The Uses Of Happiness

Even though it can't be easy, it can appear to be easy. What would you feel if, in a 300-page novel, everything got good, the trouble seemed to be over, and the characters were home free on page 150. The characters are rejoicing, "This is great. Our worries are over. Life is wonderful." But you know damn well that trouble is going to strike soon; otherwise, it's over.

Early in The Great Gatsby, several pages are spent showing us Gatsby's grand mansion and describing how it glows through the night with his fabulous parties in and around his place and his pool. It's OK, but we don't need that much of it, if that's all there is to it. But, in fiction, happiness is a setup. We open with the wonderful, glowing Gatsby mansion. We close with the mansion darkened and Gatsby floating facedown in his swimming pool. If things are going to get better, they can't do so until the end. That brings us to another important point.


The worse it gets, the better it is.

The course of good stories never runs smooth. Things get worse and worse and worse until they get better. Things must be worse at the end of every scene and every chapter. The drama builds. Building means getting worse. If you have two scenes that have a lot of activity, but nothing has gotten worse, your story hasn't moved. You have a scene that serves no purpose. Romeo and Juliet is a great example of how it gets worse and worse. Romeo and Juliet get married. Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished. That's a lot of conflict, a lot of pain. Shakespeare could let up, could give Juliet a break, let her rest a bit in her agony. But no, now that she's down, Shakespeare kicks her. Juliet's father, not knowing she's already married, suggests that she should marry Paris. When Juliet objects, he becomes enraged and orders her to marry Paris, and even begins making arrangements for the wedding. Each step leads into more trouble, more threat until the end.

So, we never have two characters sitting around having a conversation or a discussion or exchanging information. That will not move things forward. There must be confrontation—one character trying to get something from the other. Someone working on the problem, pushing for change.

If you have two characters getting along perfectly and acting in concert, you are not revealing anything about them except that they are alike. Your choice is to stir up trouble between them or get rid of one of them. Dramatically, you only need one character. No one is along for the ride in fiction. Each character must serve a purpose, which is to rub another in a way that will reveal something meaningful about both of them. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were partners and bosom buddies, but they didn't get along perfectly. There was plenty of friction between them. Characters (and people) are defined by their differences and how they handle them.

It's always confrontation, but confrontation isn't always challenging or ranting or threatening. It can be gentle. Someone trying to get something out of someone else, politely, carefully. But there must be a lot riding on the outcome of the interaction. If not, we don't need it. Nothing is neutral in fiction. Everything and everyone must move the story in one direction or the other and serve to reveal character.

Also, each scene and each chapter need to end in the mind of the character, with the character stewing and fretting and wrestling with what just happened and what he has to do next. The character might not know. He might be thinking, This is bad. This is terrible. What am I going to do now? The scene has moved forward and has moved the character to a new place, a more troubling, more worrisome place. We need to know where exactly that place is inside the character in order to relate. If the character isn't worried or scared at the end of the scene or chapter, your story is in trouble. Why? Because threat and fear go hand in hand. So, if it's going well, it's going nowhere.

Do I overstate my case? Perhaps. But you will never go wrong following these rules. Shakespeare didn't. Hemingway didn't. Fitzgerald didn't. Master these techniques first. Learn to be ruthless in this way. Nothing will serve you better.

Want, obstacle, action, resolution are the story elements that fit together to create the story form. There are two other critical issues that are not a part of the form. One is the critical ingredient, emotion. The other is the basic story technique, showing.

Emotion: This is where the ultimate connection is made, where the reader and the character become one. We feel what the character feels. If we don't know what the character's feeling, we're not connected. Emotion is tricky. We'll spend a chapter on it later. For now, you need to be aware that we must know what the character is feeling at all times. In cases where the character is confused or trying to sort out how he feels, we must know that. That's an emotional experience we can relate to. An easy way to pin down what the character is feeling is to ask what are his worries, fears, and hopes.

If the character is not worried or scared, you don't have a conflict. A conflict means that the character could lose something of great value. He cannot be neutral if something dear to his heart is threatened. If the character doesn't care, the reader won't care. The reader can't care more than the character. Stories are about crisis. In a crisis, we worry, we fear the worst while hoping we can do something to prevent it. So, for now, ask what are the character's worries, fears, and hopes and express them on the page as best you can.

Showing: Showing is your basic weapon—the fundamental method of capturing an experience on the page. Showing is almost always scene/dialogue. It has the pace of reality, moment by moment, word for word. The opposite of showing (experience) is telling (ideas). Even though we call it storytelling, telling is our technical term for being general, abstract, or conceptual. What we're really doing, in technical story terms, is showing a story. "He was a homicidal maniac," is an example of telling. It's the idea, the words, but not the experience. It's general, abstract, conceptual.

"Well, angel," he said, holding the knife to her throat. "Where would you like me to cut first?"

"Oh, please. Oh, please, yes, darling. Tell me where. Don't rush. You have plenty of time —the rest of your life."

"Yes. Yes. Pick the spot, lover. Anywhere you like. I don't want to start in the wrong place," he said and kissed her on the forehead.

Here the writing is showing us a sadistic maniac. Showing is making it happen right before our eyes, without the writer using the words sadistic or maniac, without his telling us about it in the abstract. We'll be working with showing throughout the course.

