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05:17 pm: Wright's Writing Corner: Angst, Huh, What Is It Good For?

When one hears people denigrating Twilight and other books meant for teenage girls, one often hears the complaint that such books are angst-ridden. This is often said as if being angst-ridden is a fault in and of itself.

Eden dore


Adam and Eve, the original angsty love story


When I hear this, it reminds me of my theory that Twilight’s main vice is that it has spread beyond its intended readership. (Mind you, I haven’t read Twilight myself. I don’t like vampires for personal reasons. I am judging from the reactions of those who like it and of those who do not.)

Because when it comes to teenage girls:


Angst is not a bug, folks, it’s a feature!


Angst, heartbreak, is what we girls daydream about, especially back when we were tweens. When I was 12, I would lay in bed at night thinking of sadder and sadder romantic situations. I loved doing this. (Many of the tragic scenarios involved Captain Kirk or Spock or maybe Prince Caspian suffering a deadly wound or disease or some other heartbreakingly sad situation.) Eventually, I got so good at imagining heartbreaking scenarios I could make myself cry.


Why? Why would a girl want to make herself cry? Well, why would a young man want to undergo the grueling discomfort of an adventure? Dare violence, endure explosions?



For a hero to be great, he has to face a fearsome beast and overcome it. The same thing is true for love. For love to conquer all. It has to overcome the pain within, the darkness and the sorrows in our heart.


Adventure would be dull if the hero just walked up and killed the dragon. Without challenge, there is no story. Romances, too, are dull if there are no huge obstacles to overcome. How can the hero prove his worth, if he does not stay the course despite the terrible odds? The more obstacles overcome by the lovers, the more real their love seems.


The emotion which obstacles to love produces in the feminine heart is: angst.


This is what I think most readers are missing when they mock stories meant for teenage girls. The very thing they criticize it for having is the thing that makes it valuable to the young girl. So often, I hear the complain that a story is angst-ridden, as if that alone was evidence of its poor quality. Even many adult women tend to forget they once felt that way—the ones who no longer read tearjerkers.


It is not the fact that there is angst, but that it is often not done well, that leads people to denigrate it. Angst in romances is a lot like violence in action stories. A good action story has a brave hero, a great plot…and lots of violence and explosions. A cheep action story tries to replace the hero and plot with more blood and more explosions. Angst works the same way.


A really good heartbreaking, angsty story has problems that are outside of the main character’s control and these problems threaten to keep her from a happiness that she cannot live without. The main character expresses her pain and sorrow as she faces these terrible situations. Bad angsty stories just consist of stupid misunderstandings—things that are in the main character’s control but which she does not avoid.


Watching characters whine over problems they could avoid tends to annoy people. A good deal of angst’s bad reputation comes from this.



If no one wanted angst in stories, how could have an entire industry—soap operas—existed for well over half a century now running on nothing but angst-laden tales?


I mentioned that angst was the emotion in a young girl’s heart when she feels the pain of star-crossed love. It is also the emotion of facing problems that are outside of one’s control. This is a big issue for many teenage girls, to whom it sometimes seems as if everything significant is outside their control.


I am reminded of a conversation I had with friends about the movie Suckerpunch. In this movie, a girl in an insane asylum imagines she is an inmate in a brothel, where she dances and imagines she’s off fighting baddies. (If you haven’t seen it, yes, it’s that weird…and more.)


My friend said he could not understand why someone in a bad place would imagine they were in a worse place. But, he noted that some of his female friends, especially those who had suffered some kind of abuse, really emphasized with this and thought it made sense.


I tried to explain to him why one does this: imagines one is in a worse place when things were bad. I could not quite do it, but it is something like this:


There is somewhere in the back of the feminine psyche—way, way, way back—an unspoken assumption that sorrow can only get so bad. The thought is that if you can just pile on enough heartbreak, you will, some day, hit the breaking point—where either the universe itself shatters and rights everything that is wrong or, like an elf, you die of a broken heart.


That idea—that elf maids are hard to kill physically but more vulnerable to perishing from heartbreak—is one that goes very well with angst. Because the idea that no matter how sad you are, you are going to get over it eventually cuts against the premise that love is all and the only thing worth living for.

One cannot help being curious, then as to where this breaking point is? How much sorrow can I suffer before I cannot go on? How much can Juliet endure before she gives up? How much can Prince Charming overcome?


The greater the amount of heartbreak overcome, the greater the victory of love.


Because if love is worth having, then it will triumph, victorious, and the lovers will come together, despite all.


And that, by the way, is the unspoken assumption of all romances: that the couple is destined to be together. They belong together, and if they do not, their lives with be warped and ruined. There is something in their togetherness that is so important that they—and the entire universe—cannot function, cannot become whole, without it.*


If you buy into this premise…the romance genre makes sense, and stories of heartbreak and angst, when well done, will delight your heart.


If you don’t, they will makes no sense at all.


