Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Vertigo

My ten great movies #6: Vertigo

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Kim Novak in Vertigo

Like many great works of art, Vertigo lingers in the imagination—perhaps more than any other movie I’ve ever seen—because it oscillates so nervously between its surface pleasures and its darkest depths. It’s both the ultimate Hitchcock entertainment, with its flawless cinematography, iconic Edith Head costumes, and lush Bernard Herrmann score, and the most psychologically complex film ever produced in America. In many respects, it’s the most mysterious movie ever made, but whenever I watch it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics: the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, and the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Early on, it can come off as routine, even banal, which leaves us even less prepared for its climax, a sick joke or sucker punch that also breaks the heart. There’s no greater ending in all of movies, and it works because it’s so cruel, arbitrary, and unfair.

Vertigo takes so many insane, unjustifiable risks that it inevitably feels flawed in places, despite long stretches of icy perfection: the plot sometimes creaks, especially in the first half, and the dialogue scenes often feel like part of a lesser film. But all these concerns are swept away by the extraordinary third act, which may be my favorite in any work of art. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps the big revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any movie adaptation has had a greater impact—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful and painful. When Judy turns to the camera and the image is flooded with red, we’re as close to the heart of movies as we’ll ever get. As David Thomson writes: “It’s a test case. If you are moved by this film, you are a creature of cinema. But if you are alarmed by its implausibility, its hysteria, its cruelty—well, there are novels.”

Next week: The most enduring of all Hollywood films, and a bittersweet reminder of what might have been.

Written by nevalalee

May 15, 2015 at 9:00 am

How to be ambiguous

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Kim Novak in Vertigo

Note: I’m traveling for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared on May 22, 2013.

Writers are generally advised to avoid ambiguity. Clarity, as E.B. White observes, may not be a substitute for merit in writing, but it’s as close as we can get, so it’s good form for authors to state things as clearly as they can. It’s certainly the best rule to follow if there’s any doubt. Yet this does nothing to explain the fact that many of the works of art that affect us so deeply—from Hamlet to Vertigo to, yes, Mad Men—are founded on ambiguity. As in the case of most masterpieces, these can be dangerous examples for a writer to follow, but they’re also very tempting. Great fiction survives in the imagination because of the constellation of questions it raises in the reader’s mind, and the problem of balancing such uncertainties with a narrative that remains clear from moment to moment is one of the most difficult issues for a writer to face. And it soon becomes obvious, after writing or reading a few examples, that ambiguous language is not the best way to create a larger superimposition of interpretations.

As usual, we can get some useful insights by looking at poetry, the leading edge of language, whose lessons and innovations tend to filter down centuries later into prose. Poetry is often seen as ambiguous or obscure, but when you examine the greatest poems line by line, you find that this is an effect generated by the resonance of highly specific images—nouns, verbs, and concrete adjectives, all intelligible in themselves but mysterious as a whole. Take, for instance, the poem that I.A. Richards has called “the most mysterious poem in English,” Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Each stanza stands with crystal clarity, and often something more, but the result has been interpreted as everything from a Catholic allegory to a veiled reference to the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and Queen Elizabeth, and as it stands, it’s a puzzle without an answer. A prefatory note spelling it out would have avoided much of this confusion, but in the process, it would have destroyed the magic.

The Phoenix and the Turtle

Which leads us to a very important point, which is that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. It’s often been observed, for instance, that much of the mystery of Shakespeare’s plays emerges from the fact that he omits part of his original source material while leaving other elements intact. In the original Amleth story, there’s no confusion about the reasons for the lead character’s madness: he believes that his uncle is plotting against his life, so in order to protect himself and mislead his enemies, he pretends to be an idiot. Hamlet takes away this detail—Claudius doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing Hamlet at all until after he starts to act like a lunatic—and creates a tantalizing ambiguity in the process. The same is true of King Lear, in which the original source more clearly explains the king’s reasons for putting his three daughters to the test. The resulting plays are filled with concrete language and action, but the mystery remains.

