So what makes a good story? The characters? The plot? The eloquence of the prose?
I’m more of a character person myself, but I don’t want to start a big internet debate. We already have too many of those in the comments section on youtube.
But I do want to remind everyone that, apart from creating realistic characters and giving them an interesting plot, one component that is absolutely necessary to make a good story is tragedy.
The Greeks knew it all those thousands of years ago, and I think sometimes, in an effort to spite death and turn the world into a horde of boring, sparkly, conflict-less vampires, we like to forget about this part.
So what is tragedy exactly?
Tragedy is the inevitable badness that will strike your life at one point or another.
Notice that I didn’t just say “bad stuff that makes you sad.” I said “inevitable.”
Because inevitability is what makes tragedy tragic.
All of those Shakespearean and Greek plays that involve oracles or witches telling the hero what horrible thing will happen and then watching the hero walk right into his fate because he tried so desperately to avoid it – those are the epitome of tragedy.
Hero sees fate; hero tries to escape fate; hero runs right into fate’s jaws.
Nothing gets more tragic than that.
But tragedy doesn’t have to be so dramatic. There are much more subtle types of tragedy that we’ve become so accustomed to living with that we don’t even notice them for what they are anymore, and they all involve one thing:
The inevitability of decay.
Isn’t that one of those laws of Thermodynamics or something – that everything tends towards chaos? I never much liked science, so who knows if that’s an accurate statement, but you get the idea.
Death is, of course, the most obvious example of this. Death is a fact of life. No matter how much we try to avoid it, eventually we all will watch people we know die and will die ourselves.
(Heavy thoughts for a Monday, I know. I swear there’s a happier point to this.)
But there are other, smaller examples of tragedy.
All of the food lovers of the world understand the tragedy of eating. We know full well that the food we eat will eventually be decomposed in our bodies, leaving its divine flavor as a mere memory on our tongues, but do we stop eating? NEVER!
No matter how wonderful the food is, by consuming it, and therefore fully appreciating its beauty and its purpose, we are creating a little tiny tragedy. And we don’t even flinch.
We are such monsters!
But hang on for a second, and think about what I just said.
In order to fully understand the beauty of good food, we have to consume it, thus creating tragedy. Then, of course, it strengthens our bodies so that we can think and live and all that.
What does this mean?
It means that the best things in life are directly intertwined with the most painful things.
When people get married, they understand that eventually one or both of them are going to die. But does that stop them from getting married? Do they think: “Well, I love you more than life, buuuut I think I’ll pass on the whole dying bit.”
Very likely we would call that person stupid and slap them upside the head.
Because marriage is such a happy thing, right? I mean, look at all of those romantic comedies about the people who bicker over something stupid and then realize their undying love for each other. They get married, have lots of children, and live happily ever after. Those are so beautiful and happy, and they’re great stories. They’re not tragic at all!
But actually they are.
In fact, marriage and death are so intertwined that death is worked into the classic wedding vows:
“‘Til Death Do Us Part.”
This is supposed to be one of the greatest moments of your life; you’re telling someone that you’ll love them forever.
But “until death” does NOT mean “forever.” It means “until we die.”
Marriage is one of the greatest tragedies ever written, and it happens every single day. We worship it, we long for it. And why wouldn’t we? It’s pretty fantastic – being loved so completely by another person for your whole life. But sometimes we forget about the sadness that comes with it.
So what am I trying to say?
Well, in order to have an amazing story, full of things that catch our breath and tug at our hearts – things that make us feel alive and courageous and adventurous and meaningful – there will also have to be some major tragedies involved.
But that’s what makes the story so good!
What would the movie Gladiator be without the death of his family? What would Harry Potter be without the death of his parents? What would all of Jane Austen’s novels be without the tragedy of class inequality? What would Twilight – oh wait, never mind…
But you get the idea.
Part of living the life of the hero is taking the tragedy that comes with it, not begrudgingly, but with acceptance, knowing that the best things in life come with the biggest sadnesses.
If you want your life to be an amazing story, then you have to see the tragedies for what they are: opportunities for character development and plot movement, but also a chance to experience something truly meaningful.
Tragedy whether small or large is inevitable, so why not make your tragedy worth it?
Create for yourself the most joyful tragedy of all time, because that’s what a hero does.