Lately I’ve been taking a break from writing. We just released my new book Rift Jump through Splashdown Darkwater (behold yon plug), and it was a mad race, all the way to the finish. My mind is totally spent, so I’m taking a small breather before I dive back into the countless other projects I’ve committed myself to. And, like I usually do when I take a break, I’ve been watching a lot of movies. Just old favorites that I haven’t watched in awhile. It’s a chance to give my brain a rest.
But, as a writer, your brain is never really resting. Even as I’m watching these movies that I’ve seen countless times, I’m still studying them. Trying to figure them out, to figure why I love them so much and how I might inject some of that awesome-sauce into my own writing.
As I’ve pondered these things, I’ve come up against a conundrum. I work as a screenwriter and a novelist, and in both fields you hear the charge: “Be original. Show me something I’ve never seen before.” But I’ve realized that, what people really desire is an original image or window dressing. At the heart of the story, I wonder if we all want the “same old thing.”
There’s a certain expectation that I think we bring into a story when we sit down to read a book or watch a movie. There’s a way we want it to play out—even before we know the story. We want the good guy to win. We want the bad guy to lose. We want the guy to get the girl (or vice versa). We want the guy everybody counted out to be the guy that saves the day. There are archetypes that we look for, common themes that we crave. I wonder, where does this come from? Is it cultural, or does it speak to a deeper human level? A spiritual yearning for justice, for evil to be punished, for good to triumph.
I remember when I first read the last part in Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series. Spoiler alert if you’ve not read it, but the series chronicles Roland of Gilead as he hunts down the wicked Man in Black. For six books—and most of Roland’s life—he’s been trying to find this man, to kill him. But, in the very last book, Roland and the Man in Black never meet. They never face-off, never get their big battle. The Man in Black is eaten by some random spider creature, and Roland continues on his quest to the Dark Tower. A lot of fans were angered that Roland and the Man in Black never got to duke it out, but I really enjoyed it. It was a surprising twist, and it smacked of realism to me. I mean, seriously, how many times did we get to face down that school bully in some epic battle, only to emerge victorious and have the school cheer us on, right?
I recently turned in a script to a producer to get his thoughts, and he told me how the ending was unresolved, though I thought the ending was perfectly resolved: The bad guy escaped and the good guy died fighting him—but died a hero. The greater story wasn’t punishing the bad guy, but about proving your mettle, no matter the cost. To me, the story was told. But the producer felt it was unresolved. Why?
Perhaps because he was still waiting for the bad guy to be caught. For the good guy to win.
Are we biased? Do we really want stories to surprise us, or do we want A, B, and C?
I’m guilty of that, too. I watch a movie and I fall into a groove and there’s a way I think it should end. The familiar ending. And, when it doesn’t end like that, my first reaction is, “I didn’t like it.” Why? It was wonderfully written, well-acted, beautifully photographed—but it didn’t follow the beats that I wanted. It didn’t give me the same old thing.
Isn’t that strange?
I remember reading many years ago that It’s A Wonderful Life was met by its share of controversy back in the day, because the villain never received his comeuppance. Through deceit he ruins the life of poor George Bailey, and he’s never caught. But I think that anyone who has seen that movie knows that George really won. It wasn’t about catching the bad guy, but about living your life in spite of him.
Of course we wanted Han Solo to return at the last second to help Luke destroy the Death Star in 1977. Of course we wanted Harry to beat Voldemort. Of course we wanted Rocky to win, even when he lost.
Those old stories, as “typical” as they are, speak to a deeper longing in all of us. We want to know that good wins. That there is hope. That love is just around the corner. Life doesn’t always demonstrate that to us, so we find ourselves at Story’s door, wanting to escape to a place where magic is still alive. To fly in the face of that child-like expectation is almost a betrayal of Story.
Do we really want Frodo to make it to the edge of the volcano and NOT throw in the One Ring, but keep it and dominate the world? It would certainly be an ending that makes logical sense. It would also defy storytelling convention. But, for all of our demanding to see an original story, do we want that or do we want the familiar?
Did I betray the Story by writing a script that doesn’t end with a more traditional “resolution”? Why do stories need concrete resolution? Why do we want them? Life rarely resolves, so why must stories?
I’ve been rethinking my ending of the script in question. Not necessarily to give it a “happy ending.” I’m not saying that a story can’t have a bad/sad/tragic ending and work well, but I think that—when it’s done right—we still find something to celebrate. Or maybe we’re more willing to accept a sad ending when we can see it coming, when we can prepare ourselves.
Isn’t that a kind of familiarity, too?
So, as a writer, am I beholden to these tried and true paths? Do I really have any control over the story, or am I following some deeper instinct? How much originality will my audience, or any audience, really embrace? Maybe all I can change is the window dressing. Maybe that’s all anyone wants changed.
Maybe the best stories are the ones we all know by heart.
I leave it to you, as readers and/or storytellers: What were some stories that were NOT what you were expecting, that defied convention, and yet you still love them? Why? How might we break the mold of conventional storytelling, but still strike that instinctual chord in all of us? Can we?
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Greg Mitchell is a screenwriter and novelist living in Northeast Arkansas and is the author of The Strange Man and Enemies of the Cross. His first produced screenplay, Amazing Love: The Story of Hosea, starring Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), will release to DVD later this fall. Visit Greg at his web site.