Writing a conclusion for a sad story could encompass a world of possible endings, from a Shakespearean death scene to a tearful summer-romance farewell. But before you approach a sad ending, you should set the tone of sorrow and alienation by catching the mood.
Tears Are Necessary
Some guides recommend that you surround yourself with tragedy -- see it on the news or visit terminal patients -- to remove your defenses and expose your emotions. However, it might be better for you to remember your own tragedies and relive them, no matter how painful the experience. If you're moved to tears, remember what Robert Frost said: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader."
Three Meaningful Endings
Once you have the right empathetic mood, you can move in one of three main directions with your protagonist's fate: the protagonist can die, separate forever from a loved one or stay in a bad situation. These possibilities are the most frequent sad endings found in literature, classic to contemporary. But the most important point to remember about any of these conclusions is that your ending must have a cathartic effect -- an emotional release -- for the reader.
Examples of Endings
Both classic and modern writings offer abundant examples of cathartic endings. In Shakespeare's "Othello," the protagonist gives a splendid final speech, rendering his tragedy poetic. In Henry James' "Portrait of a Lady," Isabel Archer stays with her dull husband, making the best of her sad situation. And in Ian McEwan's "Atonement," the protagonist, a writer, takes away the tragic ends of her lovers by literally rewriting their lives.
Try Three Endings
If you're in the right mood and you're aiming for catharsis for yourself and for those reading your work, your ending may suggest itself. If it does not, write three different endings, using the three classic possibilities -- kill the protagonist, leave the protagonist in a bad situation or separate the protagonist from a needed individual. Your own emotions will tell you which ending is most true; it will bring tears to your eyes and therefore to the reader's as well.