Storyville: Happy, Not Sappy
I know that a lot of people here at Lit Reactor tend to write dark stories. Whether those are horror, neo-noir, crime, fantasy, science fiction or literary stories, the desire to see how characters react to trauma, violence, and negative experiences is a normal one. It’s just more interesting to see how people deal with a bad day instead of a good one. But how do you write a positive, upbeat story without it being melodramatic? How can you focus on the light, instead of the dark? Here are some ideas on writing fiction that isn’t so dark—maybe someday soon you’ll finally be able to show your spouse or parents one of your stories!
WHAT’S WRONG WITH DISNEY?
For a lot of people, the idea of writing a happy story is akin to watching a Disney film—boring, predictable, and fluffy material that’s aimed at naive children. But that’s far from the truth. If you dig down deeper into the layers of those films, you’ll see that even though they may all have happy endings, the journey getting there was certainly not an easy one. Bambi’s mother is killed early in the film, Cinderella lives a life as a slave, essentially, and Snow White is banished from her kingdom by an evil stepmother. So, just be aware that your own perception of a children’s story with a happy ending may be more complicated than you remember. And don’t get me started on the Grimm fairy tales—they are filled with cannibalism, dismemberment, bestiality and much more.
DARK INTO THE LIGHT
As touched on in the Disney references, one way that you can write a more upbeat story is to start in the darkness and work your way out. If there is sexual abuse, overcome it. If there is a death in the family, find a way to make it a cautionary tale. If there is danger, survive it. The overall sensation of a story like this is one of relief—the girl doesn’t get raped and murdered in the forest. The child that was abducted is found alive, unharmed, and the parents learn a valuable lesson. The beauty of a story (or novel) like this is that you can start with a great hook, a powerful scene, and then work your way out of the misery, damage, and horror to a better place where the audience can finally breathe.
LOSE THE DARK CRUTCHES
When I was studying for my MFA, I came into the program with a certain style. I was writing dark fiction, for sure, and the stories I submitted were definitely in the neo-noir, horror, and dark literary genres. Over time, I worked with many different professors. My thesis director was a Pulitzer nominated author, so when he spoke, I shut up and listened. I wanted to stretch myself, to expand the writing I was doing, and get into the literary journals that could propel my career and improve my CV. And most of those journals were not going to publish dark, sexual, violent stories—in other words, most of what I was writing. What could I do?
My professor issued me a challenge. After reading a few of my stories, he told me to turn in something where nobody died—either in the beginning, the middle, or the end. There was to be no graphic sex of any kind. And there were to be no endings with twists. I accepted his challenge. And the next day, I thought to myself, well, what the hell am I going to write? And then I had a revelation.
When Richard Bausch came down to our MFA program he spoke at great length about many things. Maybe I was tired, worn out from staying up late in my concrete bunker dorm room, but I was on the verge of tears as he spoke to me about emotional truths. A light bulb went off. The reason we can say such a wide variety of authors in so many different genres can be called literary, or masters of the written word, is that the great ones transcend genre and get right to the heart of the story, and the center of our lives out here in the real world. We’ve all been in love and had our hearts broken. We all come from some sort of family—conservative, progressive, or dysfunctional. We all have hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties—so tap into those truths. Ray Bradbury and Flannery O’Connor and Denis Johnson and J. R. R. Tolkien were successful (and are still read today) because they spoke to us about politics, emotions, and sociological issues that we can all relate to: love, community, loneliness, hope, loss, fear, friendship, loyalty, and so much more. If you can tap into those emotional truths, your story will resonate.
AVOID THE MELODRAMATIC
You have to avoid the melodramatic when writing an upbeat, happy story (and while you’re at it, avoid melodrama when you are writing dark, miserable stories, too). Don’t make your heroes flawless—they can’t always win. Don’t make your women simple, helpless creatures who fall for big, strong men—give them depth, and character and intellect. Think shades of gray not black and white. Avoid stereotypes and work against the grain. Avoid the use of words like love and soul and other descriptions that make the moment more than it is—the life of your characters filled with drama—every trip to the mailbox, every phone call, every conversation. Think of how a soap opera works and avoid everything they do. If you’ve never watched one, record one, and check it out. Every scene is a cliffhanger, every revelation life changing, every betrayal the most intense and horrible thing that could happen. Sometimes there is more emotion and truth in a quiet scene where an alcoholic sits down at a bar, his hands trembling, as he prepares to fall off the wagon for a woman he’s in love with, than a loud, drunken scene in a hospital in the light of day.
