Mar 18, 2013

(The Limitations of) Happy Beginnings

Because the writers at Pixar are very good at telling stories, people often solicit their advice on telling stories, and given the nature of the internet, that advice gets copied, pasted, tweeted, re-tweeted, and codified into a set of rules that people love to quote on their writing blogs. One such nugget of wisdom I have seen in numerous places is the following formula for starting a story:

 Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

In other words, the first act, what sometimes gets called the exposition and other times the ground situation, should show your protagonist enacting (or mired in) a routine. This routine is then disrupted by the arrival of the dramatic vehicle or first crisis, something that destabilizes the routine and forces the hero into action.

I am not here to rant about this formula because 1) I think it was intended as a description of a certain type of narrative rather than a mold for all narratives, 2) there are certainly examples of Pixar movies that break from this formula, and 3) there is nothing wrong with a good formula. What I would like to offer is an observation on beginnings: as story relies on a sense of balance, the stability of the ending is equal to or greater than the stability of the beginning. The same generally goes for happiness.

Since we’ve already brought up Pixar, let’s use their flagship, Toy Story, as an example. We begin with Woody, the most beloved toy, who has a happy, stable life until the arrival of rival toy Buzz Lightyear, at which point instability is introduced and the narrative moves on. We end, of course, with that tension totally diffused; Buzz and Woody are best friends and co-favorite toys. Balance. Now, the routine doesn’t always have to be so happy. In a movie like The Incredibles, the routine is imbued with a certain amount of tension to begin with (the ennui of retired superheros, for example) that perhaps makes it less happy, but no less stable. But again, we need a similarly stable (and more happy) ending for the story to feel complete.

Now, let’s consider two narratives with much less stable ground situations, and the endings this allows them.

The first is a story I have probably referenced before because it is so damn good, Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (A title that itself establishes a sense of symmetrical instability.) The story opens with Connie in the throes of pubescent individuation, a divided and unstable character whose only routine activity is rejecting the routine activities of her mother and sister (and, symbolically, domesticity). The ending is famously inconclusive: she drives off with a man who is possibly the devil, but maybe just a serial rapist. And yet, despite our not knowing what happens or exactly how bad we should feel about it, there is still the sense of an ending that has everything to do with the balance of the story as a whole. We started in weird, unhappy place, so we’re fine with an equally weird, unhappy ending. As much as we might like to imagine such a movie, this ending would not have worked for Buzz Lightyear.

The second example is one that I know I have referenced before (because I teach it fairly often), Hamlet. We begin with the young prince of Denmark visiting home for a funeral/wedding combo. There is nothing routine or happy here. Everyone is still trying to figure out how to make sense of their unstable situation, and yet when the ghostly dramatic vehicle comes in, it is able to plunge us into further disruption. In the end, of course, everyone dies. It doesn’t really get much more stable than that (we’re pretty sure no one is going to do anything that might surprise us at this point) and yet it also doesn’t get much less happy than that. But again, we started in a place that was so fraught to begin with that it still feels like the right ending.

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