I'm on a "Thirtysomething" kick this week (see previous entries), and am offering info that I've learned from the writers of that series - both by my observation of their scripts/episodes, and by interviews they've done.
One thing the "Thirtysomething" writers seemed to do often in that series was to have bad things happen to characters at the same time something good was happening. And isn't it that way in real life? You get a new job -- and you get a flat tire. You get engaged -- and your best friend gets in a car wreck. Your article gets accepted -- and you lock your keys in the house. Not that these things are directly connected - in fact, they aren't at all, which makes them so challenging and frustrating. But isn't that just real life? ;-)
***SPOILER AHEAD**** (on the off-chance that you've never seen "Thirtysomething," but plan to someday...)
The sharpest example of this good/bad intermingling on "Thirtysomething" is an episode called "Second Look." In it, Nancy Weston has been fighting cancer for almost a year, and is having her second-look surgery, to see whether the cancer has been eradicated, or whether it's spread. The tension is felt throughout the entire episode, building to that singular moment when she gets the news. And it's, thankfully, good news. The best. The cancer is gone!
But before we (and the characters) even get the chance to breathe out our sighs of relief, something else happens. Another much-beloved character, Gary Shepherd, dies in a tragic car accident, on the way to celebrate the good news at the hospital. Stunning. Horrible. The irony and contrast in these two pieces of news is incredible. It makes an impact that "only having good news" would never have made. In fact, when Nancy hears about Gary's sudden death, she gasps and says, "It's not supposed to be Gary..." (indicating that it was supposed to be her). Once again, this t.v. show explores the messiness of life, the imperfections and heartaches of it. The goods and the bads, intersecting.
This very much reminds me of a real-life example - Rick Warren. His philosophy of life is that it's not composed of hills and valleys - good things, then bad -- but rather, of railroad tracks that run side-by-side - the good right alongside the bad. Here's what he says, in an article:
This past year has been the greatest year of my life [the great success of his books] but also the toughest, with my wife, Kay, getting cancer. I used to think that life was hills and valleys - you go through a dark time, then you go to the mountaintop, back and forth. I don't believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it's kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life. No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that needs to be worked on. And no matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something good you can thank God for.
So, back to the writing: all this isn't to say that you must always mix the good and bad so obviously in your stories. But I think sometimes intersecting the good and the bad simultaneously stirs things up a bit, adds contrast and depth and realism that might not have been there without it.
*btw, for anyone wanting to see that "Second Look" episode, here's Part 1 of five, on YouTube...(get those Kleenexes out - it's a sad one...)