The Best Stories Are the Worst

Dystopias are my least favorite type of book. Badly-written stories are also the worst. But by the “worst,” I mean those uncomfortable situations in which a character finds that he done messed up.

The “best” stories? Can you imagine if the highest achievement of every character in every book was to get what they wanted? Well, that is, isn’t it? We want the characters to get what they want and live happily ever after. We also want to get what we want. Doesn’t that make a happy ending? There’s nothing wrong with Sally reaching her goal to make enough money to save the clinic.

However, although I’d agree that stories are all about solving life’s problems (introduction, problem, climax, resolution), perhaps the most humbling and comforting of stories are the ones that turn the world upside-down. The “eucatastrophe,” or “good catastrophe,” as Tolkien coined.

Here are some examples: Gandalf fights the balrog and dies, the worst of fates, only to become Gandalf the White (I haven’t read the whole series but I know that part anyhow.) A girl fails in her attempt to become the best pianist in her eyes, only to realize that in forgetting herself she will become a better pianist. In Emma by Jane Austen, Emma ultimately fails in playing matchmaker and then realizes that she doesn’t know-it-all, and right relations in the community bloom and are restored.

The stories in which the character and even the author are absolutely taken by surprise at the turn of how reality really is may be the most redeeming kind of story in the world. We all know that life is full of calamities, some that are very difficult to accept, and we know (or we should know) that our desires are not always or even often good, but rather selfish and proud. When the worst possible calamity fall upon us, and it causes us to turn from our ways and realize that the opposite way is the best even for us, or the calamity becomes the seed for blessing greater than we could hope or imagine, like the story of Joseph, we receive the greatest redemption and greatest balm for life’s problems.