Storytelling is all about emotion. Oh, sure, it helps if you can craft a good plot or have a way with a sentence. It helps a lot. But all the technical skill in the world isn’t going to make a difference if your audience doesn’t connect emotionally with what’s going on. This isn’t just true for “important” or “meaningful” stories. It’s just as true for “fluff” and “escapism”. I don’t care if you’re telling a story about the Holocaust or a story about a little lost alien who befriends an Earth boy, it’s all about emotion. Everything else is secondary.
One of the reasons I hate being classified as a funny writer is because large groups of people tend to view it as insubstantial fluff. It’s not hard to see why. In our own perceptions, negative emotional experiences leave far stronger impressions than positive ones. If you have a great day at the amusement park, you’ll enjoy yourself but eventually move on. If you’re father has a coronary on the roller coaster, you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.
A great example is found in the movie Up, which starts with an emotional downer montage and ends on an emotionally uplifting one. People usually talk about the first montage, but very rarely does the second one come up. Yet it is just as important to the story. It is just as well-executed, just as poignant. Yet it doesn’t leave the same impression on most viewers.
There is something about the negative, the dark, the sinister, that leaves its scars on us. The positive stuff, the good stuff, it rarely does the same. A simplistic explanation could be that we’re wired with an understanding of our own mortality and insignificance. Unlike any other animal, we look into a starry night and see thousands of distant stars. We feel our own pain, and we carry it with us. We know we are finite and that all our grand accomplishments are fated to wither from this world. I’m sure there have been studies into it, and I’m positive they have more thoughtful analysis than I can offer here. But for whatever reason, nothing speaks to us quite like being depressed.
Because we respond so easily and readily to the negative, we also tend to overvalue it. Rather than understanding it is a neurological quirk, we think it has some intrinsic greater value. It is why we tend to value negative characters over positive ones. We call screwed up characters “complex” and well-adjusted characters “boring”. We readily dismiss fun stories as insignificant, unimportant while praising depressing stories as more worthy of our respect. But this is a mistake, and a very serious one.
Positive stories have value. Even writing that, I feel a bit guilty because it immediately springs to mind hollow tales of happy characters who triumph and live happily ever after. Whenever a story is reviewed as “positive” or “uplifting”, I tend to find it artificial and slight. And I’m a guy who likes happy endings. Still, when a story is so happy it removes conflict or resolves it too easily, it is an unsatisfying experience, even for me.
I don’t believe a character has to be a psychological mess to be interesting. I don’t think a story that ends on a positive note is worthless. And if something makes you smile, it does so by striking some emotional chord, even if that chord doesn’t necessarily ring as long as one that makes you cry. Joy is, believe it or not, part of the human experience, and we should take time to value it. Perhaps a truly mature culture will understand that love, compassion, triumph over tragedy, and giant fighting robots are worthy of as much devotion as our more negative impulses.
If I am to be a funny writer, I would appreciate that I also be considered a good one too. I don’t mind if the negative stays with you for the long haul, just as long as you appreciate that what I do isn’t easy. It isn’t light. It isn’t fluff. I certainly hope it’s not mere silly nonsense. Though writing about supervillain space squids doesn’t help discourage that attitude.
So the next time you’re having a true moment of joy, take a moment to appreciate it for everything it is. And don’t let it be swallowed up by the inevitable crap that’s soon to come. Because, yes, that crap is coming.
(I figured if I ended this post on a negative note, it might leave a stronger impression.)
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,