And this is true of many works of art. We never know the origins of Montresor’s murderous vendetta in “The Cask of Amontillado,” but the story itself is so detailed that it practically serves as a manual on how to wall a man up alive, even as Poe denies us the one piece of information that most writers would have included first. (If Poe were alive today, I suspect that his editor would have begged him to flesh out the backstory.) Vertigo is the most mysterious movie ever made, but on watching it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics—the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Ambiguity, in other words, is only effective when the story itself is concrete enough to convincingly support multiple interpretations, which, in practice, usually means an even greater attention to clarity and convincing detail than if the line of the narrative were perfectly clear. A map that contains a single path can afford to leave the rest of the territory blank, but if we’re going to find our way down more than one road, we’ll need a better sense of the landscape, even, or especially, if the landmarks lead us astray.

Written by nevalalee

May 6, 2015 at 9:00 am

“You have a better chance than I do…”

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"Why me?"

Note: This post is the fifteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 16. You can read the previous installments here.

Writers are often told that it’s a mistake to build their stories around luck, particularly if it works to the hero’s advantage. As Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats famously said: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” And it seems intuitively true that a story, whenever possible, should arise out of decisions made by the protagonist and antagonist. Yet this is a genre convention in itself, and it isn’t there, in spite of appearances, because it’s more “realistic.” Luck plays an enormous role in real life, and if exclude it from our plotting, it isn’t for the sake of realism, but plausibility, which are two entirely different things. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman describes a hypothetical scene in which the hero, tasked with entering a heavily secured castle, simply blunders in without a plan. He climbs the wall within sight of the guards, who don’t react; wanders around for a while in plain view; trips a few alarms without drawing any attention; and finally ends up, by accident, in the room he’s trying to enter. If this were a movie, we’d throw tomatoes. But it’s exactly how a man named Michael Fagan once broke into Buckingham Palace and ended up in the bedroom of the Queen.

If we rule out such moments of luck in fiction, it isn’t because they can’t happen, but because we feel that they take the writer and characters off the hook. It seems lazy, and worse, it pulls us out of the fictional dream by breaking an implied contract between author and reader, which states that events should emerge from the logical consequences of the characters’ actions. But there’s one interesting exception. Sometimes the master plan is so farfetched that only an absurdly omniscient protagonist could pull it off, anticipating every last detail with pinpoint precision. (Think, for instance, of the Saw movies, or even of the Joker’s stratagems in The Dark Knight.) This can be even less believable than a plan that hinges on luck, so constructing the plot turns into a choice between implausibilities—or, better, as a balance between the two. You could see it as a problem of narrative engineering: a solution that depends solely on either luck or unerring foresight collapses under its own unlikelihood, but a combination of the two stands firm. The challenge lies in mixing these elements in the right proportions, with a little luck and a little cleverness, so that the reader or viewer doesn’t regard the result as anything less than a natural development.

"You have a better chance than I do..."

And whenever luck is involved, it’s best to push it as far from the center of the story as possible, or to make it a fait accompli, so that it seems less like a stroke of fortune than a condition of the plot itself. Most movies about an impossible heist, for instance, hinge on elements of luck: there’s always a convenient air duct, or a hallway without any security cameras, or a moment when the guards change shifts. A well-constructed story will introduce these elements as soon as it can. If Danny Ocean stumbles across an unsecured ventilation shaft during the heist, we cry foul; if he mentions it beforehand, we more or less accept it, although the element of luck is exactly the same. On a higher level, the villain’s complicated plan in Vertigo depends on a single huge assumption, as Hitchcock himself admitted to François Truffaut:

The husband was planning to throw his wife down from the top of the tower. But how could he know that James Stewart wouldn’t make it up those stairs? Because he became dizzy? How could he be sure of that!

Truffaut’s response is revealingly pragmatic: “That’s true, but I saw it as one of those assumptions you felt people would accept.” Which we do—but only because it’s there in the title of the movie itself, as a kind of anthropic principle on which the whole story depends. It’s still luck, but in a form that can’t be separated from the fabric of the overall movie.

I made good use of this principle in Eternal Empire, which includes more than its fair share of wild notions. Arguably the largest involves a plot point early in the novel: Maya Asthana, my unlikely mole, has to kill a man held in solitary confinement while avoiding all suspicion. At the very least, it was necessary that she be left alone with him without any security cameras—and here, already, were two big implausibilities. I “solved” the problem by putting it entirely out of her hands. Earlier in the novel, she and Wolfe visit Rogozin in detention, and it’s Wolfe who asks that the cameras be turned off, supposedly to put the suspect at ease, but really to make it less glaring when Asthana makes the same request later on. Similarly, in Chapter 16, it’s Wolfe who tells her to visit Rogozin, saying that she’s under too much scrutiny to go herself, while unwittingly setting the stage for Asthana’s plan. Clearly, from Asthana’s point of view, these are two enormous strokes of luck. I was reasonably fine with this, though, because the alternative, in which Asthana arranges for an unobserved visit entirely on her own initiative, would be even less plausible. Like most good villains, Asthana knows how to play the hand she’s been dealt. And if the deck has been stacked in her favor, hopefully the reader won’t see this until after the trick is over…

