Are you feeling jaded and depressed? In this post, we look at why writers need to get back to writing with hope. We also look at why hopeful stories succeed.
Times being what they are, I wonder if it’s not time for us to remember how to write hopeful stories again. People like me who grew up in the bright light and garish colours of the Nineties sure would like to see that again.
These are just my opinions, but perhaps I can persuade you to make something that will make someone else smile and not something that makes someone else burn the world to ashes.
To illustrate what hope felt like in a work of fiction for those too young to remember or so old they have forgotten, I want to focus on a couple of shows and some books that encapsulate what hope feels like in fiction. I will be talking about Star Trek, Terry Pratchett’s work, and even Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I will also look at their modern counterparts.
This article is not about science fiction (SF) or Star Trek though. It’s more about the feeling I have when I watch shows like it, and read the books I love, and why it keeps me coming back year after year, decade after decade.
However, I do love Star Trek. In particular I love the Star Trek of the 90s and 2000s. It was bright, positive, and silly. People and aliens smiled, told jokes, and nobody was irredeemable.
Bear in mind that these images were released to the press to advertise the shows, so they do represent the mood.
Now, I like The Expanse. But, I’m not going to re-watch it like I have Star Trek: DS9 and I think I know why.
There are three reasons and they can be applied to a wide variety of fiction. For example, I think they work just as well for Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or even Discworld. So, don’t think they are just for science fiction.
Why We Need To Get Back To Writing With Hope – Why Hopeful Stories Succeed
Reason One: Likable Characters
In Star Trek we always know that the good guys survive. We know that even if they go to war, the crew will be back at the bar at the end of the day throwing darts and drinking ‘Synthehol’.
You could complain that this removes all the tension from action scenes. Well, you would be right. There is a reason I can put a show like Star Trek on in the background, or even as white noise, to fall asleep to.
But, that’s because I like the characters and because they don’t die even when they should. I can grow attached to them.
In Star Trek shows (before Star Trek: Discovery) we were treated to long seasons, 26 episodes or more. This gave each and every character a chance to shine. You could say that means there is less plot and more filler. You are right. But, so what?
If characters are enjoyable, if they are compelling, if they are interesting, then filler becomes captivating.
It means that viewers will want to know how they think and act in different situations. Or, how they live and act when the stakes are not quite so high.
I’m not expecting realism. I don’t need to see Quark, the greedy barkeeper of DS9, shot in the head. I don’t want Worf, the muscle-headed warrior, to be more violent just because it would make sense for a Klingon to act that way.
No, I like seeing the tough guy drinking prune juice with my favourite scheming barman. And, boy did we get a lot of that. Almost every interaction and hair-brained scheme played out in detail over the course of hundreds of episodes.
But, I never once thought, ‘Damn it! Just get to the action.’, because I wasn’t there for action. I was there to watch characters who at a certain point began to feel like friends. Or, at least people I could picture being around.
On the other hand, it’s hard to get excited by the characters from The Expanse and, well, all the ones I liked are dead now. This detracts from the general sense of enjoyment I have for the show. I’m honestly not even sure if I care enough to know what happens to the remaining cast at this point.
And no, I could not imagine hanging out with a single character from The Expanse. That seems like a sure way to end up dead.
Exercise: See if you can make a character you would like to spend time with. Make them flawed but likable. Give them goals that set them against someone or something, but make them feel real. And, then make them a best friend.
Reason Two: Joyful Moments
Another bleak show, and series of book, that comes to mind is Game of Thrones – A Song of Ice and Fire. Now, after years of watching and reading, feels like a waste of time.
I feel cheated that I put up with endless descriptions and bait and switch characters and their brutal deaths for what was ultimately a disappointing conclusion.
To make this worse I can’t remember a single moment of joy from that show that has stuck with me just a few years later. I can remember horrific deaths, rape, and torture but not much else, oh and, maybe some overly described food too.
Must-Read: Is Game Of Thrones Worth Your Time?
Now, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld on the other hand is almost nothing but joyful moments.
People mock Pratchett for being overly referential. For example:
Night watch, a Sam Vimes novel, has a cover that in itself works for the book. But, it is also a reference to the Rembrandt painting ‘The Night Watch’. See below.
And much of his writing is like this. Terry Pratchett wrote in layers. Every joke worked on the surface and then perhaps it also worked if you re-read it a few years later after you had been to collage and knew more of the references.
If you have ever worked in a university, you will be in stiches over the antics of the staff at the Unseen University and how well he has captured the absurd nature of academia. If you like crime procedurals, you will love the Ankh-Morpork City Watch and their hard boiled Commander Vimes. Every book is its own genre and its own references to our own pop culture as well as history, science, and philosophy. Really there is something there for almost everyone.
Reading Terry Pratchett is also satisfying. Everything is given its time to develop. Every scene is allowed to linger just long enough. Every joke feels like the author is pausing for you to laugh.
It feels like a good conversation with a friend. A cleave friend, who can twist anything you say into something better and more meaningful with a little philosophy thrown in to make you feel like a better person just from talking to them.
