July 29, 2014

Stuck in the Middle

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

The great philosopher Taylor Swift once said, "I love the ending of a movie where two people end up together. Preferably if there's rain and an airport or running or a confession of love."  I think I might have seen that movie. 

Of course, what we don't see is what comes afterwards.  We usually don't see the happy couple getting blood tests, dealing with paperwork at the registrar's office, trying to lose weight for the wedding, or arguing a year later because someone didn't take out the trash. 

"If you want a happy ending," said Orson Welles, "that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." Indeed, most stories end at the point where there is a happy ending, a resolve, or a sense of hope.  Ever since man began telling stories, beginning / middle / end has been the standard. 

But in the early days of film, movie makers realized audiences would keep coming back week after week if they were given a story that has no ending.  Thus were born short features like Flash Gordon, Superman, The Perils of Pauline, and other cliffhangers starring recurring good guys, bad guys and damsels in distress, some literally hanging from cliffs until the next installment.

That same serialized approach became a staple of radio once it came along.  Even Amos & Andy had its roots as a fractured drama, complete with a somber opening theme.  Then, only a couple of decades later, soap operas dominated TV.  Romance and drama are a natural mix for a storyline that has no ending.  No sooner is one problem solved when three more come along.

NBC keeps its biggest mystery unrevealed on The Blacklist
Today, the "continuing story" concept is more popular than ever.  It's all over nighttime television, from Game of Thrones to Downton Abbey to The Blacklist. Miss one episode and you'll miss some event so pivotal that you'll be scratching your head down the road.

But these are not simply long sagas with no end.  Each episode includes its own weekly situation to be dealt with, and while we are still baited with a cliffhanger, we receive some satisfying conclusion to the drama du jour.  Otherwise it would get frustrating to invest repeatedly in something that never pays off because the story is forever stuck in the middle.

We have an inherent craving for resolve.  Like the tales we tell, our lives contain constant ups and downs, but when we succeed, the world doesn't stop to acknowledge each victory with "THE END".  We love a hero we can identify with and feel the elusive sense of closure through.

If we've written solid characters, their lives could continue beyond the ending of our story.  Choosing the most satisfying place to close the epilogue is how we give readers what they desire.  They are thankful for happy endings, because real life tends to be one big cliffhanger.

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