*A reader asked: what about love triangles. In a true romance, the assumption is always there that the true lovers will find their way through the triangle and triumph together. The girl may not know at first which love is the one meant to triumph, the story is then about her coming to recognize it. But the assumption that there is one right boy and he is The One is there. If it is not there, the story is not properly a romance. It becomes instead a harem comedy or some other type of literature.






Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

Comments

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From:juliet_winters
Date:April 12th, 2013 01:50 am (UTC)
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There was a whole series of teen romance stories where the premise was each young couple was doomed because one of them was dying of a fatal disease!

Forbidden or doomed love does seem to be the sweetest. Indeed an advice columnist recently advised a mother who disapproved of the quality of her daughter's boyfriend to not obviously show it but rather be so perfectly reasonable and kind that the daughter would see the jerk's behavior for what it was. Which she did. Once the sweetness of the forbidden was out of the picture, the girl came to her senses.
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 12th, 2013 01:00 pm (UTC)
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I have seen that, too...that parents disapproving of a beau make it harder for the girl to let go of him...the element of standing up for love rears its head.
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From:princesselwen
Date:April 12th, 2013 06:33 pm (UTC)
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That reminds me of the story in L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Windy Poplars, where the father specifically forbids his daughter's suitor from coming anywhere near the house, because that is the only way to actually get him to propose. According to the father "Men in that family don't think anything is worth getting if it's too easy." And of course, Anne is the one who actually has to help the daughter elope, and she goes to the father expecting him to be upset--and then finds that he's happy, because he'd always wanted his daughter to marry the guy she had just eloped with, and had in fact been planning it all along.

Edited at 2013-04-12 06:34 pm (UTC)
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 12th, 2013 07:07 pm (UTC)
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Prospero does a similar thing to Ferdinand in the Tempest.

But who can blame a father...they want to make the guy treasure the girl...and make sure he has backbone.
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From:jordan179
Date:April 12th, 2013 05:07 am (UTC)
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Yes ... a love story consisting of "They met ... they were totally drawn to each other ... they became best friends and lovers and married and had lots of children and lived long and happy lives together" would be great to live, but not as interesting to read as is, say, Romeo and Juliet, or even a typical romantic comedy where there are obstacles to be conquered. What makes great fiction is not necessarily what would be enjoyable to really live through.
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 12th, 2013 01:01 pm (UTC)
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You put your finger on one of my favorite subjects to contemplate. The difference between drama and life. I eventually learned, after more than two decades of roleplaying, that the kind of man one wants to marry in a game is not the same as the kind one would marry in life. In life, pleasant times together are wonderful. In a game, in a novel, there has to be some kind of events going on, or the story is dull.
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From:carbonelle
Date:April 19th, 2013 04:16 am (UTC)
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What I love are the rare series fiction where the romantic leads meet, are drawn to each other, become best friends and get married and have kids and live happily together for the ends of their live. While, at the same time all this other story stuff goes on around them, exciting, interesting, and fun.

Paging the Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan saga anyone.... (oh wait, it's supposed to be about their son Miles: my bad :-)
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From:princesselwen
Date:April 12th, 2013 06:24 pm (UTC)
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See, I wouldn't mind certain elements of that. I want the couple to be happy together. But once they get together, I want them to have adventures. But I want them to have adventures together. They can deal with invasions, evil plots, assassins, dragons, zombies, monsters, ect. But I guess what I want to see is the stability of a lasting relationship where neither of them are going to give up on each other no matter what problems they face. Because I look around modern society, and I don't see too many of those relationships.
I agree that the main couple ought to be together--I guess I'm just more interested in how they stay together.


Edited at 2013-04-12 06:27 pm (UTC)
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 12th, 2013 07:10 pm (UTC)
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What I have found is that ambitious characters who have strong goals about how they want to change the world around them make great love interests for games...and the same would be true for books...because their plans and needs don't stop when they get married. If the guy is trying to take back the crown or free the slaves or something like that, then the girl can contiue to do things that are interesting in relationship to him.

I, too, am sad that there aren't more examples of successful couples doing things together. John likes to write about that, though. In many of his books, the main character is married and trying to get back together with his wife.
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From:princesselwen
Date:April 12th, 2013 09:51 pm (UTC)
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Yes, I'd like more stories about married couples. It seems to me that marriage is always treated as the end of the story, not the beginning of a new one. I want to see how the characters would live together, what their children would be like, and how they dealt with new problems--while still being there for each other. Like Howl said in Howl's Moving Castle (book version) "Let's live happily ever after. It ought to be hair-raising."
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 14th, 2013 06:36 pm (UTC)
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Hair-raising...or at least child-raising. ;-)
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From:catholicteacher
Date:April 12th, 2013 05:09 am (UTC)

I'm guilty!

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Ack, my role-playing character is doing this in the most painfully obvious way. She is even reminding herself that her love is doomed when she could probably find reasons for hopefulness and spend her time working to ensure that it become un-doomed. Then again I am trying to play a 14 year old accurately. So, teensy angst, check. I'm all good.
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 12th, 2013 01:02 pm (UTC)

Re: I'm guilty!

