Writing Sadness

Sorrow is evoked by things not going our way

We all think sadness is easy to spot or portray. Someone’s tear ducts start overflowing and they start whimpering. Well, yes, there is that, but as with fear and anger (see Writing Fear and Writing Anger) there are levels, and it is important to be conversant with all of them, at least in fiction, if not in life.

“Oh well”

Sadness starts as slight disappointment. This could be as basic as posting something and not getting any likes in the first eight hours or receiving your 53rd rejection this year. At this most superficial level, it involves a frown and a furrowed brow that quickly disappear as the person focuses on something else. If you don’t catch it at the exact moment the person realizes it, you can easily miss it.

“Aw geez!”

There is never any clear demarcation between emotions, so a bigger disappointment may make us both sad and angry, but the sad part at this next level just means we have a harder time convincing ourselves that the loss didn’t matter. We become fixated on it. It can involve self-doubt, second guessing, and/or shifting blame. It may take several days to stop returning to this level of disappointment regularly and let it go. Physically, it looks like a mask of concern or consternation on the face and maybe some heavy sighing. No waterworks yet.


Two things start to change as the sense of disappointment and unfairness deepens. One is that we start to seek outside validation of our feeling, because it is so pervasive: We want to know if we’re correct in the amount of hurt we feel. Another is that we are strongly motivated to establish a grudge. We may vow to never eat at the restaurant or one remotely like it in the future. We may write someone off as too evil to associate with any more. For this level of sadness to happen, the hope for a different result has to at least have been an expectation we thought would never change, and possibly it could be a cherished fantasy that popped like a balloon. Outward signs are a tendency toward hopelessness punctuating longer stretches of defensiveness or depression. Looks of consternation may remain longer, and in some more emotional people, this may bring them to the verge of tears.

“Oh my god!”

As more people start tearing up, there is no doubt in their minds that something is wrong, it’s justified to be upset, and it’s hard to let go of the hurt. This ranges from silently crying and frowning to full-on weeping, keening, moaning, and whimpering. This can be for life-threatening situations for ourselves or others we care about. It can be at the loss of someone or something dear through death, rejection, or moving away. The sense of overall hopelessness remains longer and becomes more frequent.


At some point, someone can get so sad they start hysterically bawling. They are unable to be distracted from their loss. They can’t think straight, and often speak in non sequiturs or half-completed thoughts. Their circumstances seem grossly unfair, and they doubt they can ever feel happy again. They are unlikely to do anything other than focus on their sorrow, including going out, eating, sleeping. Since this level of depression is so debilitating, people have a variety of ways of avoiding it, usually just before it gets this bad. Alcohol, drugs, and dangerous, risky activities seem to be popular choices.

“Make it a double!”

And that is another thing worth noting for characters and other people you bump into: Of all the emotions, sadness is the one most people go to the greatest lengths to avoid. People have different tolerances, and some will resist even the smallest disappointment registering. The avoidance strategies need not be chemical.

People can find a strange and ultimately unsatisfying comfort in believing that they are cursed, or persecuted. They can pretend that the disappointment never mattered, or jump right to some future good outcome the loss or hurt will make possible, even if they’re not sure what it is yet. Many make themselves busy with work and/or a full social calendar. And a precious few achieve enlightenment, and they can see all actions as neutral, and nothing perturbs them. They do exist, but they’re highly uncommon.


This brings my short series on portraying emotions in fiction to a close. If you’d like to check out any of the other four essays, click on the Blog menu button above this post and then scroll down past it to the others. If you have comments or questions about any writing topic, feel free to comment or send me a message.

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