The three kinds of surprise

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Billy Bob Thornton in Fargo

In real life, most of us would be happy to deal with fewer surprises, but in fiction, they’re a delight. Or at least movies and television would like to believe. In practice, twist endings and plot developments that arrive out of left field can be exhausting and a little annoying, if they emerge less out of the logic of the story than from a mechanical decision to jerk us around. I’ve noted before that our obsession with big twists can easily backfire: if we’re conditioned to expect a major surprise, it prevents us from engaging with the narrative as it unfolds, since we’re constantly questioning every detail. (In many cases, the mere knowledge that there is a twist counts as a spoiler in itself.) And Hitchcock was smart enough to know that suspense is often preferable to surprise, which is why he restructured the plot of Vertigo to place its big reveal much earlier than it occurs in the original novel. Writers are anxious to prevent the audience from getting ahead of the story for even a second, but you can also generate a lot of tension if viewers can guess what might be coming just slightly before the characters do. Striking that balance requires intelligence and sensitivity, and it’s easier, in general, to just keep throwing curveballs, as shows like 24 did until it became a cliché.

Still, a good surprise can be enormously satisfying. If we start from first principles, building on the concept of the unexpected, we end up with three different categories:

1. When something happens that we don’t expect.
2. When we expect something to happen, but something else happens instead.
3. When we expect something to happen, but nothing happens.

And it’s easy to come up with canonical examples of all three. For the first, you can’t do much better than the shower scene in Psycho; for the second, you can point to something like the famous fake-out in The Silence of the Lambs, in which the intercutting of two scenes misleads us into thinking that an assault team is closing in on Buffalo Bill, when Clarice is really wandering into danger on her own; and for the third, you have the scene in The Cabin in the Woods when one of the characters is dared to make out with the wolf’s head on the wall, causing us to brace ourselves for a shock that never comes. And these examples work so elegantly because they use our knowledge of the medium against us. We “know” that the protagonist won’t be killed halfway through; we “know” that intercutting implies convergence; and we “know” when to be wary of a jump scare. And none of these surprises would be nearly as effective for a viewer—if one even exists—who could approach the story in complete naiveté.


But not every surprise is equally rewarding. A totally unexpected plot development can come dangerously close—like the rain of frogs in Magnolia—to feeling like a gimmick. The example I’ve cited from The Silence of the Lambs works beautifully on first viewing, but over time, it starts to seem more like a cheat. And there’s a fine line between deliberately setting up a plot thread without paying it off and simply abandoning it. I got to thinking about this after finishing the miniseries Fargo, which I loved, but which also has a way of picking up and dropping story points almost absentmindedly. In a long interview with The A.V. Club, showrunner Noah Hawley tries to explain his thought process, with a few small spoilers:

Okay, Gus is going to arrest Malvo in episode four, and he’s going to call Molly to tell her to come, but of course, she doesn’t get to go because her boss goes. What you want is the scene of Molly and Malvo, but you’re not getting it…

In episode ten when Gus tells her to stay put, and she just can’t, and she gets her keys and goes to the car and drives toward Lester, we are now expecting a certain event to happen. Therefore, when that doesn’t happen, there’s the unpredictable nature of what’s going to happen, and you’re coming into it with an assumption…

By giving Russell that handcuff key, people were going to expect him to be out there for the last two episodes and play some kind of role in the end game, which is never a bad thing, to set some expectations [that don’t pay off].

Fargo is an interesting test case because it positions itself, like the original movie, as based on true events, when in fact it’s totally fictional. In theory, this frees it up to indulge in loose ends, coincidences, and lack of conventional climaxes, since that’s what real life is like. But as much as I enjoyed Fargo, I’m not sure I really buy it. In many respects, the show is obsessively stylized and designed; it never really feels like a story that could take place anywhere but in the Coenverse. And there are times when Hawley seems to protest too much, pointing to the lack of a payoff as a subversion when it’s really more a matter of not following through. The test, as always, is a practical one. If the scene that the audience is denied is potentially more interesting than what actually happens, it’s worth asking if the writers are being honest with themselves: after all, it’s relatively easy to set up a situation and stop, while avoiding the hard work that comes with its resolution. A surprise can’t just be there to frustrate our expectations; it needs to top them, or to give us a development that we never knew we wanted. It’s hard to do this even once, and even harder to do it consistently. But if the element of surprise is here to stay—and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere—then it should surprise us, above all else, with how good it is.

