Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Boy meets girl. Boy courts girls. Boy and girl live happily ever after. It’s a standard sequence of events in a typical romance novel. Of course, it is usually dressed up a little, along the lines of: Super rich oil man meets poor school teacher. Super rich oil man takes poor school teacher on whirlwind tour of the world. Super rich oil man and poor school teacher live happily ever after. The direction of this story is clear in that we want to move the characters from sad and single to happy and married, but if we were to follow this outline, we would have a boring story. No one wants a story about someone getting everything he ever wanted. Let me amend that. I can think of one bestselling novel that is written exactly that way, but it is the exception rather than the rule. What we want is a story about overcoming adversity. The thrill of victory is proportional to the struggles we faced in getting there.

But consider what happens if we rewrite that story as Super rich oil man and poor school teacher are alone. Super rich oil man goes on tour of the world alone. School teacher spends the whole summer at home eating chocolate. Super rich oil man and poor school teach live happily ever after. Now you’re left scratching your head and asking how that happened. They’ve never met, but now they’re riding off into the sunset together. We’ve gone from boring to ridiculous. For the story to work, we have to have a progression of events leading up to the happy ending, but if things go too smoothly it doesn’t work either. The story only works when we have both hardship and success. How much of each do we need? If we aren’t careful, we have a sagging middle, even if we include both success and failure.

The difference between a good story and a great story is often a question of timing. When a problem occurs, there’s no question that the character won’t bring it to a resolution, but when should he do that? If he responds too quickly, it doesn’t seem like a problem. If he responds too slowly, the story seems to drag. It is the writer’s responsibility to know the answer to that question and put space the events adequately.