The Fiction (and Reality) of Pain

Since my last email to you, I vended at O Comicon in Council Bluffs, Iowa (it’s across the river from Omaha… but hey, across the river is close enough, I guess, to call it “O” Comicon). I had a great show – one of my five best. Lots of readers in the Omaha/Council Bluffs region. I met a lot of new people as well as those who read my novels after purchasing them last year. Thank you, O.

On the way home, we came down I-29, which had recently reopened after massive flooding. We experienced an incredible stretch of nearly 50 miles of farm after farm under water. In some fields, the water stood so deep it looked like a lake. Many lives have been shaken and livelihoods lost because of the flooding. The 50 damaged levees won’t be repaired until 2021, and the standing water has no place to go.

In books and movies, conflict drives a good story – whether it’s Darth Vader killing some nice young people who just want to live peaceful lives, or it’s some really bad dudes kidnapping Liam Neeson’s daughter (although the daughter could have just waited until U2 came to the States; her father wouldn’t have had to hire that Albanian interpreter). In the first Jason Bourne novel, Carlos The Jackal, a real-life terrorist, was the bad guy trying to stop the super American agent as he struggled to regain his memory.

Killings, pain, battles – that’s how we’re entertained. If that sounds a little weird or even sick, think about horror stories and movies: people pay money to scare themselves half to death, then they laugh about it afterward (or have nightmares, depending on your ability to stomach such subjects).

The point is, no story advances without conflict – not even a romance (although those usually shy away from blood and guts, I hear). We read or watch conflict as a form of entertainment.

If you think it can be any other way, I can relate a brief story. A number of years ago, a co-worker gave me his first screenplay and asked me to read it. I did. It was awful. He had likeable characters and a plot and … nothing went wrong. Ever. The characters grew their business; it was a success; it became a bigger success; it became a bigger success. The End.

For many weeks I avoided giving him feedback. He was a lot bigger than me. It would’ve hurt my neck just to look up at him to give the feedback. That was plenty of pain for me right there. I didn’t need to upset the guy.

Then one day he walked up to me and said, “You know that script I had you read? Forget it. It’s garbage. I’m taking a night course at UCLA and I’ve learned I didn’t have any conflict in the story.”

Whew! Off the hook.

I imagined a much worse ending – something like me saying, “There’s no conflict in your story. You need your characters to overcome pain.” And then he says, “Oh yeah? Well let me show you pain.”

As odd as it sounds, for a story to work, there has to be conflict, pain, failures (including for the good guys), and bad stuff happening – even if that “bad stuff” is merely emotional, such as in some dramas that do not have violence of any type (I count volcanoes that blow up and giant tsunami waves as violence, for the purpose of this conversation).

Who do books get written about and movies get made about? People who either suffered and then overcame misery or who were confronted with some sort of ruin – to themselves or others – and triumphed. We all like a winner, but one doesn’t triumph over a cozy, idyllic life.

Like it or not, good stories only come out of pain. Think The Grapes of Wrath: a horrible time for our country, but a great novel and movie. No one wanted the Great Depression to happen or was happy it did, but many inspiring stories rose from the depths of despair.

Looking out, across the flooded fields of northwestern Missouri and southern Nebraska and Iowa, understanding the degree of destruction, I couldn’t help but think how much pain and misery have confronted so many. It’s not a good situation, from any angle, but it is a good reminder, as we think about our own lives, that we all have pain, struggle, and conflict: yet someone always has it worse – sometimes much worse.

An odd thought, is it not, that this is how some of the best stories come to the fore?

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As always, if you have read one of my novels and enjoyed it, remember to leave a review at one of the major online sites, including Amazon.

Until next time,

Somewhere on the edge of the Great Plains,

Brian W. Peterson

Children of Sun: (link here)

Dead Dreams: (link here)

Wager of Death: (link here)