Written by nevalalee

March 11, 2015 at 9:21 am

“Is Rogozin an intelligence agent?”

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"Tell me about Rachel Wolfe..."

Note: This post is the fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 4. You can read the previous installments here.

Earlier today, I quoted David Pye, the late professor of furniture design at The Royal College of Art, on the fact that every design is in certain ways a failure, since it represents a compromise between so many contradictory factors. Pye continues: “It is quite impossible for any design to be ‘the logical outcome of the requirements,’ simply because, the requirements being in conflict, their logical outcome is an impossibility.” I like this observation because it flies in the face of how we normally regard the objects around us. Unless the result is an outright fiasco—a chair that breaks, a program that crashes—it can be hard to register its many invisible compromises. For most of us, a chair is just a chair, at least at first glance. It’s only after we’ve sat in it for a long time that we start to understand the ways in which it falls short. And many designers devote as much energy to postponing that moment of realization as to addressing the underlying problems themselves. Ideally, by the time we notice the flaws, we’ll have moved on, in the way a small kitchen gadget is more likely to be lost before it breaks.

The idea of the postponement of failure, or the user’s perception of it, is central to design. As J.E. Gordon points out in Structures, sooner or later all bridges fall down, and he concludes: “It is the purpose of medicine and engineering to postpone these occurrences for a decent interval.” In a work of narrative art, you want to push that failure beyond the bounds of the story itself. Nearly every novel includes elements that would snap or break if extended too long, and that’s as true of an intimate domestic drama as it is of the most outlandish thriller. A big part of knowing when to begin or end a story lies in identifying the chunk of the action—which in theory could be extended infinitely in either direction—that seems in the least danger of falling apart. Even a masterpiece like Vertigo depends on selective omission, elision of inconvenient details, and a focus on those pieces that serve the story’s emotional needs. Later, we might question a few points, but as Hitchcock said, they won’t occur to us until late at night, when we’re going to the refrigerator for a snack. And if we can define the boundaries of the story in a way that defers those objections until the book is closed or the credits roll, we’ve succeeded.

"Is Rogozin an intelligence agent?"

This applies as much to a story’s small structural decisions as to questions of logic. Every extended narrative consists of adjacent pieces that probably occurred to the author at different stages. A crucial detail in the first chapter may have only been added in the last draft, after the rest of the story had already been written—in fact, it’s very likely to have done so—but it all has to seem as if it unfolded naturally from that initial premise. It may be true, as Pye says, that no object can truly be “the logical outcome of the requirements,” but just as a chair has to look like something we can take for granted, a story has to present itself as a series of inevitable developments, even if wasn’t. In a perfect world, we’d all proceed as David Mamet advises, with each incident flowing from a clear series of objectives, but in practice, there’s so much else a viable novel begs to include: characters who thrust themselves on the writer’s attention, color from the world that can’t be suppressed, functional scenes that exist only to make something wonderful happen later, or just things that the author wants to talk about. This assemblage of material is so central to what makes good novels come to life that it’s a mistake to deny it. But we’re still left with the problem of how to make the result seem consistent.

In Eternal Empire, for example, my biggest narrative challenge was the fact that the three opening subplots—Maddy’s recruitment to go undercover, Wolfe’s arrest of the dissident Vitaly Rogozin, and Ilya’s ordeal in prison—had almost nothing to do with one another. Later, they’ll converge in ways that I hope are surprising and satisfying, but for most of the novel’s first half, and especially in the first few chapters, there was a real danger that they’d be perceived as three unrelated stories that I was arbitrarily cutting together. The solution was to make each chapter look like it was about the same thing, which I did by harking back to the Rogozin plot whenever I could. Chapter 3 opens with Powell asking Maddy if she’s heard what happened, while Chapter 5 starts with her reading a newspaper with an article about the Rogozin case, neither of which are strictly necessary. And in Chapter 4, I show Ilya discussing these events with his lawyer, although the two men could have been talking about nearly anything: I just needed to get them into the same room. It’s something of a cheat, and it reminds me a little of Homer’s line in “The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show”: “Whenever Poochie’s not on screen, all the other characters should be asking, ‘Where’s Poochie?'” But it works. And even if the chair wobbles a little, it will hopefully stand up long enough to get you to the next page…

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2015 at 9:47 am

The broken circle of Gone Girl

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Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl

Note: A few oblique spoilers follow for Gone Girl.