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LOL But your character actually is a teen in an angsty teen romance! She's good!
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From:jordan179
Date:April 12th, 2013 05:13 am (UTC)
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Oh, and as for harem-comedies and One True Threesomes, the dynamics of a polygamous situation in which it is three (or four, or however many) True Lovers against the world can still be played for drama, provided that the feelings involved come across as genuine. It's just that this sort of situation is rarely very stable in reality -- though sometimes it can be if it's just three people involved -- I've never heard of it working well with more than three and my suspicion is that the instability rises geometrically with each additional person in the relationship, which is why monogamy is more normal for societies with any degree of sexual equality.
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 12th, 2013 01:04 pm (UTC)
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I don't have that much knowledge of real life such scenerios. In stories, the more successful harem comedies usually have the guy living with a bunch of girls, but not actually dating them...just stuck trying to pick.

Then there are things like Anita Blake, where she gave up on true love and has a crowd of lovers, and I stopped reading.
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From:randallsquared
Date:April 12th, 2013 11:43 am (UTC)
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Google defines angst thusly:

1. A feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.

2. A feeling of persistent worry about something trivial.

I had assumed that 2 was the main meaning of angst, because I cannot remember ever hearing of it in any context other than that.
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From:juliet_winters
Date:April 12th, 2013 11:49 am (UTC)
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I think both work for the character Rachel, and the first definition is entirely apt for her. ; )

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From:arhyalon
Date:April 12th, 2013 01:07 pm (UTC)
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The argument about whether Rachel's concerns are trivial is the main argument surrounding her...usually caused by Rachel not being able t explain to anyone the real problem, so that the problem certainly seems trivial.

Also, in the original, caused by her living in a world where three-quarters of the characters acted like adults despite that they were supposed to be young teens.
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From:juliet_winters
Date:April 12th, 2013 01:20 pm (UTC)
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I just thought that the idea of her Dreadful concern was apt. ; )
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 12th, 2013 02:07 pm (UTC)
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LOL Very Dreadful. ;-)
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 12th, 2013 01:05 pm (UTC)
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I think number 1 is what I am talking about here...girls feel angst because of their concern about the state of their world.

Guys, looking at girls, often define what they are worrying about as trivial.

So it covers both definitions. ;-)
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From:starshipcat
Date:April 12th, 2013 03:58 pm (UTC)
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I want to thank you, because this essay just shed some light on an aspect of my current work-in-progress. In the backstory of it are two characters who are soulmates but who, thanks to the malice of the antagonist, are never able to triumph and have to slog through the rest of their lives in longing. If one assumes that in the normal course of events true love always triumphs, their tragedy would function a strong indicator that yes, the antagonist is a Monster of immense power and enormous evil, who can block the normal righting mechanisms of the universe that ensure that true love triumphs and soulmates are united at the end of their travails, and our protagonists are justified in fighting him.
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 12th, 2013 07:10 pm (UTC)
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Very true! The bad guy is now stopping the strongest force known to the universe! ;-)
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From:mount_oregano
Date:April 12th, 2013 07:27 pm (UTC)
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I helped translate "Twilight" into Spanish. (Too many adverbs!) I wasn't moved to read any more of it than I had to, but as I worked on it, I knew that I would have loved loved loved the novel when I was thirteen.

No one here in Spain thought it would sell well. In fact, there were no teenage paranormal romance novels at all for sale in the country. But it turned out Spanish teenage girls loved loved loved the book and began recommending it to their friends, and sales began to take off. Amazingly, I began seeing ads for it in the business section of the newspaper -- so that parents, always desperate to get their kids to read anything, would see the ad and remember, "Oh, right, that's the book my girl is interested in," and could pick it up on their way home.

Now plenty of similar books are available, and they're doing well. But I saw something interesting when I checked "Twilight" on the website for Casa del Libro, a major bookstore here. People who bought "Twilight" also bought the sequels ... and "Diary of Anne Frank." Which is also angsty.

Edited at 2013-04-12 07:28 pm (UTC)
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 12th, 2013 07:33 pm (UTC)
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Very interesting. Wow.

When we were in China in 2009 to get our daughter, our first guide had read Twilight. My husband tried to ask her why she wanted to read about an unquiet spirit and she tries very hard to explain to him about the love story.

The first time I heard about Twilight was kind of funny. It was right after the book had come out, before my Prospero books had come out. I sent my book in manuscript form to a librarian friend. She wrote back that she really liked it, that it and one other book she had read that year had really stood out to her. The other book was Twilight. No one else had heard of the book yet, but my YA librarian friend had picked it out as head and shoulders about the other YA lit out there that she was reading.

So glad to hear about the adverbs in Twilight. LOL A writer after my own heart. ;-P
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From:bojojoti
Date:April 17th, 2013 04:19 am (UTC)
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I don't care for traditional romance in the lease, but my favorite book is the epitome of angst--Jane Eyre.

Very insightful post.
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 18th, 2013 02:25 pm (UTC)
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Jane Eyre is very angsty...and a really wonderful book. I think it does angst right!
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