The beginnings and endings of stories

Max FoxSunday, September 7th, 2014comment

We’re nearing completion on the latest draft of “The Portal,” and based on what I’ve read and written so far, it seems like this will be the last major rewrite before we polish it up. Eventually we’ll take it into rehearsals and shooting, where it will get further cycles of refinement and the adding and subtracting of ideas.

One thing that was lacking in the previous draft was establishing the relationship between Scott and Pete, two twenty-something roommates who have been living together for a long time. We all understood the relationship, but it wasn’t on the page when we read it. I think that happens when you write in continuity. Your intimacy with the characters develops as you write and by the time you get to the end, you might read the beginning and realize you know your characters a lot more than when you first started. Discovering these characters has taken many drafts and we continue to make discoveries. I have more confidence in my understanding of certain characters more than others, and I rest in the fact that casting will bring many murky areas into the light for me.

I don’t think it’s always important for the writer to understand everything they write. In fact, I think the illusion of designing and understanding everything you write is a pretty terrible place to be. I think actors, like the movie-going audience, enjoy the unanswered questions that drive them further into the story. Desire is a stimulating state to  exist in, and if you can make someone want something, they will start working to get to that place of satisfaction. And when you become actively invested in the outcomes of things, it leads to a much more memorable experience. This applies to the person telling the story and the person listening.

I think about the beginning and endings of stories a lot. In conversations, people will often bring up the past, and sometimes they will reflect fondly on their memories of that time. I’m talking about the “good old days” sentiment. “It used to be better. There was something that we had. It was an established thing we all understood and did. And something happened, and now it’s gone.”

You could say that this mirrors the idea of what people call ACT I of a story. There is a feeling of normalcy that is lost by the end of ACT I, which is precipitated by the inciting incident, and the idea of once having and losing the “good old days,” expresses a feeling of being inside a troubled world, and being surrounded by an ongoing problem. That’s a feeling that storytellers try to invoke in ACT II of their stories. I think most people see their everyday life as a kind of ACT II conflict. They have their beginnings in mind and some sort of hazy idealized version of their life that they’re hoping to one day to achieve.  I wonder how often people have looked around in their life and said “These are the good old days.”

We have revisionist histories with our past and play similar games with thinking about the future. “One day…” is the beginning of sentences that usually include hints of our dreams, expectations, and plans. Something that is missed in the “good old days” type conversations can be found in this, ACT III, the emotionally satisfying resolution to our narrative. Why? Because there is something very engaging with indicating that there is some pestering and festering underlying need in the normal, seemingly comfortable ACT I world of a character. There are different types of beginnings. Some have instant and intense conflict and it’s aiming to be very titillating or exciting for the audience, but it’s everyday stuff for the character. It’s a kind of conflict that’s only on the surface, because the really bad thing hasn’t happened yet. A very similar beginning is one that seems mundane to the character, and there are clues that although things may seem normal, there are actually very wrong things going on, and the character is either naively oblivious, or happily ignorant of them. The other one that immediately comes to mind is the beginning that seems to skip the beginning and we’re with a character who is either about to win or lose everything and there is no time or stability to know who this person was before, or what’s going to happen next, because it’s kind of an attempt at creating a traumatizing experience. Sometimes a story begins this way and then the past is revealed afterwards in kind of a “good old days” type manner, and we see how we got to that point. If you want to see a movie that starts in trauma zone and goes further into ACT II without first regressing back into ACT I sentiment, watch Synecdoche, New York.

In many stories, the unaddressed conflict hinted at in the very beginning is resolved in the end. The unknown or hidden needs of a character have been met, and the world has achieved a new sense of balance and rightness. I am sometimes struck by the apparent lack of conflict at the endings of stories. Everything seems to be in its right place, and even in stories where there is still some sort of surface conflict at the end, there is a prevailing sense of accomplishment and  lack of ambiguity about what will happen next. I wonder how many people allow themselves to have that type of moment in their life. The feeling that they’ve made it, and no matter what happens, everything will be ok from now on…

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