I’ve just added James Koole to my blogroll. I know him from my Transit Toronto mailing list and Urban Toronto and, during an e-mail, he mentioned that he had a blog, and I checked it out. It’s a nicely designed website with a very clear interface, a great banner, and interesting prose. I’ll be paying more attention to it in the future, that’s for sure.
Chalk one up for the good guys! I hope that a lot of people serve a lot of time because of this.
Even Dreams Have Consequences
On an online writing group I belong to, one of the contributors mentioned a conversation he’d had with an aspiring author who wasn’t a member of the list. When reviewing her story, he told her that her “it was just a dream” style ending would probably be frowned upon by prospective editors. She expressed surprise, and said that she’d never heard of such a rule.
I’m frankly surprised that we need to have this discussion, but a discussion it did bring up. What was wrong with ending a story wherein the hero is drawn inexorably into disaster with the sudden revelation that it was all just a dream, and he’s woken up? Other than the fact that it’s a cliche?
The Turkey City Lexicon doesn’t even mention this foible, perhaps because the reasons against this approach, in my opinion, seem so blatantly obvious. In my view, such an ending is a sign of bad writing, because the author has shown that he has little understanding of the relationship between character, plot, climax and turning point. It’s a sign that, after spending considerable energy getting the hero into his or her fix, he’s either unwilling to spend an equal amount of energy getting the hero out of that fix, or he’s not brave enough to end the story as a tragedy. Instead, the author would rather invalidate all of what has happened before, the character developments, the thematic resonance, everything. The story has just become a “what if” excuse for a whole lot of action which, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t have much point. The author may be in good company (more about that later), but in my opinion, that makes for even more reasons to avoid such an ending.
Can good authors turn this cliche; on its head to good effect? Can they, instead of turning a tragic story into a happy one with the waking of the character from sleep, turn a happy story into a tragic one? Can a man facing an execution squad make a miraculous escape, stumble through the woods and make it home to his loved one, only to find out that it was a last-second hallucination between the time the trap door opened and the noose pulled taut? Of course they can (and many have — I’ve just described the plot of An Occurrance at Owl Creek Bridge ). Even if the author had the character grow because of his dream, we’d be better off. I think we’d be even better off if more writers just avoided the scenario entirely, and worked harder to extract the hero from his or her predicament without leaving reality.
This clich´ is especially prevalent in series television, and not just in the form of an awakening. The Voyager and Enterprise versions of Star Trek are especially in love with what has become known as the “giant reset button” which invalidates all serious single-episode developments in character and plot. The “it was just a dream” trick comes in such forms as resetting temporal paradoxes and coming back from parallel universes, but it amounts to the same thing: a character has been tortured / fallen in love / witnessed the destruction of Earth / explored parts of himself he never knew he had — except that, it didn’t happen. It was a dream. It had no real consequence. The character has no reason to take these revelations into himself and carry it for all episodes to come.
In some ways, series television requires this approach. If, say, Captain Kirk found a three-bosomed woman who was “the one” and decided to quit Starfleet and settle down to raise bonobos, Star Trek would be pretty much screwed. The series writers, assuming they even let this episode come to air, would probably have to run through considerable hoops in order to keep Kirk on the Enterprise and stay in touch with his new wife. There would have to be contracts to be signed, an actress’ salary to carry, a new character to write into subsequent episodes — it’s little wonder many writers decide to just strike the woman down with a bolt of scripted lightning. Studio execs even frown on more subtler changes, which they believe risk the show alienating new viewers who might be put off by lengthy backstory.
It’s a brave, quick witted and tightly managed television show that opts to change its characters over time. The ones that take this risk usually reward their viewers with such things as long term plot development, and characters that grow as well as real people do. To get more of these brave shows, we need more brave authors. And that means coming out of one’s dream worlds and facing the consequences of one’s actions.