Aaron Gwyn's story collection, Dog on the Cross (Algonquin Books), was a finalist for the 2005 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. His novel, The World Beneath, will be released this month by W.W. Norton. He teaches fiction writing at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. His short fiction has appeared in New Stories from the South, McSweeney's, Indiana Review, Black Warrior Review, The Texas Review, and twice in Glimmer Train.
In my fiction writing classes, I find myself saying over and over, "Story is about conflict. Conflict is trouble. Find trouble and you've found a story." I usually say this on the first day and I don't stop saying it until the last. I say it in intro courses and upper-division courses. I say it in graduate workshops.
My poor students. They sit with terrified looks on their faces. They have names that sound like the names of strippers, or professional wrestlers, or the highly motivated show people on the exercise channel, clapping and stepping onto tread-covered boxes. They tell me they have nothing to write about, my students. Sometimes they go missing for weeks at a time. They show back up with hospital release forms and police reports, inexplicable cuts and scrapes on their hands, bruises and bandages. They insist they can't get an idea for a story.
I've given up pointing out the irony.
It's never appreciated.
I stand in front of my classes pounding the podium like an evangelist. I tell them trouble.
Trouble, trouble, trouble.
"In life, we want peace," I tell them. We want love, and peace, and job security. In literature, not so much.
And in short stories, you've got to have trouble in the first paragraph—if I don't get a corpse within the first thousand words, I don't want to read it.
If I tell my students this, they just look at me.
"It's a story," I tell them. "Somebody's got to go."
And somebody does have to go. Somebody is always going in a story. From one condition to another, from one state of mind to another. In any conflict, there are causalities. The question, once conflict emerges, is not, "is this right or is this wrong?" The question is, "what has been lost and what has been gained?" Writers call the answer to that question resolution.
So, trouble. The quest for it is infinite. As is its study.
And there are many kinds of trouble: emotional, spiritual, financial, sexual, etc, etc.
Remember, though: this is America. We prefer trouble to be physical and physically demonstrable. I'm talking about real suffering. I'm talking about the kind of trouble where, when you're reading the story, the only thing you can think is how are these poor people going to make it out of this alive? The story's answer should always be the same: they aren't.
Somebody has got to go.
Show me a list of the masterpieces of world literature and I'll show you a list of trouble:
The Iliad: you want a nice girlfriend, end up bringing down the wrath of the gods on your own army. Odyssey: you try to get home safely with a boatload of your buddies. Only you make it back. Some guy's already trying to date your wife. In fact, a bunch of guys are trying to date your wife. Inferno: afterlife is pure hell. Though walking around and watching is kind of fun. Hamlet: your dead father rises from the grave and tells you to kill your uncle. You end up murdering his chief advisor, two high school friends, and the guy who's sister you dumped. She's so grief-struck she drowns herself. Moby Dick: a whale bites your leg off, so you enact a quest that will kill your entire crew and yourself. Ulysses: you're the only Jewish guy in Dublin and someone is dating your wife: and doing a very fine job of it. Grapes of Wrath: no food, no money, situation's so dire you have to go to California. The Sound and the Fury: you might be an idiot, a crazy Harvard freshman, or a redneck, but your sister is too big of a tramp to care.
I could go on, but you get the point.
One last thing, though.
The secret, I believe, in writing well about trouble, is choosing carefully the kind of character who will be most troubled by his/her trouble. What is a trial to one person, might be downright relaxing to another. The trouble in your story must push the character to a point where s/he will make a decision to escape his/her trouble. That decision, if we are dealing with a bona fide story, will always mean that the character who exits the story won't quite be the same person who entered it. The trouble has changed him/her irrevocably. There is no going back.
This is one of the distinct features of the story, separating it from anecdote or sketch: folks in stories change, the story is about that moment when they change. And it suggests that even in life, we never make changes of any kind without trouble.
Just ask my students.
As you might gather, they're in for plenty.