|Stories - Part One: Creating Stories|
Heaven supposedly offers perfect happiness, while Hell threatens extreme misery. We live our lives somewhere in between, seeking happiness and avoiding misery as much as we can.
Cinderella would be happier living with a handsome prince than living with in misery with her ugly sisters. When the opportunity to change her situation appears, she makes the most of it. We understand her reasons perfectly because we would do the same if in her position.
But we also understand the reasons of the Ugly sisters who are jealous of Cinderella. They are miserable in the thought that no one will ever want to marry them, and they will grow old and lonely. And in turn, the wicked stepmother who wants to get her ugly daughters married off to a rich and handsome prince. In that way she will not have to support her daughters, and also have grandchildren. Both Cinderella and the Ugly sisters are competing for the same things. Cinderella is poor but beautiful, while the sisters are rich but ugly. There is a 'balance of power' that can be tipped to give advantage to either one or the other. The story moves ahead by tipping the balance in favour of one side then the other, with no clear-cut winner until the end.
The conflicts of the situation create 'dramatic tension'. If the Ugly sisters were nice and Cinderella was beautiful but nasty, our sympathies might be with the sisters. There would still be a balance between them.
The purpose of stories is usually to show how people try to pursue happiness while avoiding misery. But it is not always simple. A thief may pursue happiness by stealing so that he can buy happiness at someone else's expense. If he succeeds, then he has attained happiness cheaply. On the other hand, if he fails and gets caught, then he must endure the misery of punishment. In a way, he is gambling. If he succeeds in stealing then he has made a bigger gain that working, but if he gets caught then he makes a bigger loss than just being poor.
Stories work because we instinctively feel that 'happiness' has to be deserved as a reward for being good, or doing good. We would feel cheated if the good characters were miserable and the bad characters happy at the end of the story.
In some stories the bad characters have distinctive personalities of their own. The Batman stories all have baddies with characteristics that make them very recognisable. On the other hand, the enemies of Superman are not very distinctive, and it would be difficult to remember who they are. Sherlock Holmes has his opponent Moriarty, but most of the criminals he fights are not very memorable. And James Bond has not a single memorable enemy.
This is because Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Superman are fighting 'evil'. The criminals they are after are not actually their enemies, and once one criminal has been vanquished they simply go looking for another. On the other hand, the enemies of Batman are out to get him personally. Captain Ahab wants to kill Moby Dick for sinking his ship, though Moby Dick has no personal grudge against Captain Ahab. Again, Shere Khan in Jungle Book wants to kill Mowgli because he hates humans generally, while Mowgli has no grudge against Shere Khan.
A similar situation is in Snow White where the wicked stepmother has nothing against Snow White until she finds that Snow White is more beautiful than she is. This makes her a competitor for admiration, and that in turn makes her an enemy to be removed.
The basic idea in sport is to get rid of competitors by beating them. It is also normal in sport to match competitors so the spectators cannot predict who will win. The same goes for stories. By having the characters closely matched the outcome is unpredictable.
The situation can be heightened when it looks like one side cannot win. Cinderella seemed to have no chance of winning until her fairy Godmother arrived. The Sleeping Beauty would have died if it had not been for the last fairy to arrive in time and change the death curse into a long sleep. Popeye would have no chance against Bluto if it were not for spinach. This type of situation might be compared with a competitor who looks like having no chance of winning but beats the champion.
The storyline is much stronger when the opponents have personal reasons to attack each other. In sport, the situation is more exciting when two opponents or teams are so closely matched that even very slight advantages can affect the outcome. This can be transferred to stories. When Sherlock Holmes tries to catch Moriarty the brilliant criminal, Holmes is not just interested in stopping Moriarty committing crimes, he also sees him as a competitor. To win, Holmes must prove to himself that he can outthink Moriarty, not just catch him. If Moriarty died or got caught by accident then Holmes would have felt deprived of the chance of winning.
In most stories 'happiness' of one person comes at the expense of someone
else's misery. Red Riding Hood gets some happiness by taking cakes to
her granny. The wolf that wants to eat Red Riding Hood and the granny
gets happiness from the meal he anticipates. The woodchopper who kills
the wolf does so because he is happier (or less miserable) if Red Riding
Hood and the granny survive rather than if the wolf survives.
All stories have a MAIN idea supported by lesser ideas. Robinson Crusoe is about survival. Putting him on an island made it clear to everyone that there was no help around. On the other hand there are people who live on 'emotional islands'. They find it difficult to contact others. The Ugly Duckling was on such an island. The Beast in 'Beauty and the Beast' was also on an island. Cinderella was locked away from others, so though not alone, was not in the world she wanted to be in.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Page last updated:
© 2002-2009 Stan Hayward. All rights reserved.