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When I think of sad story, I think of Greek tragedies, so naturally they should have a sad ending, and the characters should not deserve what happens to them. So I was thinking that I simply need to make sure that the injustice is so great that it makes the readers extremely mad and frustrated. Am I correct to assume this, but wouldn't doing so also hurt the story, since you have to make them extremely mad and frustrated? I am trying to write the saddest story ever written.

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    Anger and frustration are not the same as sadness. And they might even distract people from taking the time to really feel sad.
    – user54131
    Jan 2, 2023 at 7:32
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    You want to write a story that is as sad as possible TO YOU. As you've commented below, you've read/watched stories that were sad to others, but frustrating to you. Everyone experiences grief differently, a story where you attempt to make everyone sad will just feel manipulative.
    – crthompson
    Jan 3, 2023 at 17:26
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    "I am trying to write the saddest story ever written." Sell to your readers a book is just a mirror once they open the cover. Let them reflect on what is sad on their own lives. Let them alone with their demons for a moment. Then prepare to get sued over emotional damage.
    – T. Sar
    Jan 3, 2023 at 18:18
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    Write the ten first minutes of Up!
    – coredump
    Jan 3, 2023 at 19:32
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    For sale: baby shoes, never worn
    – LarsTech
    Jan 3, 2023 at 21:39

8 Answers 8

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To no fault of their own.

In my opinion the saddest stories are where the characters do everything right and still lose.

Examples:

A princess is sick, and a brave knight goes on a quest to save her... a lot of hardship but he finds the medicine... only to come home and see he is too late...

All his suffering down the road, the sacrifices he has made... for nothing.

American History X (SPOILER)

A neo-nazi gets sent to prison and turns his life around, but sees that his little brother is still stuck in the wrong crowd... he helps his little brother turn his life around as well, but then his little brother gets shot by a black student he discriminated against earlier in the story.

He was a bad person at the start, turned his life and that of his brother around, only to lose what mattered most to him in the world, ironically by the people he hated for no reason.

Pay it Forward (SPOILERS)

A little boy starts a movement, instead of paying back favors people should pay it forward...it catches on and a lot of people get helped and it builds a sense of community. Near the end the boy sees somebody being bullied and tries to help, doing the right thing, only to get stabbed to death.

Somebody who has done nothing wrong, only trying to help...having to pay it with his life.

The Mist (SPOILERS)

A large group of people become stuck in a grocery store while an apocalyptic mist filled with monsters covers everything they can see. A man and his son are stuck there while the group gets smaller and smaller because of monster attacks and it also becomes more dangerous from in because a cult is formed that suggests sacrificing children to god to keep them safe...he, his son and 3 others manage to escape in a truck but in the end they are still stuck in the mist with no fuel and hearing monsters everywhere... they have a gun with 4 bullets so he shoots his son and the others to make sure they won't suffer at the hands of the monsters and goes outside ready to be eaten alive... and boom the US army shows up in tanks and with flamethrowers killing all the monsters less then 5 minutes later and suddenly he sees the cultists all being safely evacuated.

He didn't fall for the despair/insanity like most other survivors...he tried to make sure his loved ones didn't suffer needlessly... and turns out if he was a bit more patient (maybe even selfish) he would have had an happy ending.

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    Good examples, but for The Mist, when I watched it many years ago I didn't feel sad at all, I felt mad at the director of the movie to make such tragedies via suicide.
    – justhalf
    Jan 3, 2023 at 9:37
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    @justhalf personally i find it both sad and hilarious.
    – A.bakker
    Jan 3, 2023 at 9:48
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    The Mist is an horrible piece of writing that makes the pain of a father the butt of a terrible joke. It's not sad, it is psychotic. Pay it forward is legit sad, tho.
    – T. Sar
    Jan 3, 2023 at 18:22
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    If you're going to block out spoilers, you might as well hide all of the spoilers for The Mist. Your last sentence has it out in the open.
    – nasch
    Jan 3, 2023 at 21:33
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    @GregMartin because "Prince saving princes' is a trope i used it as an easy to understand generic example :|
    – A.bakker
    Jan 4, 2023 at 21:30
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The sharpest tragedy is intimately personal

The world blew up and everybody died. The end.

This is not a very sad story. There is an infamous quote, "One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic."

A little girl got run over and died.

