Please don’t tell the folks who sign my checks at The Ohio State University, but my wife Cathy has always been a fan of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. She’s always wanted to see them in person rather than on television, and today, thanks to a game here at OSU, this was the day.
So we went to the game, and we had good seats, and it was a close game until the fourth quarter and then UConn was able to pull away at the end. After the game, Cathy and I stopped at one of our favorite restaurants for dinner, and then we came home where Stella the Cat was waiting for us, and now I’m typing this blog, and, as I do, I’m thinking about the fact that no one, unless they have an odd fascination with the comings and goings of Cathy and me and Stella the Cat, will have any interest in the story I’m telling. That’s because it isn’t really a story. Oh, sure, it has events narrated in chronology, but really it’s just an account of a portion of our day. Accounts don’t make good stories. Accounts record events and not much more. Ours was a most pleasant day, and why should that be memorable for anyone but us?
A story is memorable because of the characters involved. Cathy and I were just two people—I being happy to give her something she always wanted, and she being happy to receive the gift. Nothing went wrong today—nothing to give the story any chance of being memorable. Well, there was the fact that the restaurant didn’t get my order right, and if I’d been a more unforgiving sort, I might have said something to the waiter that would have embarrassed Cathy and caused her to say something to me she’d never be able to take back. Who knows where that story might have gone? Or the fact that we ended up with four unused tickets and gave them to a stranger at the YMCA this morning. We were surprised when three people showed up at the game to sit next to us but not the man we’d given the tickets. There’s surely a story in there somewhere, something that would make an impression on readers. The key, of course, is trouble, and if it’s trouble of your main character’s own making, all the better.
Trouble can be particularly interesting when a character does something (kindly gives free tickets to a stranger) which leads to trouble for that character (what if the stranger had to come to our house to get the tickets and ended up being an unkind man).
Another way to use trouble in a story is to let a character do something to get exactly what he or she wants only to find out it’s led to something dark and disturbing the character never could have seen coming. What if Cathy had rooted shamelessly for UConn and a rabid OSU fan had taken objection to that? What if that fan had been dangerous, or what if he’d said something hurtful to Cathy—something she’d never known to be true about herself but, now that it’s been said, has the ring of something authentic? What if she blamed me for never having made her aware of what she now assumes to be a fact?
The lesson in all of this for the writer? Find something beautiful, something pleasant, something joyful, and then muck it all up. Let your characters find themselves in trouble (again, it’s always better if it’s trouble they unintentionally create for themselves),and then see what they’ll do to find their way back to safe ground. I’m thankful Cathy and I didn’t have to deal with anything like that on this most excellent day. We went to a basketball game. Nothing went wrong. We enjoyed each other’s company. Ho-hum. Not an interesting story at all until I, in some future writing session, decide to use my imagination to make it one.