Tips for Telling Stories: Make ’em Miserable

I live in the Midwest, in the state of Missouri…or “misery” as folks sometimes joke. That’s a horrible joke. There’s really nothing miserable at all about the state. Well, except for the fact that in the summers we have scorching heat in excess of 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and then in the winters we have frigid temperatures far below zero Fahrenheit, and in the spring we have rainy spells that go on for days, along with the occasional tornado and hailstorm. Other than that, it’s a beautiful place to live. Autumn is nice, at least.

Seriously, all joking aside, there’s nothing really wrong with the “Show-Me” state of Missouri, but when you’re telling your sims’ stories — or writing stories of any sort — you might want to keep my Midwestern home in mind. Why? Because the more miserable you make your characters, the more your readers will enjoy your stories.

We know all about conflict — about the importance of giving characters goals to strive for and then putting obstacles in their way. But there are other ways to make fictional folks miserable, and good storytellers never miss a chance to make their heroes and heroines suffer. Just a little, at least.

I remember reading a novel in which a young woman stopped for the night at a roadside inn. This was in the earlier days of America, so accommodations weren’t what we’d expect to find today. But even by 19th century standards, the room at the inn…well, it sucked. It was a cold, rainy night — hmmm, maybe it was somewhere in Missouri — and the roof of the inn leaked. Their was no dry firewood to burn, and the blankets on the bed were threadbare. The bread was stale, the soup tasteless, and what little meat she could find in the bowl was too tough to even chew.

Poor girl! She was miserable. Even though this stay at the inn wasn’t a major plot point, the author skillfully used the setting to add environmental conflict to the story. Think of environmental conflict as a secondary source, another implement in your writer’s toolbox by which you can make your stories and characters more real — and more interesting, too.

Make your characters miserable, and you’ll make your readers happy.

We all have experience with environmental conflict, that is, unpleasant things around us. We live in a very imperfect world, and when we bring those imperfections into our stories, readers quickly identify with the miserable situations we create.

Show a character shielding his eyes from the sun, and chances are your reader will probably start squinting. Describe the taste of a sour lemon, and your reader’s lips will pucker. All the while you’re throwing major conflicts at your characters, keep hitting them with environmental conflicts, too.

Make your characters as miserable as you can.

As you do, remember again this great state in which I live. Its nickname is the “Show-me” state. Nobody knows how that came about, and nobody really cares. It’s not important. What is important — in fiction, at least — is showing, not telling.

Don’t tell your readers that it was a rainy night. Show flashes of lightning streaking across the sky. Show your character’s wet clothes and muddy shoes. But don’t stop there! Instead of just getting her shoes dirty, show her slipping and falling face down into the mud.

Ah, yes, misery.

We’ve all experienced miserable moments, and as readers, we’re drawn in by stories where misery abounds. Been there, done that. Indeed, we all know how it feels to be in stuffy rooms, to have things break down around us, to endure many, many little miseries that are part of our environment.

Make them part of your characters’ environment, too.

It’s said that misery loves company. Maybe, maybe not. But readers do love misery, so when you write your next story, think of me and where I live…right here in the Show-Me state of Missouri. Let that remind you to always show a state of misery. Your readers will thank you.



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