Want Some Cheese with that Whine? (Or: 3 Ways to Make a Sad Story Sad)

February 21, 2012 by  
Filed under Writing Method

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Want Some Cheese with that Whine?

(Or: 3 Ways to Make a Sad Story Sad)

Death. Disease. Destruction. These things are real bummers, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to have the impact you want them to in your script. It is necessary for less-than-ideal things to happen to your characters, but not all downer events are created equal.

In order to feel bad for characters, three things need to happen

  1. We must know the character and care about them. This is not to say that we’re going to laugh when an unknown character gets a bad diagnosis, but without the proper set up and character development, bad news for a character can feel at best, unimpactful and at worst, manipulative. The bad news should feel specific—like something that we definitely don’t want to happen to THIS person.

A degenerative illness will feel like a bigger kick in the gut to a competitive athlete than it will be to a homebody. A sudden death of an up and coming star, scholar or leader will hurt more than the passing of a person who hasn’t done much nor aspires to. An agoraphobe forced to relocate because a tornado destroyed his house will invoke more of a reaction than the same situation happening to an executive who’s never at home anyway.

  1. The bad news should feel organic to the story. While out-of-the blue events happen in real life all the time, these deus ex machinas often fall flat on film if they’re not supported.

If we haven’t met a character’s extended family in the first 75 minutes of your story, it won’t make us all that upset if we find out that their favorite aunt died in minute 76. If a character has put nothing on hold preparing for a promotion, we won’t bat an eye when we learn that the gig went to their coworker. If we’ve never spent time at a character’s summer home, it’ll barely register when that summer home is wiped out by a late season storm.

  1. The bad news should affect a character on a physical level and an emotional level. Losing a job sucks, but it is completely possible to live off unemployment for a while and get a new job, so it’s not the end of the world. However, if the loss of a job means that a character has to move back home with their millionaire, superstar sibling and their controlling parents who never supported them in the first place, that character’s in a much more painful situation.

Chronic diseases are terrible. But it is possible to get medication, join a support group and have a perfectly normal life. However, if the illness is brought on by the unregulated drug the new patient invented and rushed to market…that really hits home for that person.

Getting trapped in a storm would put a damper on any road trip. But if a character gets trapped in a storm that’s just like the one that orphaned her when her parents had to drive through it to pick her up from camp because she wouldn’t stop crying…that takes the emotion up several levels.

Your audience wants to feel bad for your characters; they’re looking forward to empathizing with them. Make sure that you give them what they need so that they can.


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