I was in a literature class and we discussed whether all good stories have to be sad. Why does it seem like all of the classics are depressing (looking at you, Jude the Obscure), and does it have to be that way? The stereotype of the tragic novel would certainly suggest so, and a cursory look through the English Canon would say the same thing, but what’s really being asked here?
The idea of tragedy comes from conflict, which is the intersecting point of character and plot--the two fundamental elements of narrative, any narrative. A good story has both a well-developed, round protagonist, and an engaging plot. A strong character without a plot is a bathtub story (so-called because the character could be in a bathtub the whole time and it wouldn’t change anything), and a strong plot with weak characters is a soap opera. Neither form, soap opera or bathtub story, will get you published today and it’s because readers want—need—interest from a story, and conflict is the best way to achieve that interest.
Creative writing isn’t prescriptive and any convention can be manipulated or ignored if done well enough, but generally speaking conflict is necessary to create interest for the reader. Most programs advocate for a “show don’t tell” approach to characterization. Your character has a nervous disposition? Don’t tell me that; instead show me the character fidgeting with his hands or being unable to answer the waiter at the restaurant. The same tenet holds true for the presentation of conflict. If we take that same nervous character and put him in a situation where he has to confront his landlord or risk eviction, then we have a compelling conflict. Would he cower and get kicked out, or does he overcome his nerves and stay in his house? My concern for the character makes me want to keep reading so I can know what happens to him.
The consequences of conflict ("falling action") can be just as important to the narrative as the conflict itself. If a story has an elaborate conflict that unfolds over many pages, only to have it be resolved quickly and without loss or change for the characters, then I’ll feel cheated as the reader. This doesn’t mean that the character always has to die (though Shakespeare certainly wasn’t afraid to do it), but it’s helpful for a writer in the drafting stages to look at a story and see how the conflict needs to be resolved. Consider the blood feud in Romeo and Juliet: Romeo kills Tybalt which earns him his exile. Not wanting to be apart, the two lovers plot their escape only to be foiled by cruel chance, and so must die to find happiness. If Romeo’s banishment would’ve been resolved easily with him riding off into the sunset with Juliet then the story would have had a happy ending, but it would not have endured as one of the greatest tragedies in Western Literature.
Am I advocating then for tears, depression, and death? No, not exactly. As a reader I want to have an empathetic response to the character on the page, and a strong character faced with a difficult conflict will make me want to read that story. And if makes me cry too then so be it, I’ll have a tissue ready.
Benjamin Whitney is a first year fiction student at UNH. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Colorado, Denver. He spent a year as an assistant editor for Copper Nickel, and he is excited to be working with Barnstorm.