So today I decided to write about stress. I know, we all feel stress in our everyday lives. This last year, 2020, sucked! Covid-19, hundreds of thousands of Americans dying due to the pandemic. Having all types of conflicting messages coming from the federal, state, and local leaders left most of us wondering, “what the ever living f%(* do I do?” Then I don’t even want to get into the election. Nope, not going to open that big old bag of s#$t.
During 2020, we still needed to live our lives. We still needed toilet paper. (Really people, WTF was that all about?) We all needed to eat, to go through our daily lives without losing what was left of our minds. To say 2020 was stressful is a vast understatement. On the plus side, just think of all the valuable time you got to spend with your family!
Let me digress. When I think of stress, I think of the day in, day out moments at work, paying bills, traffic, and other mundane subjects like that. We all had those same stressors before Covid and we’ll have them after. Then there are the little stresses like fixing dinner, remembering trash day, dish soap, do I have an appointment with my doctor, when will I get this mop of hair cut, and when can I go out to eat because I’m sick and tired to googling recipes from what ever the hell I have in the fridge. On a plus note, that toilet paper issue is solved for the the next foreseeable future.
So why am I rambling on about stress? Well, if you look at your day to day life stressors and compare them to the stress we love, and I mean love, to put our characters through. I mean, holy snickies Batman, our characters go through hell and we, as writers, gleefully put them through the ringer every single chapter!
Look at one of my favorite books and movies, The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. Clancy’s main character, Jack Ryan, a CIA spook, has to stop World War III after Ukrainian born Soviet submarine Captain Marko Ramius steals the new silent nuclear powered sub. Now this sub is armed to the teeth with nukes too. The world is freaking out. The Cold War is warming up and the Superpowers are at each other’s throats. So, Mr. Ryan just has to figure out what the hell is going on, fly all over the world only to get dropped into the ocean and try to make contact with AWAL Capt. Ramius and try to stop WWIII.
Just a little bit of stress, right? Good luck Jacky boy, you got this!
Not all stresses are about nukes. Some stresses are about zombies trying to eat your main characters face off and kill his/her loves ones all the while the main character is trying to get one to save Fluffy the beloved family’s hamster. This kind of main character would love to just go back to paying bills and getting through traffic. But, he/she has to fight for basic survival needs like food, water, and shelter.
A common theme of stress I find in many books that I read is the whole blowing up of world/city/building/sun/bus/plane and so on. Blowing up stuff could put a damper on your day. Look at the 1994 classic (God I’m old) Jen de Bont film, Speed. The main characters, Annie the bus driver (Sandra Bullock) and Jack (Keanu Reeves) (Side note here: they really could have come up with better names for the main characters) have to keep a bus going at 50 miles per hour (I know, in LA traffic!) or the bus will blow up. Now the bad guy has all the bases covered, the bus is wired with cameras so if anyone tries anything stupid, boom goes the dynamite, and everyone is dead.
You got this Jacky boy, right? (Didn’t I just say that?)
Let me bring you down a little bit.
Now this next one is hard for me to remember because it is so sad. The movie is called, Grave of the Fireflies, this masterpiece of animation and film making was directed by Isao Takahata, is about an older brother, Seita and his younger sister, Setsuko, who get separated from their parents after a US firebombing raid on a Japanese city during the ending of WWII. The stress here is how two young children struggle to survive when everything around them is chaos. The struggle to find shelter, food, water is so true to life that this tale will leave you in a huddled mass of tears at the end. I have never watch a more powerful movie about the price of war then this movie.
Sorry for bringing you all down.
Okay, lets get back on in that saddle again.
Even comedies have stress. Most comedies are about moving one stressful situation or another, therefore moving the story forward. In 1998 a movie came out like no other from the Coen Brother, The Big Leboswki. Confession time, I love this movie! If you have ever watched this movie, you maybe asking yourself, stress, what stress? Well, first, the rug! (It completes the room) Then, where the hell is Bunny? Who ‘kidnapped’ Bunny? Where is the ransom money? Nihilist? really Nihilist? and so many more questions. The great thing about this movie, is that a lot of the stress is self imposed! Walter turns everything in a Vietnam related issue and ruins every plan that the Dude has.
Self imposed stress. You see it in many movies. Office Space, the 1999 film by director Mike Judge is about three guys just trying to make it through the 2000 transition. The self imposed stress comes from them screwing everything up by trying to steal small amounts of money from the company that just fired two of the three men. Well they screw it up and things happen.
Now with all this talk about stress, my question is how do your characters deal with it? I think this is a question that most authors do not think about. Handling stress comes in many different shapes, colors and forms. My main character exercises and has sex with her girlfriend. (That’s right I said it! The S word.) Now, I don’t go into detail in my book about my main characters’ sex life, but I am the author and this is one of her coping mechanisms to deal with stress. Other characters, like scruffy ‘superhero’ Hancock, M.A.S.H.’s doctors B.J. Honeycutt and Hawkeye Pierce just drank their stress away. Some main characters use drugs, Trainspotting the 1996 movie about heroine use in Scotland is a prime example of this.
Stress manifests itself in many different ways in life and in books and movies, the consequences and stress management should also play a part in your writing. Many characters try to reflect real life but fall short in this way. Where there is a high from the rush of adrenaline during a fight or a shoot out. Where is the crash after the high leaves?
In conclusion, there are many ways in which we face stress everyday. As authors, we are told to ramp up the stress because readers love it. We are told that we need to use stress to drive the characters forward to the conclusion of the book whether it’s the good, the bad or the ugly ending. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a fantastic Clint Eastwood movie with a stressful ending ramped up to 11.
Stress works, stress sell books and movies. (What does that say about us?)
Thank you for reading this,