We put our characters through a lot. Obstacles that causefrustration. Losses that cause grief. Regrets that cause despair. It's our goal as writers to portray our characters experiencing a variety of circumstances--preferably tough ones. It can add a powerful sense of realism to our work.
So how do we show this sadness?
Ways to Show Grief
1. TEARS. The traditional way: weeping, wailing, sobbing, tears streaming down the face. This works, but can end up feeling melodramatic. You can unintentionally create a distance if your reader doesn't relate to the degree of emotions your character is feeling. Definitely don't go all flowery and soppy in your prose when your character is crying; usually simpler is better.
A few tears really do go a long way. Tears can be cliché. But don't neglect them either, or your reader will wonder why your character isn't reacting realistically.
2. BODY LANGUAGE. Slumped shoulders, flat voices, shuffling feet. Trembling hands or lips. An ache in the chest or throat. A building pressure behind the eyes or difficulty finding breath. Listlessness. All these things are great ways of showing sadness without writing the words tears, crying, or sadness.
Key concept: SHOW not TELL your characters' emotions.
3. INTERACTIONS. How your characters react to the world when they are sad is very revealing. They may shout, argue, or rant--displaying their grief by tipping into anger. They may go quiet and somber, staring off into the distance or reducing conversations to monosyllables and short sentences. They may lock themselves up in their rooms, drink to numb the pain, pretend everything is fine, or even seek out social settings where they feel alive and connected. Often judgment is skewed, and they can make (plot-interesting) mistakes while grief-stricken.
It's a Subjective Thing
Everyone has different triggers that makes him/her feel grief; what pulls the heartstrings of some people leaves other people cold and unaffected. Some readers cry over details that other don't, such as a homeless dog or a faded rose from a lost relationship. Others won't cry over a book no matter what happens in it! It depends on your readers' overall experiences and personality.
Trying Too Hard
Often if our GOAL is to elicit an emotion from our readers with a scene ("I'm going to write an intensely sad scene today, that will make everyone weep"), we will often fail to do so. The scene can feel manipulative, and people will be annoyed rather than sad. Readers can usually tell. It's better to be emotionally honest and write from your gut feelings rather than go about the scene with an overt sense of purpose.
Staying True to Your Character
How you show grief in your stories depends on your character. Is your character emotionally free and not afraid to weep in front of others? Is he or she more stoic, hiding their emotions from the world? Are they the kind who weep with a single tear--or fall to their knees wailing?
Universal Events of Sadness
Certain circumstances are universal in their ability to cause grief. Interestingly, readers don't have to have suffered the same loss or circumstance in order to feel sadness or relate to your character. Especially if you have written the scene honestly and well. These include death of a loved one, regret, loneliness, feeling rejected or ostracized, loss of a friendship/relationship, and making a hard choice or sacrifice that leads to a negative outcome (choosing to suffer).
What things in stories make you feel sadness--what sad things do you relate to?
How would or does YOUR character show sadness or grief?
Can you think of any other universal themes or events where your character would experience sadness?