This is sad. People are often especially sympathetic with the misfortunes of women and children. But beyond that, the more attachment you can build, and the more personal you can make it feel, the more painful the story.

Janie, my best friend's younger sister, was hit by a car. My friend was driving. I've never seen somebody cry like he did before he drove off the bridge and into the canyon. This is the worst day of my life.

But even a terrible story can be made worse if you can force the reader to vividly imagine a character's anguish:

What am I going to tell my friend's mother?

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  • “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” by Mel Brooks.
    – Peteris
    Jan 5, 2023 at 2:03
  • The first is literally the beginning of Douglas Adams' hilarious Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the fifth volume of the trilogy some interdimensional instability offered a chance to avoid it. That chance was, iirc, thwarted by an obnoxious teenager. That in turn was tragic in a, dare I say, very familiar way (been there, done that). Jan 5, 2023 at 9:27
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I think the most important part to achieve your goal is to focus on connection between the reader and the character(s).

A feeling of sadness only arises if the reader is emotionally invested in the character(s) of the story. Hardship, tragic events etc only matter if the reader cares about the character(s).

People are the most sad if somebody they love is affected by bad things.

Focus on the characters and their development. The reader needs to feel like the characters are their friend, partner, family.

The other answers have great advise for shaping the story.

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  • This is it. Being sad implies a loss. You must have something (emotional) before you can be sad that it's gone. Jan 5, 2023 at 9:48
  • To add to this: Without emotional investment, a story can only really be sad on a surface level: the reader may acknowledge that what happens in the story is "sad", but they wouldn't feel sad. Find a meaningful story to tell, and then you can begin to think how to evoke emotion in your writing, to complement that story (rather than trying to do that the other way around).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 5, 2023 at 10:25
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    Um, I guess you missed the "the more attachment you can build, and the more personal you can make it feel, the more painful the story" bit of my answer? I mean, it bears emphasizing, but I certainly didn't miss that part.
    – Jedediah
    Jan 5, 2023 at 14:54
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    @Jedediah That is fair enough. I did miss that part in your answer. Jan 6, 2023 at 7:21
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    Edited my answer to be more about my point and less about the other answers. Jan 6, 2023 at 7:27
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The saddest things are when you combine as many of the following as possible.

  • Something bad happens to an innocent
  • It is not the fault of the suffering person
  • It isn't anybody's else's fault either
  • Somebody feels like it is their fault when it is not
  • The suffering goes on for a long time, especially when the suffering person knows they are in "big trouble"
  • The situation could be fixed quite easily "if only" but "if only" does not happen
  • If multiple people have the bad thing happening at the same time, and one of them is "noble" in order to help the others

There are archetype situations. One quite heavily used one is the lost child in its many variations (kitten, astronaut, etc.) The idea is, an innocent is lost, knows he is in trouble, is slowly starving etc. The parent (dog owner, mission control, etc.) thinks it is their fault the child is lost, but really it was because of a storm, car accident, etc. The child could be found if only people searched in the right place. But everybody thinks the child is lost over here when the kid is really over there.

Things that relieve the sadness or change it to something else are many.

  • Injustice tends to make it anger rather than sadness. A kidnapping engenders rage rather than pathos. If the Evil Stepmother really did dump Snow White in the woods, it is more about anger than sadness. If the car crash did result from drunk driving, people tend to move towards anger at the drunk.
  • If the suffering ends quickly then the degree of sadness is less. Somebody falling off a building produces a quick burst of sadness that decreases quickly.
  • If the suffering person is not aware they are in trouble it tends to make it suspenseful rather than sad. Horror films do this a lot. The first victim of the slasher does not see it coming.
  • If multiple people are in trouble at the same time and one of them tries to hog the resources to save himself. 4 parachutes for 5 people, I want mine, and it becomes a fight rather than pathos. But if a father is there strapping his parachute to his pregnant wife, you are going to have salt.
  • If all hope is lost then emotion tends to get disconnected. It tends to become "past tense" and much of the emotion is drained out.
  • Similarly, if there is too much hope, then the sadness gets drained. We are not sad for Lois Lane dangling from the ledge because Superman is her boyfriend and he will save her.
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I see you accepted an answer anyway, but here is some advice.

Read really tragic stories.

I remember reading a story from a Norse saga involving a shipwreck. The protagonist's wife gives birth to baby boy and dies. It seems like the baby is doomed, but the father keeps him alive somehow, even once snatching him from the jaws of a polar bear. And in the end_____

And if you want to read sad stories for inspiration, try reading J.R. R. Tolkien's Silmarillion or the stories from it.

