Category: happy endings

Why Do We Tell Stories?

A bunch of stories.

In thinking about the type of writer I want to be, I’ve begun to consider what attracts people to stories. Obviously, there are a lot of different genres, each with its own audience expectations to be fulfilled. Beyond that, there is high-brow and low-brow entertainment, right? Your WAR AND PEACE and your TWILIGHT. I’m not talking about either of these things, as those are just a matter of preference. What, at a fundamental, elemental, atomic level attracts us to storytelling? What are we searching for in stories?

To be clear, there’s probably no universal answer. Just like genre or high-brow / low-brow art, different people search for different things in their stories. So, I can really only speak to what I want in a story, and what all the writing advice I’ve consumed tells me most other people want in their stories. Things like story structure, the “Hero’s Journey,” and other classic storytelling traditions aren’t accidents. They work.

In my opinion, people like me, MR(S). EVERY(WO)MAN, seek out things that reflect us and give us resolution. Let’s talk it out.

REFLECTION

People are vain, self-absorbed creatures, which is why we only ever tell stories about ourselves. Even stories with non-human characters assign them human traits. Emotions that are not natural to an animal, for example, like envy. When there is a purposefully inhuman character, it’s more of a contrast than a true other. Spock, for example, is an alien character whose primary trait is a lack of emotion.

There are lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is that stories are told by people. In that fact alone we’re limited by our experiences. If, somehow, we came across a story that showed truly alien things we probably wouldn’t even be able to recognize it as a story.

But reflection is more than a limitation on our experience. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. We tell stories that reflect us because they help us to understand ourselves. As far as we know, we’re the only creatures in the Universe that are consciousness of our consciousness. That’s confusing! We understand our own mortality, we have notions of abstractions like “justice” and seek order in an inherently chaotic world.

Reflecting our emotions, our social structures, our politics, our dynamics, our everything back to ourselves through art and storytelling helps us to make sense of it. To pull it apart a little bit and put it back together in a different, perhaps better way. We want stories to reflect ourselves not only because we relate to it, but because we want to better understand ourselves.

RESOLUTION

I don’t believe we only want to better understand ourselves. In some sense, I think story helps us to enact some control over things we inherently have little to no control over.

Every day new mysteries come and go, in our personal lives and in whole societies. The sock that goes missing. The serial killer that goes uncaught. The $5 bill you found in jeans that you don’t remember wearing. The thought-extinct fish that suddenly shows up on shore.

It’s rare we get answers to these things. Our lives are an increasingly silly machine we’re building piece-by-piece, with little insight into its inner-workings. Stories give us the opportunity to step inside the machine and swap out its parts so that all the pieces fit.

In that sense, I think stories are about resolution. The happy ending. The mystery solved. The family gaining closure, either through understanding or not. In life things are rarely explained, and things rarely end conclusively. Storytelling gives us that satisfaction.

***

These are the conclusions I’ve come to as I’ve thought about the type of stories I want to tell, and the types of stories I think people want to hear. It may sound obvious (because it is), but I firmly believe that sometimes in order to make progress you have to start with the absolute basics and then let those principles guide you.

The Case for Happy Endings

“Hello, My Name is Your T.V.” is one of my favorite songs. It’s sung by the band Ludo and it nails the exact reason why people enjoy happy endings. Because, more often than not, life is unhappy.

The song is about a child that constantly deals with his fighting parents and being bullied. Television is the only thing he can escape to. It gives him hope that one day things might work out for him. One day he’ll have a happy ending. He’ll be big a strong, able to face his tormentors. As the song says, he knows that one day “The good guy gets the girl by the sunny sea.”

I think most people view movies as an escape. They don’t go to movies to see a reflection of their own lives. They go to see the bad guy defeated, the hero rise above impossible odds. Because they hope that in their own story they’ll be able to do the same.

I don’t write that way. Three of my four feature-length scripts have had downer endings, with the fourth being the most recent and designed in such a way as to leave a happy ending possible. To be honest, it’s not even totally happy. But it ends on a hopeful note, unlike my others. I’ve been wondering, recently, what reason is there to have unhappy endings, especially knowing that most moviegoers don’t want to leave the theater feeling worse than when they came in.

I think it comes down to two things: 1.) Message and 2.) The reality of the story. Let me talk about two before circling back to one, if you’ll allow me that bit of nonsequential reasoning as opposed to simply revising my numbers so two is actually one and vice versa.

