Struggle and Illumination in Stories

Ever since we moved into our house three years ago, Cathy has wanted landscape lights out front, but to do so would require going underneath the concrete walkway so wire would stretch out on either side. The arduous task detained us. Last week, though, we had an irrigation system installed, and that job was going to require the workers to run wire underneath said walkway. Cathy jumped on the opportunity, and—long story, short—we now have landscape lights.

But what kind of story would that be without some sort of complication. We spliced some extra wire into the existing one, ran our lights, hooked up our transformer, and. . .nothing. The transformer kept showing an error message. So Cathy redid the wire splicing, and everything seemed to be working fine. We put the first light on, and the second, and the third, and they all lit up. Then we tried the next one, and everything went dark, and we couldn’t do anything that would correct the problem, nor could the manufacturer’s help line. So the next day, we took the set back to the store and got a different kind, brought it home, hooked it up without trouble, and just like that we had illumination.

Stories exist to entertain, to dramatize, to make us feel and think, but above all they exist to illuminate something about the people we are and the worlds we occupy, to explore, as William Faulkner said, “the old verities and truths of the heart.” We cannot do that unless our characters have to struggle. Resolution without great effort is no kind of end at all. Nothing should be easy for the people who populate our stories. This isn’t to say they can’t triumph in the end. It’s only to say they should find themselves in circumstances of their own making that require their further actions and the accompanying complications.

Sometimes we’re loath to let our characters get themselves into trouble because we like them and want them to do well. We can’t like our characters so much that we keep them out of troublesome situations. We have to have faith in what the test of fire can bring them and us. We have to trust in the illumination that trouble makes possible.

In my book, Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life, I list four ways trouble can arrive in a story:


  1. Sometimes trouble pays a visit and requires a character’s action.


  1. Sometimes we instigate our own trouble by what we decide to do.


  1. Sometimes we make our trouble by letting people believe something is true when it isn’t.


  1. Sometimes we make our trouble by trying to run away from what we’ve done or by being afraid of what we might do.


The key is to let trouble put pressure on your main characters in a sequence of events, the climax of which reveals something about the mysteries of being human—some additional layer of truth—that would otherwise remain suppressed. Trouble is the transformer. At a determined time, it surges, and when it does, it shines a light.

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