What Does It Mean to Write About Happiness?

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A few weeks ago, I came across a review on Goodreads mentioning Laurie Colwin and how, in that reader’s opinion, she was one of the few recent authors who wrote about happiness. My curiosity piqued, I ordered one of her novels, Happy All the Time, through my local library, and I let myself entertain modest hopes for the book.

After all, one of my complaints about novels has been the intensity of their pacing and the lack of “happiness.” Many seem to relegate happiness to flashbacks or memories, making it something that’s rarely experienced in a “live” moment, yet happiness can lighten the mood and help readers care about your characters by showing what they have to lose (or gain, depending on the structure of the plot).

And characters don’t have to be completely happy in a “happy moment”–otherwise, all the happy moments would have to happen after the climax, when the villain is vanquished, the romance achieved, and all is well again–but there is usually a level of tranquility present in these scenes which is otherwise lacking in the more tense, climactic-action sequences. Like Frodo taking his bath in The Lord of the Rings or Elizabeth Bennet visiting Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice–it is a breather, a moment when the problems of life have retreated far enough to where everyone can relax and just live for a few moments.

And it turned out, the reviewer was right. While I didn’t particularly enjoy Ms. Colwin’s writing style, she did write about the little moments of life: meeting people, going out to dinner, and preparing for a new baby. There was no real antagonist, no opposition to the main characters other than the friction of everyday life, which reminded me of the works of older authors like Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Anthony Trollope.

The trouble is that, in most of our novels, we have a plot to move along, something that goes beyond the relative happiness of our characters. They are fighting for something or someone, and lighthearted, tranquil scenes tend to slow things down. That’s why, in the movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, we lose Frodo’s bath, and the elves’ singing, and all the “normal,” everyday moments that have nothing to do with the trip to Mordor, and it’s why the visit with Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice is trimmed down until it’s just another opportunity for Darcy and Elisabeth to battle things out. Our readers are impatient, we’re told; we’ll lose their attention if we don’t keep things moving.

So what happens to happiness? Do our characters just have to ride the plot, spastically rushing from one event to the next? Do we dare take time out, for them and us, to just enjoy life as it flows by, without making the scene “keep things moving forward”?

And does happiness only occur in little moments, in the troughs between peaks of activity when no one is doing or demanding or announcing anything? Maybe we need to start plotting for filler scenes, where nothing happens but that exchange of dialogue and silence that is a normal, happy moment of life.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Andrea Lundgren. See more of her great posts on all things writing and from an authors point of view. She offers advice, insider information, and even free ebook offers.

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16 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Write About Happiness?”

  1. Thoughtful work, Ms. Lundgren. Thank you. Frodo’s bath and the elves’ singing may indeed slow things down, but the scenes are there because they show the essential happiness of the hobbits and the elves. Would the world that the hobbits and elves fight to save be worth saving if they *weren’t* happy in it? Probably not. The novel does a better job of showing us this than the movies do. Happiness does consist of transitory moments, but we are aware of those moments in a collective sense, too. If we have enough of them, we can say, with some justification, “I’ve had a happy life,” even if that life hasn’t been happy all the way through.

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  2. “And does happiness only occur in little moments” – Well, a whole novel where everybody’s la-di-dah happy much of the time would, I think, be kind of sappy/boring, no? … Conflict helps drive a plot along and makes for a more compelling story. IMHO.

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  3. If we want our novels to feel real, including subtle happy moments, I believe are important. We here often, yo use the senses, well, isn’t credibility as important? And those moments, if not overdone can provide that. Nice post.

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  4. Reblogged this on ONCE BOOKED and commented:
    This puts into words what I’ve been trying to get at in my reviews for Anne Bishop’s The Others series. I’ve said that despite the dark and grim nature of the books, there are very human and ordinary moments which make it so endearing. Now I realise they were endearing also because they were happy. We get so many scenes where the characters get to breathe, get to *be*, without the problems they’re facing dragging them down.

    And obviously I should get to reading Vision In Silver because it might just end this slump of mine.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Good post. The ‘happy moments’ may be considered to be a luxury by many writers, but they do, indeed, break up the pace of the book and why should they not be contributing to the development of the plot? As enjoyed by lovers of the Slow Book Movement everywhere.

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  6. You reminded me of Levin in “Anna Karenina”. His star rose on a happy life as Anna’s was falling and leading to her death. When I first read the book, it was to read about Anna. Later readings became focused on Levin. He knew his heart, he made the best choices he could, he made restitution when he screwed up, and he loved nature. His was a consistently happy story for me. Or instead of happy, it was a joyful one. For me, joy is deeper than happiness. It might not smile or laugh all the time, but its face is glowing from within. I love well placed vignettes of daily life in a story, and I dislike the increased intensity of modern writing as well as the despair that seems to wallpaper every scene of so many books. Happiness has become old fashioned, for heaven’s sake. Yet misery is no way to live- or write.

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  7. I think true happiness only occurs in dribs and drabs, serving as a buffer against the more prevalent emotions that populate our lives: trepidation, disappointment, fear, hatred, guilt, etc. But I’ll accept those small doses, and be eternally grateful for them.

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  8. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I don’t think it should be wrong for the character to have a brief moment of happy quietness. The reader (I know I would) will still worry about what’s going to happen next. I’m doing that in my current novel. Yes, it’s going to slow the story down, but not for long and hopefully the reader will keep going. The action picks back up at the apartment fire in Texas and continues to the end.

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