Anyway, the characters of the story, the stakes, and the reality of the world you’ve created will probably do the most to dictate whether or not you have a happy ending. Because, like everything else (and following a set-up/punchline/callback structure) a happy ending has to be earned. It sucks to see a protagonist come across impossible odds, show no ability to overcome them, and then overcome them anyway thanks to outside help or some coincidence put in by the writer just to get a happy ending. An audience may want a happy ending, but they can also identify bullshit when they see it.

It may be necessary to forego a happy ending if your message precludes it. For example, if the message of your story is to not be like the main character (i.e. – Breaking Bad or Requiem for a Dream) they shouldn’t have a happy ending. It undermines the message of the film. In Requiem all of the characters are addicts who cannot overcome their own shortcomings. If they were given a happy ending despite of this fact, that essentially tells the audience that being an addict incapable of change is ok.

This is one of the reasons there was a big to-do over The Wolf of Wallstreet recently. People felt like the film glamorizes being a shitbag in the vein of Jordan Belfort. Only… the movie doesn’t do that. He loses everything that had any real meaning in his life. His wife, his kids, his fortune – all gone. Sure, he wasn’t punished in the ways that an audience likes to see bad behavior punished, and he was too stupid to realize that he ruined his own life, but the evidence was clear. The lesson stands; a happy ending is useless if it undermines the message.

This is something I need to keep in mind when I write. I’m a cynical person by nature, so my instinct is to hew close to life and if not keep my characters outright unhappy, at least make it ambiguous as to whether or not they’ll live happily ever after. I’m learning to fight that instinct. Hopefully it will lead to even more honest, more powerful work in my future.

Dramatic Stakes

Recently my girlfriend and I were discussing the television show Beauty and the Beast. It was something she had just gotten into and she was complaining about the second season of the show. Basically, after a solid first season the show decided to reset the status quo (as television shows often do between seasons or, sometimes, between episodes). This upset her because it felt like the world no longer had stakes.

Dexter is another perfect example for this. Outside of the end of the fourth season each season finale ended with Dexter doing something that would reset the status quo. First season he killed the Ice Truck Killer before Deb could find out his secret. Next season he killed Doakes before anyone could find out his secret. Third season was Miguel Prada. Then came the Trinity season. All bets were off. Finally the show took a chance, moved forward, and it was awesome. But then the fifth season shied away from risks. There was another opportunity at the end of that season to push forward even harder – Deb would finally find out what Dexter was. But the show bitched out, she let him go without learning his identity, and the sixth season was back to square one. I stopped watching after that, but I’ve heard it was steadily downhill.

My point is that as a writer you want to create the most dramatic stakes possible. Write yourself into a corner. Personally I try to put my main protagonist in the worst possible situation by the end of the second act. The reason is not only to keep the audience entertained and guessing (how will [protagonist] get out of this?) but to really see what my protagonist is made of. This is part of the reason I don’t normally outline too far past the end of the second act. The characters are already fairly well established so I like to let them take me where they want to go in the search for a resolution.

Admittedly, this isn’t the easiest route to take. And sometimes it doesn’t work. My last project I completely rewrote the third act, using what I had gleaned from the characters more as a framework than as a final outcome. I think it’s much stronger because of that.

Stories should constantly be surprising. Often that means letting your characters get themselves into impossible situations, then struggle to get themselves out in creative ways. I am a firm believer that the worst thing that can happen should happen. This differs from character to character. One characters worst case scenario might be their mother dying. Another’s might be losing their favorite necklace. Doesn’t matter. It needs to happen. They need to deal with it. And they sometimes need to fail.

Everyone wants a happy ending. I get that. I like them myself, if they make sense. But, and I would say moreso than down endings, happy endings need to be earned. Not necessarily in a pyrrhic way, but earned through the characters digging themselves out of a hole and showing conviction for what they want. If they can’t do that, then either they don’t deserve it or they’re not the character you want them to be and they need to be rewritten.

Breaking Bad was great at this. Every week the stakes would be raised and you would ask, “How is Walt/Jesse/Skyler/Hank going to handle this?” And every week they would find creative ways to solve their problems, or die trying. It was riveting every time.

Don’t think, though, that these things can be random. Just like a happy ending needs to be earned, so too does a character being at their lowest point. If a character’s worst fear is their mother dying, but their mother is happy and healthy all story and then dies randomly it feels cheap. That character needs to be agonizing over a cure for their sick mother, and then what they hoped would cure her is what actually kills her. How does she deal with that? Does she feel guilty? Does she lash out at the unfairness of it? Does she find a way to cope? Those are much more interesting questions than being able to chalk it up to an accident or coincidence.

We all love our characters. That doesn’t mean we can’t get them dirty and let them work to stay clean. That’s entertaining.

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