How and why do good stories compel us as they do? For the answer, let’s cut to the chase – actually it would be shortly after the obligatory chase scene – to that part of the story where finally the source of meaning and satisfaction is found – at the climax.
When we buy a ticket to a serious movie, we’re really paying to watch vicariously as characters suffer through life-changing ordeals. The protagonist is typically forced into a dead-end where she must in some way become super-human or die. We know this moment is coming. We count on it. Most stories are designed so that we can participate by anticipating this showdown.
In the classic film, Moonstruck, for instance – Loretta (Cher) is destined to ditch her emotionally flat fiancé in favour of his much more feral brother, Ronnie (Nicholas Cage). We all know what’s coming. Loretta’s lonely little life as a bean-counter is characterized by a lack of romantic courage. She seems content to stick to the puny path of least resistance, but you better believe she’s going to abandon it or audiences will be howling for their money back. It’s only a matter of a few stormy encounters with Ronnie before Loretta connects with her long-lost passion. We don’t know exactly what she’s thinking, but Zorba the Greek’s famous speech is probably dead on: “Life is trouble – only death is not – to be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.”
What Ronnie said was this: “Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is. Love don’t make things nice, it ruins everything, it breaks your heart. We’re not here to make things perfect. Snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts and love the wrong people and die!”
Now, here’s where viewers find their satisfaction – we’re watching Loretta up on the screen, making up her mind – to follow Ronnie to his bed, or go home. Her fiancé is returning tomorrow. She’s shivering in the cold; they’ve just been to the opera; she looks like a million bucks. The director (Norman Jewison) calls for a slow zoom into her face. He’s unashamedly milking the scene because he knows the audience has paid the price of admission to identify with this ‘arresting’ moment. The director is arresting the moment cinematically, slowing it down so that we can appreciate just how damn hard it is for anyone to permit their organizm to be rewired for a brand new way of being. When it comes to ‘change or die’, most people prefer the latter. Cutting the ties that bind us to our old habits is a death. That’s why we applaud and cry and join book clubs in order to discuss what we find so hard to do in real life.
In ROXY, Tradewind Books, 2009 (a novel with which I am intimately familiar because I wrote it), the 17 year old protagonist confronts her demons in the very land of Zorba – Greece – on the island of Corfu. Roxy’s boogeyman is a perceived curse. She believes that she’s next in a succession of women in her family to be denied the love of a family. This belief is the outmoded habit that must die, and the reader knows it. Or there’s no story worth telling.
We sense very quickly that Roxy is onto something that will alter the past. This is what we’ve paid for – the opportunity to anticipate correctly the sea change she’ll go through. It’s obvious from the first time she meets her estranged grandfather in Greece that she yearns for ‘family’. We know that Roxy considers her long-dead grandmother a saint, and that it would be a huge mistake for anyone to denigrate her memory. Fast-forward to the climax.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil the story, because it’s not necessary to do so. Let’s just say that if I were directing “Roxy” the movie, I’d deploy the slow zoom into Roxy’s face as the truth dawns upon her. Her most precious belief may be a lie.
As Roxy mentally assembles the horrific evidence – reluctantly, disastrously – her worldview is going to have to be radically altered. We watch her face as the truth usurps her former beliefs. The grisly truth is struggling to reboot her rewired organizm. For a moment during this psychic ‘changing of the guard’ there is chaos and confusion. The implications run too deep for a mere mortal to accept all at once. So, plenty of story follows, more crises and tears, since time is needed for the truth to take its rightful place in the true history of Roxy’s life.
Earlier, I used the phrase ‘sea change’ to refer to the outcome of Roxy’s ordeal. The dictionary defines it as ‘a radical or even mystical change’. To live vicariously through a fictional character’s transformation is exactly why we fork over the price of admission to a film. (Or better yet, buy the book.) ‘Sea change’, it turns out, comes from Shakespeare’s Tempest, generally considered to be set on the island of Corfu. The impish Ariel sings:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.
Shakespeare is suggesting, I think, that in ‘depth’ lies the power of transformation. Bones turned to coral, eyes to pearls. At the climax – the deepest part of the story – a good character will take the plunge – even risk death – if there’s no other way to emerge ‘rich and strange’. ♦