[Blog] How To Write A Sad Scene

In the book I’m currently reading (The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri), I just finished a chapter containing one of the most effective depictions of grief I’ve ever read. It is beautifully written, of course, but no more so than the rest of the book has been. Its strength does not come from flowery language or overwhelming descriptions. There is no devastating itemization of the pain the characters are going through, no over-the-top metaphors attempting to capture all this human feeling and pin it to the page.

If there was, it wouldn’t have worked half so well.

Rather, she just takes several pages to describe the space the character that died once occupied and a few minor details of their existence, as well as an almost emotionless description of the actions taken by those they left behind. And the result is devastating.

It reminds me a little of That One Episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you’ve seen it, I suspect you know exactly which one I’m talking about; it’s not easy to forget. If you haven’t, I won’t spoil it here, other than to say that what the episode shows Buffy going through in the wake of a sudden and unexpected loss is similarly powerful in the way it is utterly mundane and so terribly painful in the way it seems to just stretch on and on.

Both, I think, are phenomenal examples of the writer’s constant quest to show and not tell. As mentioned above, they don’t expend much, if any energy, in depicting every feeling, every emotion. Rather, they slow the action down to a snail’s pace and invite the audience to walk beside the characters as they have to continue on, handling all the things that must be handled when such things happen. There is, if anything, a distinct lack of emotion as the characters that might be expected to feel those emotions don’t have the time, the space, the ability to do so while so many things have to take precedence.

Maybe it’s that very lack of catharsis that allows both to weigh so heavily. There is nowhere for the grief to go so it just builds, piece by piece, growing until it cannot be ignored.