I See What You Did There

man wearing yellow jacket
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Finish the Pattern)

West Side Story was never going to end happily. We listen to Tony and Maria plotting to get away from all the rottenness in their world, and we long to see them do exactly that…but we can sense that they never are going to attain their happily ever after.

Why? Well, even if we didn’t know that their story was based on Romeo and Juliet, we would still feel that a happy ending wouldn’t fit after all the scenes of anger, misunderstanding, and escalating violence that make up the rest of the film. Even though Tony and Maria cannot appreciate the wheels of destiny turning against them, we can. We know that violence can only beget violence, choices must result in consequences, and Tony has a reckoning to face for killing Bernardo…just as Bernardo had a reckoning to face for killing Riff…just as Riff had a reckoning to face for oppressing the immigrant Puerto Ricans…just as…well, you get the picture.

There is a principle of logic called inductive reasoning. It states that if we perceive the transformation from one state to the next, then we can extrapolate what the next state after that will be, even before we see it, by simply applying  the same transformation again. In West Side Story we are able to recognize the pattern of each succeeding scene, and can then extend that pattern out in our mind.

What is interesting is that even though the ending of West Side Story is therefore predictable, it still remains a satisfying tale. Having the expectation to feel sad at the end does not prevent our ability to be so when the time comes.

Of course, the ability to predict the end of a story often comes into play even before the opening titles show. There are recognizable patterns over whole bodies of stories, which we call genres, and we still enjoy them. Even though in most romances, westerns, and superhero tales you can predict the ending before you have even seen the beginning, we still consume them in droves.

 

Subversion)

But, of course, where there is culture, soon there will be counter-culture. This is nothing new. Art has established patterns and then defied those patterns over and over through the centuries, and will always continue to do so.

So come the late-eighties/early-nineties, romantic films often followed a pattern of the guy and girl initially disliking each other, being forced to spend a prolonged amount of time together even so, until finally their walls were broken down and they found they had a great deal in common. This was Beauty and the Beast, You’ve Got Mail, and When Harry Met Sally.

Then this pattern of initial dislike and eventual love was swapped. Now the couple begins with a meet-cute, the relationship progresses promisingly, but then something comes along to break everything up. Things look pretty dire for a moment, but this is still a romance and needs to have a happy ending, so there is a triumphant moment of the couple coming back together at the end. We see this pattern taking firm hold in the late-nineties/early-2000s with titles like Notting Hill, The Notebook, and The Parent Trap.

But, of course, this pattern could not last forever either. Soon films were dropping the happy ending part entirely, and letting things end in that more dour break-up note. The couple may seem so right for each other at the beginning, but little quirks expand into major chasms, and eventually they can’t stand the person they used to love. They might come back together enough to have a mutual respect for one another, but that is all. And so in the mid-2000s-to-mid-2010s we were given 500 Days of Summer and La La Land.

Of course, patterns cycle. And so while 500 Days of Summer’s break-up finish might have felt revolutionary when it first came out, it was actually repeating another story told decades prior in Annie Hall. And the hate-each-other-then-love-each-other of You’ve Got Mail can be traced back entire centuries to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

 

Tipping Your Hand)

But while the overarching trend of genres is one of subversion and defying the audience’s expectation, each of these films on an individual level still follows the rule of establishing a pattern and adhering to it in a predictable way. Especially upon a second viewing one is able to appreciate how the later plot points were being seeded early on.

For example, La La Land opens with our two would-be-lovers aggravating one another on the road. Significantly, each of them is trying to reach a destination related to their dream-careers, which they are chasing at the expense of courtesy for one another. Now, just from that opening, is it any wonder that their eventual relationship does not last, overridden instead by their pull to their careers? Later, when they have a moment where their dreams are in alignment, they are able to be together, but they were always going to drive apart again in the end.

You’ve Got Mail, on the other hand, opens with our two-would-be-lovers exchanging sincere and heartfelt messages, connecting remotely, while growing increasingly more disillusioned with their current partners. Sure, when they meet in person things do not get off to a good start, but already the film has established a tone of these two converging, bit-by-bit overcoming each element of opposition until nothing remains in their way. The ending, once again, is obvious.

And this is key. Yes, it is fine to try and disrupt the genre as a whole, and if you go against the grain you may surprise your reader in a delightful way. But… even if this is your intention, still your story must be true to itself. It should never disrupt itself. Defy genre conventions by all means, but do not make promises and establish expectations at your story’s outset, betray those later, and expect the audience to enjoy that experience. You will not come across as bold and unconventional, only as inexperienced. If a story begins as one thing and ends as another, then it simply appears that the writer was not skilled enough to establish a believable sequence of cause-and-effect to tie their intended beginning to their intended ending.

In the end, we look down on a two-faced story just as much as we look down on a two-faced person. We want our stories to know themselves and be themselves. We want them to have an identity, and to be consistent to it. And while we may want them to surprise us, we want them to do so in a way that feels fitting and authentic with what has already transpired.

 

In my own story I have sown seeds of somberness and doomed fate, and I have then tried to remain consistent to those throughout the whole. I am now fast approaching the end, and it is especially important to me that everything tie off in a way that satisfies every raised expectation. With this Thursday’s post, try and consider what ways I am answering the themes raised at the beginning of the story.