…or what we really need from a story.
I read the other day that many aspiring and novice writers tend to avoid the very thing that makes a story interesting. When these moments, the moments where characters at cross purposes cross paths, are what we read for.
The conflict. The tension. The argument. The fight. The physical war. The silent war.
We read for the exchange of glares and stares with set jaw, thin lips, narrowed eyes, boiling blood, red face, quickened pulse, and perspiring palms. What will happen next? We must know because the characters we like are struggling with what they need versus what they have.
We read for the break up and reconciliation. We read for the beginning and end of a battle. We read for a naive character gaining wisdom. We read for the prideful character finding humility. We read for the pursuit, loss, and rediscovery of love. We read for the saving of the world or the saving of a family. We read for the hero to triumph and the villain to fall. We read for small victories and great victories. We read for things to change.
We don’t want to read about happy characters making a great living where their boss and co-workers idolize them. We don’t want to read about characters with loving and supportive spouses and high-achieving and obedient children living the dream in the suburbs with the annual vacation to the timeshare in Lake Tahoe. We don’t want to read about the well-adjusted character who was raised by kind, wise, and affectionate parents, who provided everything and the character lacked for nothing and faced no adversity in their childhood.
As much as we want and aspire to some of these things in our lives, why wouldn’t we want to read about characters that have it all and can just cruise through life without any ill winds blowing their way?
Because it’s boring.
Stories are not meant to lull us into a false sense of the ideal life around us. A story is a window into a setting where characters struggle for what they want and fight for what they need. Story is drama.
Dictionary.com defines drama as “…a story involving conflict or contrast of character…”
Think back to your favorites books or even movies. What happened? Did someone just cruise through a perfect life with no problems? Or did things go wrong from the beginning and the entire story was about trying to set it right or at least to achieve some form of equilibrium?
So, when a writer tries to tell a story by emulating what we want in real life, he misses the whole point of telling a story. There must be a difficult and challenging path for the characters and it is the writer’s job to provide those obstacles and really push the characters to overcome. Because it through that process of overcoming that we as readers truly identify with the characters we like most. We share their journey through the ups and downs and can experience the highs and lows we may not normally find in real life.
Very few of us will sneak through an orc encampment in the heart of an evil nation to toss a ring into a molten lake inside a mountain like Frodo did in Lord of the Rings. But, we were right there with his every faltering step, his every burden, his struggle against Gollum, and the weight of the ring itself on his soul. We won’t do that in life, but we did it through a story.
So, next time you read a story, relish the conflict, the drama, the tension. The author worked hard to make life difficult for the characters so that they could learn and grow from their experiences.
And if the writer does his job well, and you as reader identify with a particular character and a particular struggle, then you may just learn a little bit about yourself.
And isn’t that really why we read stories?