On May 28, the Library and Fairfield University sponsored a joint author appearance with thriller writers Terry Hayes and Andrew Gross. Hayes, a veteran screenwriter (“Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior,” “Dead Calm,” “Payback,” et al.), is a first-time novelist whose I Am Pilgrim, just published in the U.S., is already a bestseller overseas. Gross, whose new title is Everything to Lose, is a veteran on American bestseller lists. One attendee was JoAnn Kienzle, a longtime member of our twice-monthly Saturday writers’ group, who writes novels and short stories and has worked as a credited scriptwriter on TV series. Here she elaborates on a storytelling point Hayes made during the discussion.
In “Regarding Happiness,” one of his many essays on writing, Charles Baxter wrote, “We all understand intuitively that reading about the happiness of others is often boring.” Baxter wrote the essay in response to readers, including his own mother, who said they wanted to read happy pieces. Why would readers seek stories about happiness if it is, by nature, boring?
Because, though happiness itself is boring, drama is taxing. Reading something sad, or frightening, or thought-provoking, can exhaust the reader. While creating happy stories isn’t the answer, creating levity is. Last week, when Terry Hayes (above) spoke about his new thriller, I Am Pilgrim, he explained that, while drama is critical to interesting storytelling, lightness is also an important element in writing. He pointed out you occasionally need to use something—a heart-warming moment, a funny scene—to give your reader a break from the heaviness.
When I worked in television, my agent told me something similar. He also said a key distinction between dramas is how they handle comedy. If you think about the television dramas that you enjoy—Mad Men and Breaking Bad are great examples—you’ll realize how many of the moments you remember are funny, though the shows are anchored with very dramatic scenes.
And it’s the same for novels. Writers don’t need to be able to create jokes or one-liners to create relief, they just need to be able to let their characters have moments of levity. As you are writing your next piece, pay attention to the emotion you are trying to elicit from your reader in each of your scenes and make sure there’s a balance. It will both help your reader stay engaged and make your writing more interesting.—JoAnn Kienzle