By Henry McLaughlin
We’ve all heard story is about conflict and tension. And that is definitely true.
Stories about happy people living in Happy Valley don’t excite readers. Frankly, they can be boring.
The story becomes a story when something disrupts the status quo. As John LeCarré once said, “The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat—now that’s a story.”
Here’s another way to look at it: Stories are about the pursuit of happiness. It’s even in the Declaration of Independence.
Story is about more than resolving conflict. It’s about our hero pursuing happiness. Sometimes all she wants is to return to the way things were before. Other times, she wants to correct an injustice. Still other times, it can be about rescuing someone or something of value, a rescue that entails risk and the real possibility of failure. And death.
As Steven James has written in his new craft book, Trouble Shooting Your Novel, “Story is about more than conflict—it is desire in a specific direction.” That desire is happiness in whatever form it takes for the hero. She pursues. And, as Steven James wrote, “Pursuit is action with intention.”
When we’re developing our story, we need to ask, what happiness is our hero pursuing? What does she have to do to get her happiness? Our responsibility as authors is to stop her from getting there.
Look at what happiness is beyond our hero’s grasp. Why is it important to her? In our story, we want to focus on the concrete ways she pursues it—keep the action believable and her intention clear. We need to establish why she seeks it but to overly focus on the whys will actually slow our story down by making it very introspective. You know, those parts of the novel we tend to skim over. Too many off those and the reader has skimmed the whole novel.
How does the idea of having your hero pursue happiness change the way you look at her and how you see your story playing out?
Henry McLaughlin’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the 2009 Operation First Novel contest. He serves as Associate Director of Story Help Groups (formerly North Texas Christian Writers). Besides writing fiction, Henry edits novels, leads critique groups, and teaches at conferences and workshops. He enjoys mentoring and coaching individual writers.