Gone Girl, which finally arrives on home video this week, was predictably shut out at last night’s Golden Globe Awards. But while that particular ceremony may be something of a farce—as this article hilariously reminds us, honorees are determined by the votes of eighty-seven “total randos”—it feels like an indicator of the film’s position as we enter the back end of awards season. The Golden Globes didn’t even give it a Best Picture nomination, and it has largely fallen out of the Oscar conversation: it’s a likely nominee that tops no one’s list of potential winners. And it isn’t hard to see why. Gone Girl may be a commercial hit with universal critical acclaim, but it also falls into a genre of chilly, manipulative puzzle boxes that rarely earn major awards. It took decades for Vertigo to claim its true status as the central American movie of the fifties, in part because it looks so much at first glance like an implausible toy. Gone Girl isn’t as good as Vertigo, which is admittedly the highest possible standard to which a movie like this can be held, but it’s revealing that I even feel like discussing them in the same sentence.

That said, I was halfway expecting Gillian Flynn to walk away with a win for her sharp, canny screenplay, which is a category in which similarly tricky movies, like The Usual Suspects, have sometimes eked out a consolation prize. Flynn’s original novel hinges on a conceit—a diary that only gradually reveals that it has been written by an unreliable narrator—that should be all but impossible to make work on film, and the fact that it gets even ninety percent of the way there is a considerable achievement. (I’m deducting only a few points for one scene, a fictionalized flashback, that really should have occurred later on in the movie, after the diary itself had been discovered and read. Still, the movie as a whole is so tightly constructed that I’m willing to let it pass: it’s the kind of objection that only occurs to the viewer after the fact, and it probably works better in the moment to have the scene come where it does.) David Fincher’s direction pulls off a parallel feat; he’s a filmmaker whose attention to detail and technical obsessiveness have a way of calling attention to themselves, but here, as in The Social Network, he makes it all look easy, when it really represents a solution to almost insurmountable narrative challenges.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

Gone Girl jerks us around so expertly, in fact, that I’m still a bit surprised that it falters near the end, when it suddenly stops and asks us to take it all very seriously. Again, the comparison with Hitchcock is an instructive one. Hitchcock would have loved this story, almost as much as he would have loved Rosamund Pike, but he wouldn’t have made the mistake of ruining the fun with an agonized denouement. He might have given us an ironic closing image, a last little shock, or even a gag—which doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been emotionally satisfying. The final shot of Psycho, with Anthony Perkins’s face dissolving into a few subliminal frames of his mother’s skull as he looks into the camera, is the kind of closing fillip that gets a laugh even as it burrows into our unconscious. Hitchcock films as different as Notorious and Frenzy end on a similar punchline, and The Birds came close to doing the same. At the highest level of all, you have the ending of Vertigo, a sick joke that also breaks the heart. There’s no greater ending in all of movies, and it works because it’s so cruel, arbitrary, and unfair. (The alternate ending, which was apparently shot purely to appease European censors, only reminds us of how perfect it is to leave Stewart alone on that ledge.)

If Vertigo works so well, it’s because it exists within its own sealed world, until every element seems to stand for something else in our waking life. It isn’t an allegory, exactly; it’s more like a literalization, within the conventions of the thriller, of the way in which we impose new faces on ourselves and others, or try in our doomed way to recapture the past. Gone Girl covers much of the same territory, and if it’s interesting on a level beyond that of a clinical game, it’s as a heightened vision of what any marriage threatens to be—not just Affleck and Pike’s, but everybody’s. Oddly, it’s in stepping out of that closed circle that it becomes less convincing: when it returns us to reality, the prior ordeal starts to seem less real, or like a freak outlier, when the movie would have been better off keeping us immersed in the paranoid dream it creates. (The other great comparison here is Otto Preminger’s Laura, which hints explicitly that its second half is taking place within the hero’s head, but denies us a scene when he wakes up again.) The tradition of noir, to which Gone Girl is an honorable extension, works because it presents a mirror universe of our own, with a different set of rules but equally inexorable logic. Gone Girl comes to the point of implying that the same is true of any marriage, but it ends by being about theirs, not ours.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2015 at 9:40 am

