Optimistic Plots

Written By: Timothy Fish Published: 10/31/2007

Recently, BJ Hoff blogged about Hope in a Doubtful Age. She described Ray Bradury’s writing as appearing to come from a man with a childlike faith. “There are times,” she wrote, “when I can almost sense him rubbing his hands together, his eyes sparkling with anticipation as he works.” What an excellent picture of the attitude that an author should have toward writing!

Most of her comments concerned the trend of authors trying to portray the world realistically and producing fiction with a depressing outlook. She stated that she gravitates toward writers who take a more optimistic view. She stated that she is not talking about a happy ending. She says that is not realistic “to paint life as nothing more than a succession of meaningless disappointments and tragedies.” Some people say that sin is real so we must talk about it, but there is much more to life than bad stuff. O, sure, turn on the news and you will see a lot of bad stuff. That bad stuff may cause us to do other things. Other bad things may happen and we will fight to overcome it. We may eventually succeed and have a happy ending that is realistic, but is that what life is like? Is that realistic? Does this sound realistic?

A man’s wife has died in an automobile accident. At the funeral, someone tells him that she was murdered. Then the guy beats him up for his money. After coming to, the man goes to the police, who do not believe him. He starts searching for the truth and gets beat up again. When he gets close to the truth, his girlfriend kills his other girlfriend. He solves the case.

A man went to the park the other day, to feed the ducks with his kids. He happened to see a boy and his father there. The man offered to let the boy feed the ducks with the bread he bought. While the boy was doing that, the man and the boy’s father started talking about their jobs. The boy’s father told the man that his company had an opening for someone with the man’s skills and he should consider applying. The man does and is offered a great deal more money than his current job is paying. He takes the position and tasked with a difficult challenge. The company wants to move one of its factories, but the people in the town where it is going don’t want it and the people in the town where it is don’t want to lose their jobs. He eventually resolves the problem by proving that the existing factory can be profitable.

We have two different stories. They both take one paragraph to tell. There is nothing about either one that we would say couldn’t happen. They both have happy endings. One of them is a string of bad things while the other is a string of good things. There is conflict in both. Of the two, which would you rather read? Which has the more likeable character? Which is more realistic?

Plot, A Jagged Line

When I think of a plot, I think of a jagged line. At first it is a straight line. Our story has a goal that is at the end of the line. As the story moves forward good things move the line up, while bad things move the line down. If the line stays above the status quo most of the time then the story has an optimistic view while a line that stays below the status quo has a pessimistic view. A happy ending will be above the line and an unhappy ending will be below.

In the image shown here, we have two possible endings with two possible plots each. The green lines represent plots that stay above the status quo for most of the story. The red lines represent plots where the character is worse off than status quo through most of the story. I see the green line plots as being more optimistic than the others are. As the story progresses the reader sees it moving in a positive direction. With an unhappy ending the story crashes in the end, but that is not always a bad thing.

With the red line plots the reader begins to expect failure. Sure, the character has a few successes, but he can’t even get back to where he used to be. If he does, he won’t stay there long before he his worse off again. The story may turn around at the end, but he is in sad shape throughout most of the story.

The conflict in the plot causes the jaggedness of the lines. As the character tries to improve his life, there are things that set him back. There is always conflict that tries to pull the character one direction or the other.

A Closer Look

Most people like a happy ending, so let’s consider the happy ending plots in more detail. The red line plot starts out with something bad happening. The character tries to recover, but he doesn’t quite make it. Something else happens and he is even worse off. He recovers some, but then is set back a little. He finally struggles enough to improve his life a little, but a setback pushes him back below the line. He continues these struggles, never getting a break, until he makes a big final push to the happy ending. This is typical of a pessimistic plot. The world is out to get us, but with a burst of energy we might be abe to reach our goal.

In the happy green line plot, the character starts off with a goal. Something happens to prevent him from reaching his goal. He recovers and goes farther before there is another setback. He progressively fights toward the goal, improving his situation as he goes and even though he has many setbacks he eventually reaches it. In order to keep the plot line above the status quo, the character has to be constantly trying to improve over the status quo. The character must have the expectation that he can better himself as opposed to the red line view where the character is just trying to survive. A character that is constantly trying to improve over the status quo is an optimist.

Not every story will show the world in an optimistic light. Some of the stories that must be told are quite depressing, even if they do have a happy ending. Not all stories will have a green line plot, but those that do are so much more uplifting than those that don’t.