Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Happiness. It’s not – at face value – a likely theme for the novelist.
– Robert McCrum, ‘Where is happiness in 20th-century fiction?’ from The Guardian
Conflict is the fuel of fiction, the engine that keeps the story surging forward. But ‘all drama, all the time’ makes for an unrealistic reading experience and a pace that will have readers struggling to keep up. Narrative needs a natural rhythm, an ebb and flow. So, for all the conflict in your story, there should be moments of happiness, levity, and joy. Necessary as this is, it takes more than just smiles and warm fuzzies to create meaningful scenes in fiction.
An essential component of writing expressions of happiness is authenticity. By this, I mean that writers should strive to avoid clichéd language or emotion that is too easy or too obvious. Any emotion that stops at the surface isn’t going to connect deeply with readers, and this is especially true of joy. Readers will be able to spot the superficial and saccharine.Happiness isn’t as compelling as the conflict it balances, so make sure it’s authentic.Click To Tweet
To create authentic moments of happiness, you have to go deeper. What do your characters want most? What do they hope for? What do they fear or dread above all else? If you can first connect at the level of their desires and fears, then you can write genuine emotion that resonates with readers.
Consider the following passage from Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. It chronicles the moment when Henry Skrimshander has finally made it. A shortstop prodigy, Henry has been an outsider all his life. He’s too in love with baseball to do anything else, but too poor to have any hope of ever playing serious ball. But by a stroke of luck, he gets noticed and ends up at Westish College on a scholarship, training under the tutelage of his inexhaustible mentor, Mike Schwartz.
Henry had never felt so happy… Now he was locked in. Every day that summer had the same framework, the alarm at the same time, meals and workouts and shifts and SuperBoost at the same times, over and over, and it was that sameness, that repetition, that gave life meaning. He savored the tiny variations, the incremental improvements… Every move he made had purpose. While they worked out, Schwartz would recite lines from his favorite philosophers… Every day is a war. Yes, yes it was. The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best. Done: there was only one of those. He was becoming a baseball player.
This isn’t just standard happiness, right? This is Henry’s version of happiness. That repetition. That sameness. The day-in-day-out rhythm. That’s what made him the shortstop prodigy he is. That’s what earned his glove its nickname, Zero, for his zero errors in the tournament where Mike first saw him. But he’s not alone anymore, wishing for an impossible dream. He’s on the inside now.
What is your character’s most deeply held dream? What would it mean if she got it? How would her joy be different from everyone else’s in that moment? And in what way would they express it? The words, the body language, the sense of life’s rhythms all work together to create a wholly unique experience. That’s the key to authenticity.
Scenes of joy in fiction go beyond rhythm. Happiness as an underlying theme can tell us a wealth of information about a story’s characters and the kind of world they’re living in. Here are three prime examples:
- Joy can be a primary storytelling tool authors use to achieve a purpose. Why are Tolkien’s Shire Folk known for their grand parties, their fastidious pleasures, and their homebound tendencies? Because it fills every moment of suffering to save Middle Earth with purpose; the joy of the Shire gives Frodo something worth fighting for.
- The overriding culture of the fictional world can comment on the nature of joy and its place in human life. Lois Lowry’s The Giver depicts a world of peace and harmony that might be achieved if humans were only willing to give up the extremes of our emotional experiences. Her protagonist grows up in a world of no war or strife, but he also knows no real happiness, no deep and abiding joy. Once he gets a taste of such feeling as The Receiver of his culture’s repressed memories, he’s willing to lose everything to restore his people to their full humanity.
- Characters’ beliefs about the nature of joy or lack thereof can tell us about the world of the story. In J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, you have to fly off to Neverland to escape the world of adult responsibilities and find a way to capture happiness. Beneath Barrie’s more fantastical elements is a meditation on the question of happiness itself. Is true and lasting joy achievable in adult life? Or do you have to choose between duty and happiness?
Scenes of joy and harmony can play a more subversive role in fiction. It’s hardwired into readers to intuit a high moment that stretches on too long or that’s just a bit too perfect as a bad omen. If you want a covert tool for foreshadowing, give this one a try. Sometimes you’re reading along and you can’t even put your finger on what’s wrong, you just feel in your bones that you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.Sadness and tragedy are more poignant when contrasted with true happiness.Click To Tweet
Remember Henry from The Art of Fielding? What if I told you that scene happens in chapter 5 of an 82-chapter book? You might say Henry has a long way to fall, and you’d be right. Henry’s no-error streak lasts just long enough for him to match the record held by his idol, Aparicio Rodriguez. Inexplicably, he begins to crack; and once he makes that first error, he can’t seem to stop.
What is the too-good-to-be-true moment in your character’s story that you could use as foreshadowing?
The joy of joy
Happiness and joy are essential elements of well-rounded, vibrant storytelling. They’re part of the emotional landscape of your characters, they can impart information to readers about the world of the story, and they can even portend future events. Experiment with happiness as a tool in your own writing. It might start showing up in surprising ways.
What happy moments in fiction stand out to you as being unusual or particularly powerful? How have you used scenes of joy in your own writing to serve a deeper purpose? For more advice on writing emotions, check out How To Handle Grief In Your Novel, or try How (And When) To Kill A Character to find out how happiness can contribute to the weltschmerz surrounding a death.