“And they lived happily ever after…”

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Harold Bloom

In old age, I accept unhappy endings in Shakespearean tragedy, Flaubert, and Tolstoy, but back away from them in lesser works. Desdemona, Cordelia, Emma Bovary, and Anna Karenina are slain by their creators, and we are compelled to absorb the greatness of the loss. Perhaps it trains us to withstand better the terrible deaths of friends, family, and lovers, and to contemplate more stoically our own dissolution. But I increasingly avoid most movies with unhappy endings, since few among them aesthetically earn the suffering they attempt to inflict upon us.

Harold Bloom, Genius

I’m starting to feel the same way. For most of my life, I’ve never shied away from works of art with unhappy endings: in movies, the list begins and ends with Vertigo, the greatest of all sucker punches ever inflicted on an audience, and includes films as different as The Red Shoes, The Third Man, and Dancer in the Dark. When I’m given a choice between ambiguous interpretations, as in Inception, I’m often inclined to go with the darker reading. But as time goes on, I’ve found that I prefer happy endings, both from a purely technical standpoint and as a matter of personal taste.

Which isn’t to say that unhappy endings can’t work. Yesterday, I cited Bruno Bettelheim on the subject of fairy tales, which invariably end on an unambiguously happy note to encourage children to absorb their implicit lessons about life. As adults, our artistic needs are more complicated, if not entirely dissimilar. An unhappy ending of the sort that we find in the myth of Oedipus or Madame Bovary is psychological training of a different sort, preparing us, as Bloom notes, for the tragic losses that we all eventually experience. Just as scary movies acquaint us with feelings of terror that we’d rarely feel under ordinary circumstances, great works of art serve as a kind of exercise room for the emotions, expanding our capacity to feel in ways that would never happen if we only drew on the material of our everyday lives. If the happy endings in fairy tales prepare and encourage children to venture outside the safe confines of family into the wider world, unhappy endings in adult fiction do the opposite: they turn our attention inward, forcing us to scrutinize aspects of ourselves that we’ve been trained to avoid as we focus on our respectable adult responsibilities.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

In order for this to work, though, that unhappiness has to be authentically earned, and the number of works that pull it off is vanishingly small. Endings, whether happy or unhappy, are very hard, and a lot of writers, including myself, are often unsure if they’ve found the right way to end a story. But given that uncertainty, it’s wisest, when you don’t know the answer, to err on positive side, and to ignore the voice that insists that an unhappy ending is somehow more realistic and uncompromising. In fact, a bleak, unearned ending is just as false to the way the world works as an undeserved happy one, and at greater cost to the reader. A sentimental happy ending may leave us unsatisfied with the author’s work, but that’s nothing compared to our sense of being cheated by a dark conclusion that arises from cynicism or creative exhaustion. Simply as a matter of craft, stories work best when they’re about the restoration of order, and one that ends with the characters dead or destroyed by failure technically meets that requirement. But for most writers, I’d argue that being able to restore a positive order to the tangle of complications they’ve created is a sign of greater artistic maturity.

And while it’s nice to believe that a happy or unhappy ending should flow naturally from the events that came before, a casual look at the history of literature indicates that this isn’t the case. Anna Karenina survived in Tolstoy’s first draft. Until its final act, Romeo and Juliet isn’t so different in tone from many of Shakespeare’s comedies, and if the ending had been changed to happily reunite the two lovers, it’s likely that we’d have trouble imagining it in any other way—although it’s equally likely that we’d file it permanently among his minor plays. On the opposite end of the spectrum, The Winter’s Tale is saved from becoming a tragedy only by the most arbitrary, unconvincing, and deeply moving of authorial contrivances. In practice, the nature of an ending is determined less by the inexorable logic of the plot than by the author’s intuition when the time comes to bring the story to a close, and as we’ve seen, it can often go either way. A writer has no choice but to check his gut to see what feels right, and I don’t think it’s too much to say that the burden lies with the unhappy ending to prove that it belongs there. Any halfway competent writer can herd his characters into the nearest available chasm. But when in doubt, get them out.

Written by nevalalee

January 7, 2014 at 9:26 am

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