50 Sad Story Ideas That Will Leave Your Readers Shattered
What is it about a sad story idea that’s so appealing?
I mean, it seems weird, right—the things readers want us to put them through? And it might be even weirder that we fulfill their requests so eagerly.
Maybe it’s because a book is a safe space. Sad stories give us an opportunity to explore difficult topics and our own capacity for sorrow without enduring real-life trauma.
Or maybe it’s that, like a sad song, a devastating story is cathartic. If we could use a good cry, a heart-wrenching book will get the job done.
Or maybe—and this is my favorite explanation—it’s the connective experience of seeing our own familiar pain reflected in an unfamiliar life. What reveals our common humanity more than our shared knowledge of loss, rejection, heartache, and isolation?
And what’s more reassuring than our ability to hurt because someone else—even a fictional someone else—is hurting?
Of course, in order to pull any of this off, you’ve got to know how to use your sad story idea well. You need to know how to write a tearjerker without leaning on clichés or accidentally exploiting real-life trauma.
Fortunately, you’re about to learn exactly that. I’ll also share 50 sad story ideas you can use to write a novel your readers will never get over.
Let’s get started.
How to Evoke Emotion
The key to evoking emotion is to make your story feel real for your readers. Help them forget they’re reading fiction.
Now, a carefully crafted plot and fully developed characters will go a long way towards accomplishing this goal. But you’ll need a few nuanced moves to really drive those big feelings home. Moves like this:
A little context helps your reader not only connect with your character’s sadness but also understand the depth and complexity of their sadness.
It’s one thing for your protagonist to lose their beloved dog. It’s another for them to lose the dog that sat loyally at their feet for every AA meeting when they were at the lowest point in their life.
Creating context can be as simple as adding a couple sentences or as revealing a full backstory through flashbacks. Either way, help your reader understand what this harrowing situation actually means for the character.
Keep It Real
Our hungry little author brains devour all the tricks and maneuvers other writers use to spark emotions. Then, sometimes, we accidentally regurgitate those strategies onto the page (gross), using them as a sort of shortcut to accomplish what those other writers did.
That’s how we get clichés—characters sobbing into pillows and punching walls and saying “Don’t you die on me!”
To avoid this, key into your own emotions and life experiences.
How does loss feel in your body? What mannerisms do you observe when your romantic partner is angry? How would you describe the sounds and smells of a hospital if you’d never read another author’s description?
By all means, notice when another author’s story puts the sting in your tear ducts. But ask yourself why you feel so connected to the story. Is it the characterization? The sensory details? A vivid metaphor?
Take the lesson and make it your own.
Show, Don’t Tell
If you’re not already familiar with this popular piece of writing advice, here’s the gist:
Great writing shows the reader what’s happening rather than explaining the scene.
For example, this is showing:
“So many times my eyes in the mirror were vacant or bruised with sorrow. Tonight they are clear and kohl lined, seemingly darkened by mystery and secrets, a cat-eyed stare shining with anticipation.” –Before I Let Go
This is telling:
“I’m used to seeing myself look sad in the mirror. Tonight my make-up looks good and I feel more alive.” –Me, ruining the line from Before I Let Go
Help the reader experience the moment for themselves. If you could use some help building your “show, don’t tell” muscles, we’ve got worksheets for that exact purpose.
At some point in your writerly life, you’re going to have to write about a trauma you have not experienced yourself. When you do, a strong imagination and deep sense of empathy can get you pretty far. But it won’t be enough.
Take some time to research the experience you’re writing about. Find articles about the psychological effects. Listen to podcasts in which specialists or survivors discuss that particular kind of trauma. Read the memoirs of people who’ve been through similar struggles.
(Little tip: we’ve got a couple articles to get you started on respectfully writing depressed and abused characters.)
It may also be a good idea to hire a sensitivity reader who can review your next-to-final draft and make sure you’re representing that experience respectfully.
This extra effort can help you…
Stay Out of the Exploitation Zone
There are two big things you want to look out for when you brainstorm sad story ideas.
First, notice if you have a character who’s defined exclusively by the sad thing that happens to them.
For example, do you have an abused character who’s got nothing else going on other than being victimized? Or do they also experience joy and hope on occasion? Do they look for ways to find some sense of control?
As tragic as a character’s situation may genuinely be, painting them with one big trauma brush flattens them. They become sadness caricatures and the reader becomes super aware that the author’s trying to make them cry.
Second, be extremely careful about sad story ideas that are basically just “the protagonist is from a marginalized community” (assuming it’s not your community).
For one thing, there’s a risk of portraying someone else’s entire identity as inherently sad. In no universe is that a good thing.
And for another, marginalized voices are only beginning to get a shot at the spotlight. They’ve endured generations of watching writers from outside their community tell their stories with very little effort to get it right.
I personally believe that when it comes to the identity-specific challenges of a marginalized demographic, it’s best to let the people who’ve lived it tell their own stories.
50 Sad Story Ideas
Now that you’ve had a quick lesson on devastating readers both effectively and ethically, let’s get those wheels turning.
Here are 50 sad story ideas spanning five different topics.
Purpose and Identity
- After a crushing loss, a talented artist struggles to regain their creative spark.
- A serious injury forces a young athlete to end the career they’ve built their entire identity around.
- When a grandparent is diagnosed with dementia, they invite their adult grandchild on a cross-country roadtrip, hoping to connect on a deeper level before their condition progresses.
- A struggling musician plans a final performance before giving up on their dream.