The Children of Hurin 2007

Beren and Luthien 2017.

The Fall of Gondolin 2018.

And maybe you can ask on history sites for example of really tragic and sad stories from history.

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  • Some of Andersen's fairy tales qualify. The most intense is a story from the perspective of the dying narrator. No plot armor in The Fir Tree. Jan 5, 2023 at 10:03
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Just tell the truth. Nothing is sadder or more legitimately evocative of sorrow than the genuine sufferings and privations of real people, even if anonymized. Many of the most ingenious and heart-wrenching works of fiction were truthful echoes of this world's history, figurative representations of real persons and events, and parables. Examples might include Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities, Alexandre Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien, to name a few.

A key is that you must establish a shared value system with your readers. Historical fiction or allegories that draw on people's lived experiences have the added bonus of being the most highly relatable. For this reason, many works of fiction and fantasy in particular fall far short of delivering the full level of engagement for readers of all ages, because their worlds, characters and circumstances are too contrived; such works tend to appeal to the young and naive, but not to persons of broader experience or more deeply founded emotion. (Although we like to pretend that vicarious emotion is the most powerful sort, such emotions are often too vague, since in the real world they remain undefined or without adequate context). If you put feeling into it, others can feel that feeling. The likenesses to real world events or persons do not always need to be too obvious or uncanny, but in order to be engaging, there must be a familiar principle or circumstance that goes beyond superficial similarity.

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PS: not a native English speaker here and not a professional writer.

I read a light novel once, it hit me more than I expected it to.

A girl was selected to become a 'chosen' one in a world of supers during an incident...but because of her dark element, her power was withheld due to the higher authority consist of people with influence...and at the same time, she was instructed to save the day with the cost of her own life...

What makes it sad is:

  1. Being a 'chosen' should be a happy moment since it will become a new chapter of life (chosen are treated as celebrities and heroes), but this girl was sentenced to death on the same day she was chosen.
  2. The incident could be avoided, but it happened due to a greedy corporation.
  3. She can do much more, but her power was put on hold by the political leaders of nations due to the dark nature of her ability.
  4. She just wanted to save her single friend, but had to save everyone by doing so, including her bullies. If she does nothing, everyone dies; if she acts, everyone else lives except her.
  5. She managed to contact outside, but they cannot help much due to those political leaders who want to stop the news from spreading which will impact those leaders' competence and influence.

In her monologue "all of this can be avoided, but it was the people who made it happen" and she was stuck on both ends which we can all relate to...and the world is currently fighting monsters to survive.

Then the POV changes to the people who want to save her...and the same people broke the rules and told her story and her current situation to the rest of the supers who are currently fighting monsters in other areas...with their power, they light the sky so that the girl saw their solidarity...the girl saw it, but she didn't even realize it was meant for her.

To make it simple:
Create a tragedy scenario, caused by people (which can be avoided) and involve a girl or a teen. It was not up to them to help, but they did it anyway. For the masses, they are happy being saved, but for some people, they know how much was the terrible cost of that peace, especially as they achieved it with the cost of a little girl's life...and for those powerful chosen, they have the abilities to stop it but they are helpless to do so and can only watch that little girl's life slowly slipping away from their own hands...due to political interference, they were celebrated as the hero in the news instead of that little girl...that incident slapped every 'chosen' on their face and reminded them the real reason why they were chosen, and not just to become celebrities with super powers.

To build the story until the finale, the arc consists of 25 chapters and 600 pages.

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Making it personal is what makes the difference between "uupsi, one more red shirt down" and being rendered speechless by sorrow.

Red shirts aren't tragic because we have no emotional connection to them and their death doesn't matter, neither to any characters on screen nor to the story. They might get a 5-second burial and then never be mentioned again.

A tragedy builds up characters for the whole story before tearing them down. This builds an emotional connection. We know this character as a person. He has become a friend to us. We were there when his first child was born... well, you get the idea.

So to maximize sadness, you have to maximize emotional meaning. Something bad must happen to a character we know and care about. It must impact his life in a way we understand and where we feel the weight of the impact. Something he struggled for, and we struggled with him, turns out to be not at all what he hoped for. Instead of being rewarded for his long struggle, he not only fails, but is punished by the very thing he accomplished.

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