Trouble Free


Every story has some kind of problem at the beginning that gets worse in the middle, and then some kind of solution at the end. In my experience it is often easier to describe the problem than the solution. The problem, after all, provides all of the story’s narrative heat and momentum. Without the problem, there would be no story at all, just a portrait of a series of perfect, trouble-free days. As a result, storytellers spend a lot of time thinking about problems – noticing them, cultivating them, rendering them, squeezing all we can out of them.

What’s more, because the story ends once the problem is solved, most of our writing is spent within the problem. As a practical matter, this is perfectly okay, as it is easier to describe the problem than the solution. The lonely night, the killer’s rage, the coming war, the politician’s greed, or the lover’s betrayal are often clearer to the artist’s eye in the same way a stubbed toe announces itself, defines itself, and calls for attention to itself from all the other whole and un-wounded body parts.

But as storyteller, I mustn’t become seduced by problems. Just because they are the fuel for my stories, and just because they are easier to see, does not mean they are the reason I am telling stories. I tell stories because of what the hero finds at the end, not what he suffers in the beginning and middle. I throw him into a hole so that he might climb out. The fall, the darkness, the despair, and the slow, aching, bleeding climb hold my reader’s attention, but unless he emerges from the hole stronger, or clearer, or more aware of why he fell, the whole business was meaningless – just some crap that happened to someone, rendered compellingly to serve as temporary distraction from all the crap that’s happening to the reader.

I put my hero through Hell only so that he might better perceive Heaven. The end of a story is very much like the healing of a stubbed toe – a thing returned to what it was meant to be, unremarkable in its painlessness. To tell such a story, I must believe more in painlessness than in pain, more in love than in fear, more in living than in dying. It is my belief in the end of suffering that allows me to render that suffering truthfully. We wouldn’t care about suffering if it were all we knew. It gets our attention for a reason, and that reason is why we tell a story, and why every story has to end.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.