A teacher (I don’t remember where I heard this, unfortunately) once defined fiction as “bad things happening to interesting people.” Nothing could be truer. There is, however, a caveat to note, one of scale: the bad thing must be proportionate to the ordinary lives of the characters (thrillers being the exception). I’ve been reading a lot of unpublished stories lately, and it seems to me that a lot of writers think to start a piece of fiction, that bad thing, the trouble a writer inflicts upon the characters, has to be big to grab the reader. I am going to call this The Tragedy Trap.
The Tragedy Trap is when the central conflict in a story is something devastating: death, a break-up, addiction, crime, violence…. Often effective stories contain some tragic element, and the tragedy can be big, it can be violent, or it can be minute, a ripple in the ocean of life. Sometimes a small ripple has great effect.
In thinking about this, I ran through a quick inventory of my own work: a wall collapses, the sky changes color, a man tries to help his neighbor, a boy leaves home. In “Delilah” (published in the 2010 rock, paper, scissors), a woman cuts her best friend’s hair. And I ran through some well-known stories, too: Wells Tower’s “Retreat,” brothers kill a moose; Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter,” the power gets cut and a couple talks in the dark; Richard Bausch’s “Trophy,” coworkers play golf; “Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” two couples drink and talk around a kitchen table. In all of these stories, the central action is not big, as in tragic high drama. The action is ordinary in the lives of these characters. The action sets in motion a reveal. That is, the main character comes to realize through ordinary events something he did not know before, something difficult.
This difficulty is something the character needs to live with, something that will not go away when the story ends. The climax in these stories is not a car chase, a building collapse, a screaming fight. The climax is a moment when somebody knows deeply and finally that her life is changing. In “Delilah,” Delilah experiences a shift in perception that says more about her than she’s ready to admit.
Sometimes a story must climax at a volcano, blackout, quicksand, lynching, plane crash, or death rattle. If so, then success will depend on the handling of the big event. I think writers fall into The Tragedy Trap when they begin with the big event and then rely on it to carry the story. Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged Everything Burned” comes to mind as an example of big action at the center of a story. Vikings go marauding, yet for the Vikings, the real conflict is how to balance being a marauder with being a farmer, husband, and father. Often, there is a tragedy in the character’s life, but it is off-page. It is the undercurrent creating the ripple. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter,” the characters lost a baby, but it was long before the power outage.
When a successful story ends, the difficulty does not only stay with the character, but also stays with the reader. Therefore, keep scale in mind (undercurrents, too) and see what kind of trouble the character’s ordinary life visits upon him. And if your character is a Viking warrior, plunder away!
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