Finding Sunlight: On Writing Sad Stories
Sadness is an element that invades my books, regardless of category or genre. In the District Ballet Company books, grief and depression permeate both Aly and Zed's experiences in the world. In my magicballoonbook, displacement and the volatility of 'home' as a concept reign. In my killing mists book, large scale loss rips apart community and families.In my Sad WIP that I'm writing now, it's set during a civil war, where civilians are dying by the thousands, and the rest are being oppressed in horrific conditions.Sadness, for the Sad WIP, might be an understatement.Today while talking to a few writer friends, I worried that the book was too sad. That the sadness was relentless. I'm at 25,000 words and the book is so hard to write sometimes because it is so, so depressing. Their general feeling was that readers will read a book that is very sad (see also: The Book Thief, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Night) because they're reading it in a space they feel safe. That we continually seek out thrillers, and depressing books, and books about insurmountable grief, because they allow us, while we feel safe, to learn to face those emotions in 'real time'.In a google search, I came up with this really wonderful article at LiteraryMama. As it's about her child reading The Bridge To Terabithia, one of my favorite children's literature books of all time, it's worth the whole read. But these lines in particular stood out to me:
They know it's only a story, and the story teaches them how to approach other stories, other truths.
and then, in the next paragraph:
...and perhaps that's the best reason to read (good) sad stories: to see the ways in which sadness becomes part of a life, rather than taking it over.
I think that's what I need to remember as I delve deep into the sadness I've always included but now which fills this Sad WIP. Sadness is a part of the life, but it doesn't take it over. It's hard to do that, in a book about a real place and real people who really did suffer horrifically for years while the world stood by, but I have to keep search for the light in the book. I have to search, because my search for it is also my character's search. (And she's such an incredible young woman that even when I think I might give this book up, I don't, because of her.) If she lets the sadness swallow her whole, she'll never make it through. And she does (spoiler alert) so she must carry the torch.And when I imagine the story in my head, my mind lingers on the scene of my characters with a candy cane, passing it back and forth in a world where sweets are unimaginable. The way they laugh. Their first kiss. When I imagine the story, I cling to what my character calls the sunlight patches of their life.So moving forward, instead of connecting plot points, at least in this draft, I'm going to imagine connecting patches of sunlight in this book. I'm following my main character who would think it was a wonderful game, even if her life was at risk. She's game for an adrenaline rush.I'm following her as she jumps from stone to stone in this book, crossing the frozen, cold creek. It's tempting to look down into the water and think about how cold it'd be if I fell in, how quickly it'd sweep me away, but if I keep my eyes up, the next sunlit stone isn't that far away. I can make it.I'm following my character across this cold, dark sadness, reveling in the sunlight, and behind me, comes the reader. We'll all make it across. The sadness won't swallow us. It won't sweep us away. My hand's in hers. My other hand's in yours. See? We're laughing.