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How to Write a Sad Story: 6 Tips for Evoking Emotion in Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 2 min read

Whether you’re writing a book or a short story, you’ll likely have to deal with deep emotions at some point: a death scene in a thriller, main characters saying “I love you” for the first time in a romance, a character’s best friend or loved one going through hard times. Writing emotion can be difficult, but there are some tricks to get an emotional response from your readers that feels authentic.



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6 Tips for Writing a Sad Story

You may be dealing with a single sad scene or an emotional story whose tragic events are the main plot points. Either way, these tips will help you imbue your writing with genuine emotion:

  1. Tap into your own emotionality. It’s important to remember that emotion is inside of you—you just need to access it and put it on the page. In fiction writing, you might achieve this by doing some writing exercises or prompts that help you tap into your own emotions and then translating those feelings to your characters’ emotional states. Or, you might find yourself getting deep into your characters’ heads and using their backstories to connect to your characters’ emotions.
  2. Know the difference between sentimentality and truth. To successfully write an essay or novel with weight or substance, you have to understand the difference between sentimentality and truth. Sentimentality is manipulative and unsurprising. It’s the easy words that have always been used to signify certain emotions without actually moving someone into feeling them. Oscar Wilde said, “A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of emotion without paying for it.” In a similar vein, James Joyce said, “Sentimentality is unearned emotion.” The sadness can’t be forced or formulaic, but it’s important to always look for a way to move people, to add meaning, with more than laughter. You provoke tears or deep emotion when you open a genuine window into who you are or who someone else is. Sadness has to be authentic, so you need to maintain that authenticity in your framing of the emotional moment. Resist the impulse to overplay it. It’s not a soap opera; if your subject is experiencing real pain, they’re doing all of the work for you.
  3. Leave room to be surprised by specific detail. That is how you will create natural emotion, which will resonate with your readers, especially if you show and don’t tell. Often something small can trigger reader emotions better than big, dramatic events or descriptions, especially if they’re already familiar with your characters’ backstories.
  4. Pair strong emotions with ordinary ones. When working with heightened emotion, think of ways to pair it with an ordinary, everyday moment. This can help emotional writing sound less melodramatic and make intense feelings stand out.
  5. Use backstories to add weight. If you show your character’s history, that can help build up to an emotional reaction to minor-seeming actions, language, or even body language. Foreshadowing a sad event with a backstory can make the climax feel more intense.
  6. Use sad moments to further character development. Remember as you’re writing that your characters are on a journey. You are rendering only a small slice of that journey on the page. Nonetheless, your characters will need to grow and change. Difficult emotional experiences can shape your characters, so make sure intense emotional scenes fit into the whole story in a way that feels authentic to your characters and plot.

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