Thursday, November 20, 2014

Writing A Sad Book

Photo by Evan-Amos. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
About 18 months ago, I started writing a new novel. No big deal. Writers do it all the time. I’ve done it nine times before. But this would be different. Though in my hubris, I didn’t realize it at the time.

The difference is that this novel would have a sad ending. I’d never written that type of book before. There’s a good reason that the vast majority of books end happily. One of them is that sad books are HARD to write.

Imagine with me. First of all, you have to get the reader to desire something very, very badly. Then, you have to take it away. And make them like it. It’s like holding out a Tootsie pop to a two year old and saying, “These are some yummy. There’s chocolate inside the candy. You’d really love it.” The two-year-old reaches for the Tootsie pop and you pull it away. And here’s the trick. The kid can’t scream and cry. He must say, “I really wanted it, but I know this is best.” Yeah, highly unlikely.

That’s pretty much what a sad book is like. And it all comes down to the ending. And I blew it.

The first ending I wrote, I refer to as the T.S. Elliot ending, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” In other words, I dragged my reader through 80,000+ words and then the main character lost everything and slunk off into the sunset. My beta reader was incensed.

I rewrote the ending so that it would be stronger. I now refer to this as the King Lear ending because after reading it, the reader’s heart lies panting on the floor. The second beta reader said, “This a great ending, but wow, there’s no hope. Don’t you want some hope?” (Clearly, she did.)

At this point, I did what I should have done at the very beginning. I talked to a friend who’s made her living writing sad books. (Why didn’t I do this first thing? But “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”—Alexander Pope) She told me that it’s important to make the ending strong, but there must be hope at the end. So I checked the endings of some of my favorite sad novels (anything written by Khalid Hosseini). Strong endings with hope.

I did another revision and with great trepidation sent it to beta reader number three. After she finished, she emailed and said, “I love the ending.”

Score. Now it’s time to eat that Tootsie pop.

N.B. For those of you who read the Screwing Up Time series, this book is not part of that series. So don't worry.


  1. I think there won't be a dearth of readers for these type of books. As for me I like books with humour.

  2. Hi, Connie! I personally find a lot of beauty in sad stories. A story can be sad and beautiful at the same time, especially if there is a small glimmer of light admidst the sadness.