happened to me that I know would make awesome essays, but I am just not capable of reliving them on paper.
When you choose to tell a sad story, know what you’re getting into. And when in doubt, focus on joy. : )
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