Why the Best Stories Are the Worst
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Why the Best Stories Are the Worst

Why the Best Stories Are the Worst

I’ve decided to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year. Yes, I’m writing a novel and my idea for it doesn’t seem entirely hopeless to me, so I’m going to start and see what happens. I’ve done a similar thing before. I’ve done it twice, actually. I know that I can do it but my previous books (not yet published) were non-fiction. But most of my friends were writing novels and I thought maybe I’d give it a try.

And then the characters jumped into my head and wouldn’t leave me alone. It seems I have no choice but to write this thing and worry about the consequences later.

One of the most important things to know about novel writing is that you need to get your protagonists into deep, deep trouble. Or, as this writer says, get them climb up a tree and then start throwing rocks at them. Or, in other words, kill your darlings. As much as it pains you as a writer, you have to, or else the book will be boring. They need to massively struggle with themselves, or society or a historical situation they’ve been put into, and while they often make it out alive, they rarely make it out unscathed.

Why the Best Stories Are the Worst I’m not really comfortable thinking about all the horrible things my protagonists will have to go through. But it’s necessary: every novel needs a conflict. Actually, make it multiple conflicts. And the conflict can’t be of the “what will I put on to work today,” unless the decision to wear one set of clothes over another is life-altering. In a nutshell: the protagonists must suffer, poor things. No suffering, no novel. Or, to be more precise, no novel worth reading.

A while back, I asked my parents whether I could interview them for a memoir about my family. They responded with, “Sure! We had an interesting life.”

Their lives were certainly interesting: both of them lived abroad (my mother in the Netherlands, my father in France), but they were also struggling with all kinds of issues, including living (and raising a child-that’s me!) under communist regime, money issues, and more.

I also translated my grandfather’s Holocaust memoir. He himself admitted that he had an interesting life. He called it, “watching history being made.” After the war, he became a diplomat and that’s how my mom ended up in the Netherlands. But he suffered greatly during the war. He had to go into hiding in the ruins of Warsaw to escape being killed, and that in the middle of winter. He had lost his first wife there. He made it out of the war alive but not unscathed.  

Have you ever thought why the saying, “May you live in interesting times” is a curse, not a compliment? The truth is that no one really wants to live in interesting times. It’s just that some of us are put there by history, happenstance, or, yes, a writer’s hand.

We may say that we dream of having a life full of adventures. We want to be “interesting” or “fascinating.” But not so many are aware that interestingness comes from a life full of struggles- many of them absolutely unwished for.

Such lives make for great stories, of course. Struggle, suffering, conflict, are the motors that power stories, both real and imaginary. But as much as we love it in novels, I think we are all craving a little bit of boringness in our real lives.

There is something comforting about a story that goes like this: someone was born, had a relatively easy childhood, found themselves a perfectly normal boring job, got married, had a perfectly normal family, and died peacefully at an old age. In between, they had no real conflicts, did nothing very good or very bad during their lives and lead a quiet but mostly content life. 

In other words, they were boring.

We say, “what doesn’t kill you make you stronger,” because it makes for a great narrative. But what about the ones who didn’t become stronger due to conflict? They died or became broken and are therefore not good story material. When times are good, we complain that people became complacent or make up some phony conflicts without any sense.  

But I think that at this time (and especially at this time) we’re all tired of conflict. We could benefit from some boringness. Because everyone struggles. Sadly, struggling is human condition.

I just wish the only place for it would be made-up stories rather than real ones.


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