Also, both the Star Trek of the Nineties and Terry Pratchett’s books are things I would feel comfortable letting a child indulge in. I would know that it was doing no harm to them and, in all probability, the end product of that ‘education’ would be someone at least worth talking to.
At the very least, they would have no trouble making friends at Comic Con.
If I wanted to make a serial killer, I might give them Game of Thrones.
Exercise: Have your character and their friend do something that makes you smile or something you think will make someone else happy.
Reason Three: A World I Would Want To Live In
A problem with a lot of edgy fictional worlds is that they are actually too dangerous or horrific for human life. This can take the reader out of the story. So to counter this, it is helpful to imagine what the daily life of a person in the worlds would look like.
Star Wars does this well. Sure, it’s dirty and dangerous, but not to an extreme. We see the world has nice places and bad ones, rich areas and poor ones. But, there is a sense that life is possible for the average person in the Star Wars galaxy.
Now, of course, Star Trek and Discworld are great worlds to live in. Or, at least I would want to live in either of them. One has science that is like magic and the other has magic that is like science. More importantly, the good guys always seem to come out on top for some reason.
But, I want to compare two other similar shows. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and American Gods.
Both are supernatural ‘horror’, both are about magical beings, and both have chosen ones with super powers, government secrets, and corny slices of Americana.
But, well American Gods seems like a rundown trailer park compared to the leafy suburban neighbourhood that is Buffy.
People will say, well they are very different shows.
And, sure, you are right. One is dark and depressing and was cancelled before its third season and the other made people happy and ran for seven seasons and had a spinoff.
I read American Gods, the extended version, a couple of years ago. I finished it and thought: ‘Well that didn’t go anywhere.’ But, I liked the world. It was interesting and often fun.
However, the showrunners decided to go for an even darker, even bleaker world when they decided on a tone for the TV show.
People fell for the cast especially the bro-mance between Crowley and Aziraphale and they loved the world. And, beyond all expectations even without any more source material it is getting a second season. A mistake perhaps, but it shows what people want.
They want to spend time with a world they love. A world that they could see a future in.
Must-Read: 5 Book Worlds I’d Like To Live In
Now, Buffy was not a well-made show. Its writing was shallow; its characters were clichéd; and it can be hard to look at that 90s hair today. But, it was comforting.
Comforting because the world was not getting worse. Progress, hopeful progress, was always being made.
You can get behind it as a world. It has a structure that makes sense. Groups of good guys, groups of bad ones, and groups of people who don’t quite fit in.
It never rocks your world. However, you always feel that you can understand the motivations of people in this world and that if you lived in this world you would be able to fit in.
What it does well is progress the plot. Step by step, the threat level increases, but never too much at one time. The plot moves slowly giving us time to adapt. The characters grow as people and become more capable to deal with bigger threats at the same time.
The same can be said for Discworld. The City of Ankh-Morpork burns down the first time we are introduced to it. But, by the last time we visit it, it has grown into a true and believable metropolis.
We are taken though its growing pains. We see its captains of industry. We understand how it lives and breathes. By the end, it makes sense and we feel a sense of progress and satisfaction that we have seen something improve in a way that makes sense.
American Gods is a world in decline. Things are falling apart. People don’t see the point in working together or building a future. Literally, it is about a failed apocalypse that not even the gods are competent enough to pull off.
And, if you ask me that is why people don’t want to watch it. The writers have no faith in their world’s future so why should the audience?
Exercise: You don’t need to write for this one. Go for a walk or do something mindless. While you are doing this just imagine a world that is worthwhile. A place where it would be nice to build a home.
Writing With Hope
Hope is really and figuratively all humans need to make life worth living.
When things are bad, and well they sure have been lately, it gets us though the day.
And, I find more and more it is what gets me through a book!
I’m done, for now, with dystopias. I’m over grim realism. I’ve cancelled my subscription to disaster and mayhem.
I just want the good guys to win. Actually, I want them to win convincingly, and to survive to the end of the book. I want the world to be better than it was. I want people to have grown. I want the bad guys to have changed their evil ways.
What was so bad with hopeful fiction that we ended up with a Star Trek movie called Into Darkness? If you will excuse a pun or five, maybe it’s time to take The Voyage Home to come back from The Final Frontier. We don’t need to go to The Undiscovered Country. Fiction does not need to be our Nemesis, so let’s look Beyond that and make a brighter more hopeful world of fiction for The Next Generation.
The Last Word
I hope this gives you the inspiration to try writing with hope.
Christopher Luke Dean (Still Searching for Spock)
More Posts From Christopher:
- 10 Worthy Antagonists In Fiction & Tips For Writing Them
- Why You Shouldn’t Only Write What You Know
- Writers Talk 11 | The 8 Elements Of Setting
- A Quick-Start Guide To Writing Fantasy
- Writers Talk 10 | Creativity & Imagination
- Writers Talk 9 | Journey To The West
- The Way Of The One – For Writers