When I run on a treadmill at the Y on the weekends, the television in front of me is often showing a program, which I believe may be called Dr. Chris Pet Vet. It’s a show about pets in need of care for one reason or the other. The owners bring their pets to Dr. Chris, and during the course of the show he gives them the diagnoses, discusses his suggested treatment, and then performs it. Along the way, the show stresses that the treatment will be tricky and there’s no guarantee that it will be successful, but of course it always is because who wants to watch a show about people’s pets dying.
As a small boy I watched Lassie on Sunday evenings. It followed a similar pattern. Lassie would become aware of a problem, would take action, and end up in a predicament that would have me on the edge of my seat: Lassie in a runaway hot air balloon, Lassie trapped in an abandoned mine shaft, Lassie tied to a conveyor belt approaching a band saw. Well, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea of the show. Get the dog in deep trouble, make the audience wonder whether indeed it would be the end for our beloved Lassie, then make everything come out all right in the end.
Here’s the lesson for the prose writer. Don’t be afraid of trouble. Don’t skirt the ugliness that unfortunately makes up so much of our world. Don’t be polite. Don’t be hesitant. Stories are about trouble, complicated trouble, trouble that in the end will cost the main character something. This isn’t to say that the end of a good story should be all gloom and doom, nor should it be all sunshine and lollipops. A good story ends somewhere in the middle. That’s what makes it interesting, the loss and gain that the main character experiences.
I watched a movie last night called Rachel Getting Married, a 2008 film directed by Jonathan Demme and staring Anne Hathaway as a young woman who’s been in and out of rehab for the last ten years. As the film opens, she’s heading home for the weekend to attend the wedding of her sister, Rachel. Debra Winger plays the mother, though she’s no longer married to the father. I don’t want to give away anything, so let’s just say there’s a scene about two-thirds through the film in which Anne Hathaway confronts Debra Winger because she feels her mother put her into an impossible situation that led to the guilt that led to the drinking that led to the rehab, etc. It’s the scene in which everything Anne Hathaway has been carrying with her since the incident that haunts her, the one I’m purposefully not revealing, comes to the surface. And it does so in a big way. Hathaway and Winger get so wrought up that they start to shove at each other, and finally Winger punches Hathaway hard enough to bust her lip. Time seems to stop as Hathaway wipes the blood away, looks at it, looks at Winger, and then draws back her fist and pops her a good one. And yet the sister’s wedding goes on, and the mother attends, and everything is civil, but at the end when the mother is saying goodbye it’s clear that something has broken in this relationship—some tenderness, some trust—and it’s something that Anne Hathaway’s character longs for even as she sets out on her own path. Simultaneous loss and gain made possible by a screenwriter and a director who weren’t afraid to let trouble have its end.
That fight scene in Rachel Getting Married ends up seeming so real it’s painful to watch. It’s painful because it’s life just as much as the tenuous reconciliation and the joyful wedding that follows. That’s what stories do if they’re brave enough. They follow the trouble to its ugly and glorious end.