- A military chaplain experiences a crisis of faith after witnessing atrocities on the war front.
- While working with a therapist to process a friend’s death by suicide, an emotionally avoidant person confronts their own mental health struggles.
- Unhoused for the first time, a middle-aged person navigates the challenges of life without a home.
- After spending the first part of their life as “the only one of their kind,” an adolescent “extraterrestrial” embarks on a mission to find their planet of origin, only to learn they were made in a lab.
- A teenager is forced to rethink everything when they realize the “religion” they were raised in is actually a cult.
- A person finds themselves feeling trapped and unhappy in their “idyllic” life, realizing for the first time that they worked hard to build a life that would spark everyone’s envy but their own.
- The accidental loss of a cherished family heirloom sparks a long-overdue family feud and unearths old grievances.
- A couple considers divorce when they reach an impasse about how to handle their fertility struggles.
- A young adult goes on a mission to find their twin who went missing as a child. Along the way, they’re forced to confront their resentment over a childhood that was always about the sibling who wasn’t there.
- Parents fight to get their kidnapped and adopted child back from the adoptive parents. (Or the reverse perspective: parents learn that their adopted child was kidnapped—not orphaned—and the birth parents want the child back.)
- A peasant child adopted into a royal family feels trapped between worlds.
- Two siblings who had very different experiences in the foster care system struggle to find a connection as adults.
- A stray dog goes on a journey to find a loving home.
- A single parent struggles to rescue their adult child from a cult.
- Conflict arises when an economic crisis threatens the survival of a 90-year-old family business.
- After stumbling on a family secret they were never supposed to know, three cousins carry the burden of deciding whether or not to reveal information that could destroy their family.
- An elderly couple struggles to stay connected after their different medical needs force them to live in separate care facilities.
- Lifelong friends find themselves on opposite ends of the political divide, both sucked into social media rage culture and ultimately unable to find their way back to one another.
- Two teenagers struggling with anxiety and isolation during the pandemic discover a deeper connection in their virtual study group.
- After spending a decade together, a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity forces a couple to navigate a long-distance relationship. New opportunities and experiences cause them to question whether their relationship allows them to be their true selves.
- Young lovers are torn apart when one becomes the accused in a literal witch trial.
- After fighting with their neighbor/friend, a person leaks a rumor about the neighbor that has more devastating consequences than they expected.
- A young, orphaned wizard discovers their adored mentor has been luring them towards danger this whole time.
- Now in danger of losing their house, a newly unemployed person discovers their best friend is to blame for their firing.
- A divorced couple reunite after two years of not speaking to put their cat to sleep together. They spend the remainder of the day hashing out what went wrong in their marriage.
- An engaged couple begins to question if love really is enough as they endure the painful process of planning a wedding that doesn’t involve their disapproving parents.
- A soldier returns home to a changed world.
- After accidentally starting a destructive wildfire, a former #vanlife influencer struggles to forgive themselves even as they try to make amends with the communities they’ve hurt.
- A family is separated while fleeing war and must find their way back to one another.
- Questioning the accuracy of their own recollections, the witness to a violent crime grapples with the power of their testimony to destroy the defendant’s life.
- Having recently witnessed a mass shooting, a student struggles to find a sense of purpose or hope as they begin their first year of college.
- A general makes a seemingly minor error that results in a devastating attack on their utopian kingdom.
- A teacher must keep their students safe after an earthquake leaves them trapped in their classroom.
- When severe drought causes a lake to shrink, an unidentified body surfaces. A detective works tirelessly to determine who the person is and provide closure for the family.
- After being seriously injured in an avalanche, a skier must come to terms with the loss of their Olympic dreams.
- A child tries to find their way home after being swept away in a flash flood.
- Still grappling with their own mortality, a heart transplant recipient decides to honor their donor by completing the donor’s unfinished bucket list.
- A hospice nurse is at a loss when the time comes to guide her own father through his final days.
- As their single parent battles a terminal illness, a young teenager has no choice but to serve as primary caretaker.
- After losing their mentor in a diving accident, a deep-sea diver confronts their new fear of the ocean by taking on a dangerous cave diving expedition.
- A widow(er) learns their late spouse committed a heartbreaking betrayal. Now they must grieve not only their partner but also the person they believed their partner was.
- After the death of the family dog, a child seeks the answer to whether there’s an afterlife for pets.
- Unable to move on, a widow(er)/scientist keeps traveling back in time to relive their best days with their spouse. Meanwhile, their current life is crumbling due to their neglect.
- Now able to see and understand their loved ones on a deeper level, the ghost of a recently deceased person feels regret for the way they handled their relationships in life.
- A person with a terminal illness seeks to make amends with an estranged relative before it’s too late.
- A teenager grapples with survivor guilt after a close friend dies saving their life.
Craft Your Tearjerker With Dabble
Hopefully a few of those ideas spoke to you or inspired some of your own. And now that the sad story ideas are coming in hot, you’re gonna need a place to store and organize your brilliant brainstorm.
Allow me to suggest Dabble. From Story Notes and the famous Plot Grid to co-authoring and commenting, Dabble has everything you need to stay organized through the entire writing process.
Plus, you can access Dabble on any device, online or off, and never worry about losing a word of genius thanks to autosave.
Want to try it for yourself? Snag a free 14-day trial by clicking this link.
Now get there and utterly destroy your readers. In a good way.
TAKE A BREAK FROM WRITING...
Read. Learn. Create.
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