Character vs. Plot; Satisfying vs. Happy, Part II

Everyone loves a happy ending.

So last time we talked about character vs. plot.  A few people contacted me or posted to say they try to achieve a balance between the two to make the “best literature.”  I fear some of those readers may have missed my point a little.

The point of my post is there is no “best” or “ideal” balance.  Different approaches achieve different things.  Would Portrait of a Lady be a better novel if it had more overt plot?  If we had a couple of cliff-hangers?  I know it’s a screenplay and not a novel, but check out My Dinner With Andre.  NO plot!  Now, actually, I didn’t care for MDWA, although I agree with a video store owner who told me once it’s better watched with the “saturation” on your TV turned down, in black and white.  Many “page-turners,” even ones now hailed as literature, have plot twists and turns, and character is, or seems to be, secondary.

Sometimes a plotless novel delights me.  I don’t want plot to “get in the way” (maybe that sounds cruel, but sometimes it can get in the way).  Plots themselves fall into very different categories, one of my favorite being the “episodic” (Huck Finn is a great example).  These have a series of incidents loosely united by the fact that they happen to our protagonist, often as a great deal of time passes and society (or something in the background) changes.  (Think Forrest Gump on the movie side, or, for two much better movies of this type, Grand Illusion and The Right Stuff.)

Finding the right kind of plot your characters can “wear” well is important, and tough.  I started Entertaining Welsey Shaw with the intention of it being nearly plotless–just a series of conversations interspersed with the main character’s comically-simple life.  But I added new characters and situations, and pretty soon it got more plot-oriented than I’d wanted.  I’m stripping some of that out in the third draft.

Now what about endings?  Everybody loves a happy ending, right?

But sometimes they don’t work.  Actually I don’t worry about if endings are happy or not happy.  I just worry about if they’re appropriate.  Reasonable.  Believable.  For example, I hate the eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too ending so popular in Hollywood (and much of publishing too) today.  (LA Confidential comes so quickly to mind.  That absurb ending was really stood on its head, whether intentionally or not, at the end of the far better Layer Cake.)  LA Con was a film that had a happy ending, but were you satisfied? Really?  Interestingly, on the DVD for Layer Cake you can watch an alternative ending that the studio wanted instead.  Again, happy, but not satisfying.  Director Matthew Vaughn screened the ending he wanted for preview audiences instead and they loved it.  So much for the audience always wanting the happy ending.  Frankly, in this jaded age, I think they’re long sick of happy endings.  But they’re also sick of tragic endings that are tragic just for the sake of being tragic (and that generally means bloody/gory nowadays).  Again, finding the right fit for your work is the challenge, same as with type of plot.

Chinatown, one of my favorite films to watch or talk about, has one of the unhappiest endings in history.  But it sure is satisfying.  It’s what had to happen.  Any other ending and we’d feel as though the storytellers had been lying to us for the past two hours.

What’s fascinating here is that for once it wasn’t the writer who intended the bleak tragedy that finishes Chinatown, only to be overruled by a commercial-eyed director or a studio concerned with bankability.  Scriptwriter Robert Towne actually wrote a happy ending from the start.  Director Roman Polanski, fresh from the brutal murder of his own wife Sharon Tate, insisted on the finale we now have, which if you’ve seen it is unforgettable, shocking, heartbreaking…and perfect.  You can’t win, you can’t break even and you can’t even quit the damn game.  That’s the final word in Chinatown.  Anything else would have been a false note, like a girl in a pink dress in a black-and-white holocaust movie (an idea, by the way, borrowed from Akira Kurosawa, who used it in a more interesting context in his brilliant High And Low.)

So sometimes sad, or tragic, or utterly horrifying endings “satisfy,” just like some sad songs satisfy and some bitter foods are delicious.  And as you may have well guessed by now, although it did not fit in the first draft, Entertaining Welsey Shaw now has a sad ending.

But I hope it’s satisfying.

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