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

8 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Write about Happiness?

    1. Unfortunately, showing only happy moments wouldn’t be very true to most character’s lives, because, at least in worlds that resemble ours, there are troubles and strife and difficulties, and seeing how a character faces such things is what makes them interesting. It is very satisfying, and it ties into the “learn from others so you can make better decisions yourself” aspect of reading. But I think it is just as important to show how characters handles happiness, or if they’re capable of enjoying anything. It helps present a more complete picture of who they are. Can they enter into the relaxed atmosphere, or do they still stress out about now-absent problems? Do they “get” happiness or are they too serious, too dignified, or too detached from other people? What makes them care about living? These kinds of questions can really only be answered in happy scenes.

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      1. You’re totally right about that! If you could successfully pull off a story that focused on happiness, it would have to be something short and fleeting. Maybe not ignore moments of strife and difficulty, but relegate them to “flashbacks and memories” as you pointed out happy times are most often portrayed. Turn the tables as it were. How do you immerse yourself in a happy time when you’re suddenly blessed with it, without allowing it to become tainted? It would be hard to make a serious piece of writing from the concept, but it might make a for a teachable writing exercise–to help us learn how to put happiness back into our character’s lives without it feeling like a forced afterthought.

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  1. Thank you for this topic! I was starting to think I was alone in the universe. I actually do plot for filler scenes, though I don’t really think of them as fillers. I use those slow, quiet moments to show times of both happiness and reflection. They allow my characters to be real people, and give them time to process all the craziness I’m throwing at them so that they can grow. I’m not sure when this idea hit the publishing industry that books have to resemble action movies or no one will want to read them, but it is a horrible one. Those kinds of books are ok once in a while, but they are like junk food for the mind and emotionally exhausting. Eventually you’re going to need something with more nourishment. Personally, the books I have fondest memories of growing up were those that were full of quiet, joyful moments. There was time to breathe, to experience real life in another person’s world; not only fear and sorrow, but wonder and beauty as well. Those simple things made the books, characters, and worlds lovable–relatable. They made me care if all of that was being endangered by the intensity of the plot, and they ultimately made me want to go back to visit those places again and again. I think books which strip out the quiet moments in favor of non-stop action are missing out on something incredibly important. Something both human and soulful. I am hoping for some of the older styles of writing to trend back again, but in our increasingly fast-paced, technology-obsessed, no-time-for-thought culture, I fear they never shall.

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    1. You’re right. Such scenes would become “constructive pauses” instead of filler: not essential, as far as the plot goes, yet crucial to show character development and reflection. Beautifully worded!

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