Monday, September 10, 2012

Writing Sad: Six Steps for Mastering the Heart Strings for Profit

In every novel I write there is always one similar component—grief. I suppose that since the death of my four year old son Daniel, I’ve been acutely aware of grief and loss. You can’t escape sadness; it’s all around us. So, to put reality into my stories, my characters are affected by the death of a loved one.

Sadness surrounds you, too. How can the actuality of pain be incorporated into works of fiction and non-fiction so that your stories are believable, and gain the attention of editors and publishers?

Here are tips to master writing the heart strings for profit.

1) Less is more I think when writing a sad scene, less is more. You don’t want to bleed on the page. An overdose of words like anguish, sorrow, pain or heartache tends to make for weary readers. You want readers to feel sadness, not force them to slam the book against the wall. Find alternative words to describe heartbreak.

2) Allow your readers to come to their conclusions As you narrate the chapters of your novel or the points in your article, you want your audience to feel, and relate without your telling them what they must feel. I’ve found the best ways to do this is to look and listen for those emotions that rise in us when something brings tears to our eyes. Think: subtle.

3) Memories of your own loss If you’ve lost someone close, think of how his memory affects you today. Do you get nostalgic when you see an overcoat like Grandpa wore? One line I want to use in a novel someday was said to me by a young man, a pallbearer at this grandfather’s funeral. “His casket seemed too light for all the wisdom he had inside his head and for all the love in his heart.”

4) Use imagery What words or images come to mind as you are driving, cooking or doing laundry? Which passages of your favorite books stir your emotions? Read them aloud and delve into why they speak to you.

Irish author Frank McCourt creates a particularly poignant account in his memoir Angela’s Ashes. At his baby brother Eugene’s funeral, young Frank describes the scene where the casket carriage driver and Frank’s father place pints of beer on top of the baby’s coffin. Frank’s thoughts include: “I hope he’s not cold in that white coffin in the graveyard though I know he’s not there anymore because angels come to the graveyard and open the coffin and he’s far from the Shannon dampness that kills, up in the sky in heaven with Oliver and Margaret where they have plenty of fish and chips and toffee and no aunts to bother you, where all the fathers bring home the money from the Labor Exchange and you don’t have to be running around to pubs to find them.”

5) Listen to the music Is there a song that reminds you of your loved one? When I listen to Elton John’s “Daniel”, my son comes to mind. Not only did he share that name, but the line, “Your eyes have died, you see more than I,” rings true for his life. Before my son’s death, the chemo dimmed his eyes and yet, as he was lying on a sterile bed waiting to die, I believed his eyes, although closed, were experiencing visions of what was to come for him in Heaven. He was certainly seeing much more than I could. Lyrics to music—and poetry—speak volumes in short spaces.

6) Put a little distance As I enter into sorrow (which is never far from me) I also need to detach myself from it. Writing about it from a distance, while also making it real, subtly, choosing words that evoke—words and nuances I might not use every day—makes the piece more effective.

Writing sad adds dosages of truth to our stories and articles, selling them to the public. Done well, it can have our readers partake in a good cry, and, in my opinion, tears, like laughter, are needed for the soul.

This article was first published in Writing for Dollars on June 7, 2011.

~ Alice J. Wisler is the author of Southern fiction—RAIN SONG, HOW SWEET IT IS, HATTERAS GIRL and A WEDDING INVITATION (all by Bethany House). She teaches Writing the Heartache (grief writing courses) both online and at seminars. Learn more at her website: and blogs: and

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