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.
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren Photo by jpkwitter, Creative Commons