Monday, May 19, 2014

The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning

"You're wearing my nightgown."
Why do we see films? Character transition. It’s fun to watch a character connect the dots from flawed to complete. From wounded to healed. From partial to whole. From fool to master. Whether you’re writing a short story, a novel, a stage play or screenplay, this is a fundamental (among many) that must be internalized and demonstrated for your audience to care about your characters. In a word, it’s fun to watch a character struggle to acquire wisdom.

A final scene that demonstrates this mastery hammers this point home. This happens in real life. It will remind audiences of themselves, reassuring them that despite our individual idiosyncrasies, we’re all human. We’re in this together. And what’s more, this truth is played out every day. In grade school, if a bully shoves you into a locker, you might catch up with him after school and plant a fist between his eyes. After growing up, you learn that there are more mature (and lasting) ways to handle such a situation. Your character learns that he/she can’t continue with the emotional status quo if he/she is to save him/herself and save the day.

Showing your character’s flaw, as you know, is far more evocative than telling it. How does your character land him/herself in trouble in the story’s beginning, as a result of his/her personal problem? Whether greedy, airheaded, overprotective, status-obsessed, or prone to fits of rage, how are they a good person except for that one thing? And how is that one thing their defining characteristic?

Situation A + character with flaw = character fails critical test. The beginning of your story.
Situation A + character with flaw overcome = character passes critical test. The end of your story.

In Finding Nemo, Nemo jumps on his father Marlin at the beginning of the story: “Time for school!” but Marlin is hesitant. It’s the first day that he’ll be separated from Nemo, and he doesn’t like that idea. At the end of the film, Marlin jumps on Nemo and says the same thing: “Time for school!” He can’t wait for Nemo to go out and have an adventure. This same scene, played over twice, has the same characters at first glance, but as storytellers we know that the Marlin at the film’s end is a very different character from the one at the beginning. Same situation. Very different characteristics in play. The beginning is the promise of the end.

This is why sequels often don’t hold up to their predecessors. Once a character has become a master, where else is there for him/her to go? Once they’ve overcome their flaw, how else can they evolve? Of course, it can happen. In Star Wars, Luke learns that there’s more to the Force than being able to blow up the Death Star. Can he slay the enemy within? That becomes the franchise’s central question, and it takes two more films to answer it. It’s a tough strategy to pull off, but not impossible. Of course, just like people, as your characters’ circumstances change, so too will their personalities in reaction. For example, your character starts out as a flawed pauper, overcomes his flaw, and becomes the king at the story’s end. How about in part two, your character, as king, realizes that with his first taste of power comes the high potential that it can/will be abused? A new situation, a new flaw, and a new chance for growth.

In what ways must your character grow? In James Joyce’s The Dead, one of my favorite short stories, the confident, set-in-his-ways Gabriel Conroy’s life view is shaken when he realizes that passion and a release of control perhaps lead to a more fulfilling, albeit unpredictable, way of living. And perhaps the life he’s been living is not truly a full life at all. In the beginning of the story, he quips about housemaid Lily’s love life (“I suppose we'll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?”) and in the end is left to reflect on his own love life with his wife, Gretta. Is there love? Is there passion? When he asks similar questions to his wife about her former paramour (“the dull fires of his lust began to glow angrily in his veins”), it’s clear that ultimately, his feelings on it have evolved, and the Gabriel at the end, when presented with a similar situation, is very different.

In Gail E. Haley’s The Green Man, a haughty lord learns that humility and generosity make him into a better person than arrogance. In the beginning, he scoffs at villagers who leave offerings for a legendary forest spirit. In the last scene, he leaves an offering, himself.

In the Arthurian myth, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain brashly volunteers himself to undertake a for-all-appearances simple challenge (decapitate a mysterious green knight) before the entire royal court. But when Gawain realizes that his brashness carries with it a deadly price (the supernatural green knight puts his head back on his shoulders and tells mortal Gawain that Gawain must undergo the same beheading a year hence), he must learn that courage is more than great deeds. At the story’s end, when it’s Gawain who faces a deadly axe, will his courage ultimately save him?

In Breaking Bad, Walter and Jesse cook meth for the first time in a deserted New Mexico canyon. Four seasons later, he buries his money (and ultimately engages in a fateful firefight) in the same exact canyon. On one hand is the Walter who does for his family and on the other is the Walter who does for himself. How does he carry himself differently the second time?

Think of a story’s beginning and end like bookends. They look the same but face opposite directions. Whether it’s two first days of school, two queries about love, two offerings for a forest spirit, or two axes, showing how your character has changed from one to the other can best be accomplished by showing us how the character has changed between the two similar situations – and how, when presented with it the second time, they change beyond where they – or better yet your audience – ever thought they could.

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