“You can’t tell stories about sunshine.” – Garrison Keillor
Last Sunday, I was listening to “A Prairie Home Companion” as I frequently do of a Sunday morning, and the news from Lake Woebegone was about a group of men going out bass fishing on a day that turned out to be windy and rainy and awful, and they didn’t catch many fish, but it wasn’t about fish, it was about doing something that made them happy. At the end of the day when they all went home, they had no fish but they all had stories about the day they went out and it was cold and windy and rainy and miserable and they fished anyway. Because, said Garrison Keillor, “you can’t tell stories about sunshine.”
Sunshine is where we all want to live, and it’s what we wish for people – and characters – we like. But when we’re talking to folks, we seldom tell stories about what a good day we had. “I got up early and had a nice hot shower, played with the cats, had a good morning walk past gardens in full bloom, made eggs for breakfast, finished my knitting project, got the signed contract and the check in the mail, figured out what to do about the sticky spot in the ms. and not only got that done but another 10,000 words as well…” is just not as interesting to either say or hear about as “I slept through the alarm and then the hot water was out so I had to take a cold shower and the plumber can’t come until next Thursday, the cats tipped the litter box over, the copy-edit came in the mail and they want it back in three days and it’s a complete mess that I’m going to have to stay up late every night to finish on time, I went for my walk and halfway through it started pouring so I was soaked when I got home, I dropped a stitch in my knitting and had to rip back twenty rows, and I finally figured out what to do about the sticky spot in the manuscript – rewrite the first eight chapters from scratch.”
When I have a really good day, I don’t tell stories about it; I say “Yeah, Saturday was a really good day; I got a lot done and went to a birthday party at the end and it was fun.” When I have a really bad day, it’s an epic; I can string it out for at least an hour and a half of sympathy dinner. And it seems to work the same way for most folks. And all of us have both kinds of things, good days and bad ones, though the vast majority are a mixed bag.
When it comes to writing, though, many folks want to be at one extreme or the other: Either they want to tell stories of a lovely bright sunny day at noon, or else they want deep black midnight on the proverbial dark and stormy night. Neither one is all that effective. It is hard to make powerful, touching music if you’re only willing to use one note.
Of course, the writers who do this don’t see it that way. The ones who want to only write about sunshine tend to fall in love with their characters and resist allowing anything really bad to happen to any of them. Some of them have also misinterpreted the common advice about plot and conflict, and think it means interpersonal conflict, and hate that sort of thing, and simply won’t do it…and are so busy being stubborn that they don’t take time to think of anything else they could use instead (see last month’s post on plots without villains). Still others have strong moral or philosophical objections to whatever they see as the probable central story problem, and likewise refuse to use it without coming up with anything to replace it.
Midnight writers often talk a lot about being gritty and realistic, or about being edgy. Some of them hate their characters and delight in piling up disasters on them…and, in reverse of the sunshine writers, resist allowing anything really good to happen to them, or to persist for more than about one chapter at a time. Many of them also misinterpret the plot-and-conflict advice in the opposite direction as well: they think that “conflict” means non-stop battle with something, preferably losing all the way. And a few are trying so hard to write a particular sort of “if this goes on…” cautionary tale that they show nothing but the downward plunge, the “caution” part, and kind of forget about the “tale” part.
The most effective storytellers, in my opinion, are the dawn and dusk writers – the ones who mix both sunshine and shadow over the course of the story. Whether the overall impression is of struggling toward a happy ending or fighting a hopeless rearguard action against the coming darkness, the story needs that alternation between happy moments and sad ones, between apparent success and apparent failure, between things getting better and things getting worse.
Without moments of sunshine to relax in, the reader can get so accustomed to the level of tension that it stops having any impact. The midnight writers have to keep ratcheting up the level of horribleness in order to keep the reader’s interest. Without moments of shadow, there is no surprise and no tension, and the reader is likely to get bored even if he/she really likes these characters. The sunshine writers have to come up with more and more unlikely-but-happy twists, or the story ends up flat. This is why that diagram of how plots work that some of us learned in grade school looks like the edge of a saw blade: first the characters are up, then they are down, then up again.
The interesting thing is that the characters don’t have to be up or down in every aspect of their lives at once – and it often works best when they aren’t. The classic example is the two characters who are about to face a probably-deadly battle, who finally admit they love each other. Emotionally, it’s sunshine; in terms of physical survival, it looks pretty dark. Then they fight the battle and win, but one dies; emotionally dark, but sunny for the physical-action side of things.
But you can’t see contrast like that in the dark, and it doesn’t show up very well under blazing noonday sun, either.