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Saturday, February 19, 2011

And They Lived Happily Ever After...

How many stories do you read or watch where the bad guy wins? I'd wager, not very many. I distinctly recall one movie I watched in my teen years where the good guy and the bad guy did the ten paces, turn and shoot duel. It set you up to root for the good guy. But when they swing around and fire, the good guy takes the bullet, falls over and dies, while the bad guy gets away with all his "evil" plans and wins.

I left the theater depressed. I hated that. It was simply all wrong! The good guy isn't supposed to lose! Evil isn't supposed to win out! But in that movie it did. And it sucked.

"But, Rick, that's truer to real life. Sometimes the good guy doesn't win."

That's exactly the point. The story itself is true to life. In such a duel, the good guy wouldn't always prevail because what level of skill a person might have in surviving a duel has nothing to do with whether you are good or bad as a person.

But here's a fact that sometimes authors don't take into account. Fiction isn't real life. If you wrote fiction to exactly mimic real life, it would be the most boring book in the world. For most of us, no one would want to read a book that detailed our day to day lives. They just aren't that interesting, and that's probably about 90% or more of all people. That's not to say that there are not spots in our lives that are interesting, but a good 80% or more of what we do day to day would petrify me bored if we were to read a story that is "real."

I mean, how many of you want to read about me doing data entry for six hours a day? Could I make it interesting as a writer? Sure, but the fact is, it isn't at all interesting. Nothing unusual happens. I don't enter numbers into the accounting system anymore different than the next guy. No one would ooh and aah over my ten-key speed. But if I were to write a story that was "real" about me, that's what you would get. A chapter or more of me describing the keys I'm hitting as I punch numbers in and reconcile bank accounts.

But it goes beyond the fact that writing stories to be "true to life" would be boring if we included every detail of real life. The whole process of writing fiction, or even stories based on true life events, is that we are forced to write in ways that are totally unreal to our real life. I mean, who goes around everyday noticing what everyone is wearing, how the trees are blowing in the wind, the color of someone's eyes they are chatting with? Those are things our brain for the most part takes in subconsciously, and we rarely ever think consciously about them.

Yet we force our characters to notice more detail around them than any of us ever would in a normal day, so that the reader will get a good sense of the place they are in and the characters they talk to. If we wrote it to be more like real life, the stories would be sprinkled with a description of something maybe once a chapter, or depending on the character, once a book. It is this unrealistic and forced perspective on the character point of view that many writers in earlier times used mostly omniscience, because it allowed them to fully describe the scene without forcing a point-of-view character to notice it all.

And it is, or let's say it should be, a well-known fact that when we craft our stories, to have an interesting plot, there needs to be conflict of some type going on. Plot is dependent upon conflict and its resolution. Without that, you don't have a story. You might have some literary piece of work that relies upon poetic feel and breathtaking prose to entrance the reader rather than plot, but you don't have a story that anyone will be interested in reading about. For that to work, it takes conflict. And the bigger the stakes, the more riveting the story will be for the reader.

In my novel about to come out, Reality's Dawn, I have fifteen stories in there of Sisko's adventures between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five. Now if I had gone through half the stuff that I've put poor Sisko through in these stories, I'd be locked up in a metal institution. I've had maybe two events between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five that even get close to the level of something interesting that would make a good story if told as it happened. And like most of life, those didn't have any real "resolution" to the conflicts either. At least none that would satisfy any reader of such a story.

And therein lies the problem. One, if anyone in this life goes through half the things I put Sisko through, they'd be on all the talk shows and numerous magazine interviews. But none of us go through fifteen life-threatening, life shattering events in our teen and young adult life, not to mention our whole lives. Not on the level of what happens to the characters in a standard novel. But even beyond that, in real life those conflicts are rarely tied up at some point. They are usually left as festering wounds that might slowly heal over time, but have become part of who we are for better or for worse.

But that's not what people want to read. When we introduce conflict, it is a given that the reader expects us to resolve that conflict by the end of the story, or at least offer the promise of it in a future novel if a series.

Am I saying all our stories should end with "Happily ever after?" Well, yes and no. Depends on what your definition of "happily" is. If by that you mean the characters never have another problem in their life, and life is perfect from there on, then no. That not only is it not true to life, it is hardly believable.

But if we mean by "happily" that they go on, problems and all, to live a life they are happy with despite encountering some setbacks, problems, hardships here and there, then yes. There are in real life tons of people that fit that description. It is believable that someone could live "happily ever after" in real life with that understanding of "happily." Doesn't mean there are people out there who wish they had a different life, aren't happy with their life, etc. Only that there are a whole lot that are happy with their lives.

But why is that the dominate ending to a story? Because most people don't like a story that ends with an overall depressing ending, where the conflict destroys the protagonist, where he or she doesn't win against all odds. Sure, there are stories like that which work. Often displaying more of a point and frequently use a more omniscient view point so that the reader isn't invested emotionally in one character "winning." And occasionally someone can make a name for themselves doing it simply because it is unusual, if they can handle it in a way and still be entertaining while making their protagonist lose the battle. Some people want to promote that kind of thing not because it is entertaining, but because they think it is more real to life. And they may be right on both accounts, but few writers are going to make it writing such stories. That audience is limited.

Most don't want to see the hero lose. Most expect a resolution, and an overall positive one at that.

I know some are going to disagree with me on that, but note I'm not saying everyone wants that. I'm saying most. If the goal is to reach the widest audience, then a story where the hero loses isn't generally going to do it unless you are making up for it in other areas that attract the general public's attention. Maybe the characters are so riveting themselves that the reader can't help but read on despite the fact he doesn't like what's happening.

That said, there is a way to add some realism into an otherwise happy ending. In most of my stories, they hero "wins" in the end, but usually there's been a cost. Love one lost, or memories of horror, etc. The hero rarely comes out of it unscathed. He's rarely fully "healed."

At the end of Reality's Dawn, the ending can, on the surface, appear to be a "happily ever after" scene. But you learn in the sequel, Reality's Ascent, that what happened toward the end of the first book is still festering inside of Sisko, and that what follows isn't problem-free and everything is happy from that point on. I emphasized that point by adding one line to the end of this new version of the book, "I couldn’t wait to discover what God had planned for us next."

On the surface, that seems like a positive statement. There's expectation, there's a sense of excitement. But he thinks this a few times earlier in the book as well, and what follows? Some pretty awful and heavy stuff. It's the point that even what God has planned for us may not be easy, may not mean some suffering and hardships, but He can bring us through it as well, and that's where the excitement comes into it. But it also says that based on Sisko's history, his excitement at wonder what adventures God has for him next will not mean "happily ever after" other than in the long term view of things, going to Paradise.

What that does is make it more believable. Maybe more like real life, but the signature of writing great fiction isn't to make it more like real life, it is to make it believable. Fiction will never be fully like real life, and if it is, it certainly won't be great fiction. No, great fiction is made more believable, where the reader can suspend disbelief at parts of the story that aren't at all like real life, because it "feels" like real life to them. And most are still looking for a story that isn't like their life. They want to experience a different life. They want to experience an event through a character they would never want to experience themselves.

So while I certainly wouldn't want to write a story where life was perfect and imply there was never another care in the world for our hero(s) by the end of it, the most popular stories contain a certain amount of "happily ever after" in the sense that the main problem has been dealt with, and is over. Maybe the characters will still be dealing with consequences. Maybe they will need some sessions with a psycologist, but they overcame the problem. And that's simply because for most of us, reading about someone who fails is depressing, disappointing, and a real bummer.

Do you like depressing stories of heroic failure more than overcoming? If so, why?

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