We started with an anecdote—Michael Jordan and the Bulls. And we end with an anecdote. This one concerns Jimmy Connors. When Jimmy Connors was at the height of his career, he was playing in a close match and missed a shot. As he was walking back along the baseline to get set, he was mumbling, scolding himself, about what he did wrong and what he had to concentrate on for the next volley. The greatest tennis player in the world, he'd been playing tennis for thirty years, and what do you suppose he was telling himself he had to do? Well, it was the thing they told him the day he went on the tennis court for his first lesson. That day the instructor put the racket in his hand and said, "This is the racket, Jimmy. You hold it like this," and wrapped his hand around the grip. "And this is the ball," he said, holding the ball in front of his face. "Remember, always . . ." What did the coach tell him? "Always keep your eye on the ball."

Thirty years later, why was Jimmy Connors still telling himself to keep his eye on the ball? And why am I telling you this anecdote? Well, I'm telling it to you because storytelling is all in the fundamentals, and no one can keep them in mind all the time. What does you in is not failure to apply some high-level, intricate, complicated technique. It's overlooking the basics. Not keeping your eye on the ball.

Your fundamentals, your ball, are conflict, action, resolution, emotion, showing. They're all you need to know to write successfully. They will get you there every time, because they draw out what's inside you that is exciting and dramatic. Remember, you know a lot more than you realize. There is much more of you than is in your mind at any one time. Exploring and discovering yourself is the thrill of creating stories. That doesn't mean you have to write about yourself. Even if you're writing science fiction or fantasy, it's you. It all comes out of your mind. You have all you need already, you just have to learn how to put it on the page.

And now it's time to put something on the page again. But first, let's go over what you wrote at the end of the last chapter. It's been a while since you've seen it. Time in between often gives you a fresh perspective. So, go over your writing and check it for want, obstacle, action, and resolution. The way you do that is deliberate and exact. If you don't, you'll slide over things and miss opportunities to get more out of your characters.

So, here's how you go about it. First ask, "Who wants what?" Then, find it on the page. Do not work in your head. Where does the want first appear on the page? Find the exact line. Is the want strong? Could it be stronger? Could it appear earlier? Next ask, "What's the obstacle?" Where does it first appear on the page? Could it appear earlier? Could it be stronger? Can the character ignore it and suffer no injury? (Remember, the obstacle can appear before the want.) Next ask, "What's the action?" What's the character doing to overcome the obstacle? Where does it appear on the page? Could it appear earlier? Could he be doing more or asserting himself more strongly or directly? Last ask, "What's the resolution?" Is it a victory or a defeat (or a partial victory)? If it's a scene resolution, there are more battles yet to fight. If it's a final resolution, the story's over.

The important thing in this is to go over your work in a calculated, deliberate way and identify these elements or the lack of them. This part feels intellectual, stiff, and even heartless at first. That's because these tools are new to you. In themselves, they do nothing. It's what they can do for you that counts. So, even though they are conceptual and heartless, once you master them, they'll show you where your story needs work. They are lifeless concepts that will lead you back into the life and energy of your story and yourself. A chisel and mallet have no life in themselves, but in the hands of a sculptor, they can release wonderful things from the stone. Without them, with only his bare hands, he couldn't make a dent.

After you've done that, you may have done a fair amount of writing, or you may want to work on the piece you started in the last chapter. If so, do that. If you're tired of it, here are some new exercises to work with. Follow the same guidelines that you used for the last writing you did. That's the plan from now on, always.

A Word of Caution: It's not necessary to know what the conflict is or where your writing is going when you start. You write to find out where things are going to go. Let your writing take you. So, don't get the notion that you must have these things in mind when you start. Some writers do work that way. If you find it helps to think things through first, do it. Neither way is better than the other. Just as many writers jump in with no idea where they're going as plan ahead first.

If you already have your own project, use that and try to work conflict and action into it. Or if you want to continue what you started in the last chapter and go forward with it, then ignore what I give you here. These will be here to use if you want to.

Also, this time I'm going to give you the first part of a full-story exercise. If you choose it, you'll do it in parts until it's finished. I'll give you another part with the other exercises at the end of the next chapters.


First are the full-scene exercises. Pick one and write for a half hour- longer if you're able. Here are some scenes:

• A child getting a sex talk from his parent(s).

• Someone breaking into your home at night when you're there.

• A romantic breakup: one character wants out, the other doesn't.

Here are some three-word combinations. Write a scene using one of these sets of three words.

Here are some settings and characters. Pick one of the settings and put two or more of the characters in and have them interact.

• Settings: Bowling alley, pool hall, tennis court, ballpark, boxing match, roof, basement, factory, church, bus station, lunch counter, men's room, lady's room, desert.

• Characters: Homeless person, male chauvinist, conman, artist, pickpocket, waitress/waiter, busboy, judge, feminist, psychic.


This is a story of infidelity. It's from the point of view of the lover who is being betrayed. Part one is the character finding evidence of the other's cheating. It can be ambiguous evidence or solid, concrete, undeniable evidence. First there's the confusion and shock of discovery, with attempted denial, resistance to facing it. That will be followed by the horrible realization (if the evidence is undeniable). That's the end of part one.

That's plenty in one sitting, but if you get going, since the first part flows right into the second, you may want to go right into that. It's the aftermath of the discovery. That will be the character wrestling with implications: Is it true? Why, how could he or she? What to do next, etc. If you have time, you can have the character plan an initial action to try to figure out what's going on, without tipping his or her hand.

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