Writing Sad Scenes
Also known as Things I'm Not Very Good At.
So, I'm not the most emotional person you'll ever meet. I've always been a relatively content person, optimistic in outlook and an ardent keeper of my own peace. When something sad or disappointing or unpleasant happens, my knee-jerk reaction is to spin it into something happy. I retreat into my own mind, play upbeat music, make up stories, go on a walk, eat some cake... anything to make the unpleasantness go away.
I used to think this was the best thing. In fact, as recently as 2 months ago, when I conceived and began writing this blog post, I was poised to write, "That's just the way I am" without a single qualm. Lately, however, I've discovered some truths about myself and dug into my past a bit, sitting with some memories I thought I'd reconciled and long-buried. It's a long story that I haven't fully come to terms with (and usually speak with my therapist about, haha), but the short of it is this: my inability to be sad is a trauma response.
I don't cry. I kind of can't, really. It used to be a joke among my family and friends: "Bianca's a robot. Bianca doesn't get emotional. Lol, Bianca's devoid of feelings." It used to be seen as an attribute to strive for, by me and everyone who knows me. I had so many friends tell me, "I wish I could be as composed as you. I cry at the drop of a hat. I get emotional about everything." And I used to think, 'God, I would hate that.' In life there's too much to do and too many things to see and enjoy, and crying/feeling/being emotional gets in the way of that. That's what I used to think.
But then a lot of stressful, sad, terrible things happened to me back-to-back, and when I needed release, there was none. I knew crying would get it out, help me to let things go, but I just. couldn't. DO IT. There have been times when I wanted and needed to cry, but couldn't even begin to approach the feeling. The moment I would tell myself, 'Here it goes. Do it. You need it. You want it. CRY,' my body and mind would immediately go into lifesaver mode without my permission, stopping me. It's like my mind is saying, 'Don't worry... I got you,' thinking it's doing a fantastic job, and all the while I'm screaming, "Wait! Stop! Not this time, brain!!!"
Okay, hold on. This is not my diary. This is not a therapy session. It's a writing blog. What does any of this have to do with writing?!
Actually, it has everything to do with writing.
Writers need to be able to tap into certain emotions in order to be able to convey them to their readers. A good story is going to have conflict, sadness, and pain, because that's life. It's realistic, and it's human. Even high fantasy, stories with aliens and mythical creatures, stories with fantastical elements, show the ups and downs of the emotional roller coaster. Star Trek, for example, explores the sad backstory of Spock, who is a mixed race member of both the human race and an alien race known as Vulcan. Even though the Vulcan are known for being compulsively logical and having difficulty expressing love, hate, anger, or anything between, there are sad scenes not only surrounding Spock, but concerning him. Stories with non-human creatures emphasize emotional elements in writing even more, usually by pointing out the stark differences. That is because there is a human need to express emotion, especially sadness.
Also, from a writing aspect, what book has ever been successful without conflict? Very few. Sad scenes connect us to characters, make us invested in a story, and make us feel seen.
I recently read a manuscript from a friend in which the main character's mother dies suddenly. Obviously a sad premise, the funeral scene is further compounded by the fact that the protagonist cannot cry, as she's too overwhelmed by emotion for the tears to come. This resonated with me, someone who has lost her mother and couldn't cry at the funeral, unable to do much of anything but sit there and accept condolences for something that didn't feel real.
Scenes aren't just made sad by the inclusion of crying; it's a perfectly effective, realistic, and logical way of showing the sadness of a character, of course, but there are many other ways to make a scene sad. Indeed, the absence of crying can be even more effective in a scene.
In the 2019 movie Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, a particularly sad scene for me to witness was his character, Arthur, unable to stop laughing during an intense, serious moment. His character has a disorder that makes him laugh at very inopportune times, and the compulsion is exacerbated when he's under stress. How sad it is to see his character laughing maniacally, knowing he wants to stop, seeing the anguish in his eyes as he cackles. That's a complex, layered way of writing sadness, a skill I hope comes naturally to me one day.
I am impressed and astounded by any good, gut-wrenching scene of sadness that I read. That's because it's an emotion I'm still working on mastering. When I was writing We Are Eternal, I did my best to tap into those scenes while fighting the urge to lessen the awkwardness and uncomfortable feelings they came with. My immediate instinct is to make things not so bad, cut with humor, or shorten a scene in some way. Really sitting with those scenes, exploring the five senses in relation to the sadness I was trying to describe, and making sure everything was laid out as thoroughly as possible, was very, very difficult for me. To be honest, I doubt I did the best job with it, but, hey, I'm still perfecting my craft.
My biggest problem is the fact that I had to draw on personal experience when writing some of the saddest scenes. Olive's mother, Pamela, suffers a hemorrhagic stroke and is carted to the hospital in an ambulance. Olive comes home with York to find her mother sitting on the couch. Her mother had been walking around their home alone in a stupor for at least a day, slowly worsening without realizing it because of her consistent drunken state. This is a very similar experience to one I had with my mother about ten years ago. I drew on that scene because I couldn't have conceived something sadder and more stressful on my own, because, due to my handling of trauma, I don't explore those possibilities. Even so, while writing this scene, I tried remembering those moments as I actually experienced them. The feelings of fear, confusion, and disbelief are just on the outskirts of my brain to this day, as I've done my best to block it out, figure out the next step, keep it pushing.
There's a particular moment from that experience ten years ago that immediately burned itself onto my mind as it happened (as I'm remembering now, in order to write these words, my mind is desperately trying to push it away so I don't feel it): as my mother was being taken down on a gurney to an ambulance after her stroke, she looked up at me with a mixture of helplessness and gratitude in her eyes, emotions she couldn't express because, on top of her being too drunk to form a coherent sentence, the stroke had robbed her of her ability to speak. I tried conveying this exact scene in We Are Eternal, because even from the safety of the fringes of my mind, I can recognize this as a very sad moment.
Whenever I'm writing a sad scene, especially one that is based on a personal memory, I fight to explore every sensation involved with the sadness while simultaneously wanting to shut the whole operation down. This is my personal struggle. You may have a different struggle, or no struggle at all. If you don't struggle with this, I commend you; my "robotic" handling of things is not the way to strive for, as many of my friends think it is to this day. Being able to healthily explore how sadness makes you feel, get it out, let it go, and move on is the way to not create mental baggage. I've got a lot of it, and, trust me, it weighs you down, and it comes out in the most unexpected and inconvenient ways and moments -- you burst into tears in the drive-thru line of Chick-Fil-A, for example, or you realize suddenly that you're a thirty-one-year-old woman whose children's very minor struggles make you a basket case.
What? Do you think I'm talking about myself in here? No, no, those were just examples.
Okay, I was talking about myself.
Writing sad scenes requires -- demands -- a deep dive into the most overwhelming parts of the human experience. It demands you sit down and bleed over your notebook or keyboard. It demands you to write until you're done, and be exhausted, drained, and confused afterward. When writing sad scenes, cut yourself off from everyone in your house that might want to distract you. (If you're alone, turn that phone off!)
The bottom line: Don't hold back, writers. Don't shy away from the difficult, the awkward, the struggle. After all, writing is curative for most of us anyway; writing sad scenes is free therapy where readers are required to hang on your every word, much like a therapist. It's freeing, and it produces some content.
Now that's a win-win.