DON’T WIN EVERY BATTLE
Just because you have a happy ending doesn’t mean that everything has to be perfect. Does the hero have to catch the villain, win the girl, and save the baby in the stroller, too? In the real world, the people in your stories will not always succeed. In the process of learning, of having a life changing revelation, they should probably lose a few things along the way. We need to see that they are flawed, not perfect, not superheroes, or we will have trouble relating. We can’t have sympathy for a character if they never earn it, if they never hesitate, screw up, or fail. It’s much more satisfying to root for the underdog, right? We want to see vengeance—we want to see the wronged person get justice in the end. But that doesn’t always mean a gun, a knife, an alley with bodies, and shovels piercing dirt in the woods. It can be the smallest victory, a slight change—a single step forward, finally, after a lifetime of failure and suffering. Happy, uplifting endings do not mean that the entire story is sunshine and daydreams. It can just mean a ray of hope, a chance to succeed, a change of perspective, and a love renewed.
THINGS STILL NEED TO HAPPEN
Just because you are trying to write a lighter, happier story doesn’t mean that things have to slow down, get dull, and remain in the mind of the protagonist. We still need action, we still need to see people change, we still need anxiety—but show us these moments in a positive way. Show your character doing noble things, show them working hard for something, so that when they succeed, we cheer them on. But don’t make it too easy—otherwise there will be no tension. Even Harry Potter lost a few battles, had his friends die around him, failed now and then.
HAPPINESS IS SUBJECTIVE
There is happy and there is happy. Don’t feel like you have to write a romantic comedy, a soap opera, or a restrained YA story. The difference between an overall feeling of happiness, or relief, or even joy can be as simple as what the final lines, the final scene, the final observation is. A man, lost and out of his mind, finally finds his family, who he thought was dead. He has been through hell. Think about these different endings and how they change your feelings, as a reader: (A) His wife answers the door, recognizes him, cries and pulls him into the house. (B) His wife answers the door, recognizes him, as his kids laugh in the background, and a new man yells to her from the kitchen, asking her if she’s okay, and she closes the door, shaking her head, saying it was just a salesperson. Now, obviously (A) is simplified and melodramatic, but there’s room in there for that happy ending, a way to craft it so we walk away satisfied, right?
WHAT I DID
For my MFA program I wrote three stories under the new guidelines that I mentioned above. One was called “Sugar and Spice,” and was about a father dealing with his daughter finally coming of age. His revelation and change comes in the final scene where he realizes that he can’t control his daughter, he never really could. He loves her and he worries about her, but she is not innocent, and the best he can do is hope that he has taught her well, and that she will heed his advice. He knows that he will always be there for his daughter, as she grows up, and in that moment a great weight is lifted. Another story I wrote was entitled “Moving Heavy Objects,” and it’s about a grown man who doesn’t understand his father—there is a disconnection, a chasm between them. Over time, he realizes that his father is just a man, not immortal, not perfect. He learns about some of his father’s mistakes, things he has done, and forgives him for not being what the son wanted him to be. He realizes his father can only be who he is, and that nothing will change that. When his father shows a moment of grace and gratitude at the very end, we come to that realization at the same time as the protagonist. The third story is called “Garage Sales,” and involves a newly divorced woman and her son. They bond over these neighborhood escapades, and eventually start breaking the rules of the household, creating a surreal and fun home, much different than when the father was around. While the ending isn’t entirely happy, the hope and love between the two is obvious, and they’ve grown closer. Nobody dies in these three stories, nobody has sex, and there is no twist ending. The weight and emotion at the end of these stories is earned (if I’ve done my job well) and hopefully the imagery will resonate long after the story is over.
Maybe you’ll never write a happy story, and that’s okay. But it’s important to understand how to manipulate your readers into feeling whatever emotion you want them to feel. There will come a day when the ending needs to be filled with love and light and hope. Practice figuring out how to get there and you’ll be a better writer for it. The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference—and the last thing we want as authors is an indifferent audience.
TO SEND A QUESTION TO RICHARD: drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.
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