Posted by: Phil Anderson | May 11, 2014

Hard Times and Celebrations

Earlier this week Disney Studios released a trailer for Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I may have read the book long ago when I was young, but I don’t remember it. And the movie looks amusing in a slapstick, family-friendly way. But I can really relate to the concept.

Now that the weather is beautiful, I’ve managed to come down with a bad cold. So bad that I missed a day and a half of work, and that’s rare for me. Everyone else in the house (except my wife) has also been sick at some point this past week. On top of that, my son sprained his ankle at his cross-country race. And we’re dealing with some complex extended family issues that I won’t elaborate on in a public blog. But despite all the stress and difficulties, there have been some bright spots too.

We enjoyed one daughter’s successful middle school play. Another daughter hosted a school party at our house that sounded like a lot of fun from my sickbed upstairs. My wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary (and by “celebrated” I mean she kissed my forehead as I coughed and blew my nose). And today we spent a relaxing Mother’s Day with my parents and my brother’s family.

So we take the good and the bad together. One offsets the other. In real life, and in fiction.

Every story (except maybe a preschool picture book) needs some hardship, tragedy, or conflict. Characters who are perfect and happy don’t have a tale to tell. If there’s nothing to overcome, there’s no sense of achievement. We want the hero to succeed, but if it comes too easily there’s nothing to root for.

On the other hand, too much tragedy can be depressing. A protagonist who is constantly and thoroughly beaten down is not entertaining. Hardship has to be balanced with joy, difficulty with accomplishment, frustration with fun.

When I write, I tend not to notice when this balance is lost. I have a plot line, a scene, an event that I’m focused on getting into words. It’s only later when I read through what I’ve written that I can see when I’ve gone too far in one direction or the other. Then I have to work in some weight or some levity to keep the tone I’m trying to maintain.

What are some of your favorite books? Do they have a good balance of tragedy and comedy? Can a story be too happy? How dark is too dark? Leave a comment and let us know.

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