All Stories Require Base-Level Optimism

Hello everyone.

So, I’m currently on a 16 week Advanced Creative Writing course run by Richard Thomas, studying great contemporary short fiction (from three ‘Best of’ anthologies for 2016) and feeding back on class work. Each week, we read two professionally published stories, two stories from class, and feedback on this stories, offering line by line edits and suggestions for improvements.

While writing my feedback on a particularly spectacular and gut-wrenching piece by one of my classmates, something occurred to me that I thought would be worth expanding into a blog and sharing with you all, as I know lots of you are looking for ways to improve your writing, editing and creative output.

What occurred to me is this: In order to write a story, there is a base-level of optimism required.

By this, I mean that nihilism actually doesn’t lend itself well to fiction. Narrative is shaped around some kind of sliver of hope, or triumph, or victory, however slim, fleeting or illusive. Tristine Rainer, in her wonderful book Your Life As Story once described a climax – a story’s denouement – as a point at which something dies so that something might live, may that be metaphorical or literal. Or, in other words, something is lost for something to be gained.

If you have a story where all we get at the end is a death scenario, i.e. ‘something lost’, you’re really short-changing the reader, however beautiful your prose, however real and developed your characters are, however ‘true’ you believe the world-view imparted by the story is.

Let’s look at it another way:

I get that reality is bleak for many, but unfortunately total bleakness doesn’t actually lend itself to narrative very well. Even stories of Faustian descent (a hero rises to power, is tempted by the devil, and then begins a descent into debauchery, and, as a result of pride, is eventually damned) have a ‘hero’ who we get behind, and there is a triumph in their defiance of all that is right and good, their slip into madness: they serve as a marker for the boundaries of human behaviour. I’m speaking of Christopher Marlowe’s classic play Dr Faustus, but there are plenty of modern examples: Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, being a recent one. Think about the journey in that. On some level, it could be considered bleak. The culmination of Jordan Belfort’s endlessly pornographic, shallow life is that one must be condemned to wander, much like the ‘ancient mariner’ of Coleridge’s fabulous epic, ‘stopping one in three’, asking them to ‘sell me this pen’, hoping one day someone will give him the answer he seeks. However, there’s something gained: he would not back down from the government, he would not be cowed. Of course, in reality we see Jordan’s action are governed by outrageous, jeopardising hubris and that he is a criminal – of this we have no doubt – but, in the same way we can sympathise for the cold-blooded killer Macbeth, we sympathise with Jordan, because there is something about him that reminds us of the twinned madness and bravery of humanity. At his very worst, he is at his best, because he goes about being his worst through admirable means: one cannot doubt he is intelligent, cunning, pro-active and, for lack of a better word, plain ballsy.

One might think of another classical example, that of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Satan, the adversary of man, the tempter of Adam and Eve, the instigator of all worldly woe and the fall in heaven, is the hero, or rather the anti-hero, whom we cannot help but love and admire. His vow: ‘Evil be thou my good’, his arguments that ‘The mind is it’s own place and can make a heaven or hell or a hell of heaven’, are so labyrinthine we cannot help but be ensnared by them. Satan has redeemable, likeable traits, even though he is the epitome of evil. That, my friends, is masterful writing.

If we look at it from the perspective of the overall plot of Paradise Lost, the same logic presides. Despite all the bleakness of Satan’s fall, the suffering in hell, and the subsequent destruction of Adam and Eve’s relationship with each other and God, there is a sliver of hope: Adam and Eve boldly leaving the Garden of Eden ‘hand in hand’, with a sense of new purpose. In fact, the purpose to create all that we know now. Our world, in essence. The ‘real’ world. Because Eden, when you look at it, is profoundly unreal even at the moment of its creation. So there is hope for the human race, hope for Adam and Eve’s relationship (they are holding hands and Eve is finally pregnant), and hope that one day the relationship with God will be repaired. It’s not all happy; there is great tragedy in them leaving the garden forever, never to recover their innocence, in effect: their childhood. But, there is a sliver that one day things might get better.

So how does this apply to your writing?

Well, my advice is this: bleak is good, dark is good, weird is good, depressing is good, all these things are good. Some of my favourite films are depressing ones, with barely a sliver of redemption left. But, always, always, always, there must remain that sliver, however slight. When you want to write a nihilistic or bleak story, ask yourself that question: ‘What’s been gained here?’ In what way has this misery enabled something positive? Of course, it’s easily possible to go too far the other way and make it corny. How many gruelling post-apocalyptic films end with a disjointed caricature of hope that is completely at odds with the rest of the piece? A balance needs to be struck.

I’ve talked enough now. Over to you. What do you think? Do stories need optimism, however faint? Write me!

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Joseph Sale is currently offering writing coaching over at

One thought on “All Stories Require Base-Level Optimism

  1. Great points. One distinction I might make is that optimism is passive; what we need is hope – which is active! But the thrust of your argument I think is unassailable: without some hope what is the point of writing? We simply make bad situations worse, even unendurable as endless reflection on the misery of life only compounds its mental and emotional force.

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