Thursday, June 20, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 14: Climax and Epilogue

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • This one goes all the way back to Aristotle.  Every story has an end (even if it’s only temporary).
What Human Nature Dictate:
  • In real life, every project (whether it’s a relationship, or a confrontation, or a criminal enterprise) ultimately fails or succeeds, but fiction heightens and compresses these moments, creating something far more definitive and impactful than real-life climaxes, which, let’s face it, are often underwhelming.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • Most heroes win, some heroes lose, some lose by winning (Downhill Racer) and some win by losing (Spider-Man, who sacrifices love for higher responsibilities), but in each case the story climaxes and the hero has a catharsis.
  • One reason that many first-time writers insist on writing unhappy endings is that it’s a lot easier to write a story in which the hero fails.  But whether your heroes win or lose, they must see their problem through to its climax.  An unhappy ending is only tragic when the hero loses at the last possible moment (Rick getting the girl and then having to give her away in Casablanca, Michael losing the last bit of his soul when he closes that door in The Godfather, Jack losing his life after saving the girl in Titanic)
Other Examples of Climaxes and Epilogues:
  • Hero defeats villain in most thriller and action movies.
  • Boy gets girl (and vice versa) in most romances. (And also, for that matter, in most action movies, except Spider-Man)
  • The discontented heroes of Sullivan’s Travels and Rushmore (in addition to getting the girl) mature and find more inner peace.
  • The surviving heroes of The Great Escape get dragged back to prison, content in the knowledge that they’ve caused a huge distraction.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • Audiences hate movies that don’t climax, but you can use that tool to force them to think. Mutiny on Bounty, like the true story on which it’s based, denies its antagonists a final showdown, forcing the audience to decide for ourselves who’s right.  Limbo does a similar trick when it ends right before the climax.
  • In the case of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Blazing Saddles, the lack of proper finales are an FU to convention.
  • Killer of Sheep, Funny Ha Ha, and Old Joy are all independent films that end on quiet moments that provide little catharsis, and all three movies are excellent, but it’s notable that all three were self-financed by the filmmakers.
And that’s it!  

3 comments:

Paul Clarke said...

But how does the climax relate back to the original problem?

Is this where the problem is solved? Can we say that's the way to judge that we've reached the end of the story.

Anyway, congrats on the articles. Very comprehensive and enlightening. I was going to mention earlier, the anomalies on your chart seem to fall into two main categories:

- Steps that are repeated.
- Steps that are completed by someone other than the main character.

Any thoughts?

Matt Bird said...

Well, I would say resolved, not necessarily solved. Usually it's solved (the hero wins), but sometimes it's succumbed to (the hero fails), and sometimes it's accepted (Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels accepts that nobody wants to see him make dramas, and he's fine with that now, so it's no longer a problem.)

Bill Peschel said...

I wouldn't say that the end of 'Blazing Saddles' is a FU to convention. The villain still dies, justice triumphs, the townspeople still thank the sheriff. Sure, he rides off in a limo, but when you have a villain shout, "What in the name of the Wide, Wide World of Sports is going on here!?" you already know conventions' gonna get broke.

But, yeah, 'Holy Grail's' end was a big FU. I'm a fan of their work, but I can still remember feeling deflated by it.