Why does sadness occur? Sadness is the result of happiness being taken away, whether that’s love or hope or any number of things.
In order for sadness to exist, happiness must exist. And the more happiness you incorporate into a book/movie/show, the more sadness you can get out of it as well.
Over the past few years, I have noticed an upsetting trend in the way writers handle this balance. They almost entirely eliminate the happiness in favor of a dark and edgy plot, George R.R. Martin being one of the biggest examples of this. I enjoy a Song of Ice and Fire. I’ve read the entire series, but the entire time I was plagued by how much better it could be if there was a bit more happiness, even for little things. The popularity of this series and others have influenced writers to follow this “gritty” style.
Much of what makes it possible for people to feel the emotions of fictional characters and mourn their death/suffering is their ability to relate to them. They need to feel realistic. And the edgy “war is hell and therefore no one can ever smile during it” narrative, among others, is creating unrelatable characters that don’t feel realistic. This ultimately takes away from the writer’s ability to manipulate the audience’s emotions. It is much more effective to build up happiness and rip it away than try to send blow after unsubstantial blow to the audience.
An example of this done well would be Scrubs. Scrubs is a comedy and yet considered by many to be the most realistic doctor show because they make the doctors and nurses real people. Scrubs can get very sad, very fast. And when it does happen, otherwise mild feelings can bring people to tears for multiple reasons. For one, there is the base level content of the moment. Example: someone dying. That’s inherently sad. But the real thing that gets you is that every character’s emotions are transferred to the audience because the audience cares about the characters and their feelings. With this, the writer also holds even more nuanced emotional control. There can be more bittersweet moments and more moments where you can feel different emotions from different characters simultaneously.
These changes in the way plots develop is indicative of a larger problem in current content consumption. More and more, audiences crave a “quick fix” of content. Plots with a lot of build up tend to be ignored a lot of the time. Character development is being tossed aside in favor of death. You can count on one hand the amount of Game of Thrones — the show specifically — characters that experienced substantial character development before being killed off. In most shows, being able to only count so few would be fine, but when a show has so many characters that it is hard to keep track of them, it’s not great. Fewer deaths, but more impactful deaths, would evoke a stronger emotional response, but consistent death delivers a consistent stream of mild emotions and drama and is more appealing to a broader audience searching for a quick fix of drama.
This is not to say that quick fix drama is inherently wrong. It is appealing for a reason, but the upsetting trend is when more and more writers choose the route solely because it is popular and is easy to do and make money off of. The trend takes away, in certain cases, the sincerity of the art form. The fact of the matter is that plot lines that revolve around consistent sadness are relatively easy. Character development and building relatability of characters and moments is much harder, but very valuable. The majority of popular content still uses the delayed delivery of sad moments in favor of character development, but the trend in favor of seeing a plot as a way to mass produce constant unsubstantial blows to make more money is growing across platforms.