A few days ago, I was thinking about the endings to stories and what they made me feel. In particular, I was wondering, “What makes a story stick with me? What makes it feel like a classic?”
One author suggested that a great story typically arouses a sense of tragic romance. In other words, love ends badly. I have to admit, there are some great stories that end that way. For example, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars has two romantically involved teens who fall in love, but one of them dies. Since it is a first-love, it feels doubly tragic.
Of course, it is a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliette,” except that it is cancer that holds the two lovers apart instead of a street gang. We see the same kind of emotions being aroused in many other powerful romances, enough so that I’ve heard Nicholas Sparks describe himself as a “tragic-romance” writer.
Let’s face it, if every romance ended in tragedy, I’d be scared sockless to fall in love. There are plenty of stories with “happily-ever-after” fairytale endings, where one hopes that the lovers live practically forever before they die in their sleep.
Yet many of those seem rather weak when compared to stories that have a stronger bite.
So this makes me wonder: what about non-romances? Let’s take a genre like horror. Do we need to have tragedy mixed with our horror to make it work? I don’t think so. Watching a world get irredeemably trashed doesn’t work.
Probably my all-time favorite horror film was “Alien.” At the end, I felt a strong sense of triumph along with creeping menace.
A few nights ago, I watched “Django” for the first time, a show where a black bounty hunter shoots up the south back in the 1800s, and we as an audience cheer giddily as he tries to “kill all the white folks in the south.” I found myself smiling over some of the better jokes in that one for two days.
I could go on, but I began to see a pattern. With stories that affected me the most, I noticed that they almost always arouse dual emotions.
Aristotle suggested that those two emotions be pity and fear. Pity for the protagonist bound to a horrible fate, and fear that “but for the grace of god, there go I.” Those are powerful together, I suppose, but off the top of my head, I can’t think of a tale that I love that arouse those emotions.
What I do think I see though is a pattern: the best tales tend to arouse two emotions at once. In Lord of the Rings, as Frodo leaves the Shire forever and goes to live in the Gray Havens, there is a strong sense of triumph, that something good has been accomplished, along with a sense of loss, for Frodo has not won the Shire for himself.
I could go on all day, but I think that perhaps you see where I’m heading. If you’re hoping to write a timeless story, pick the primary emotion that you want to arouse—wonder, fear, love, redemption—but then see if you can somehow meld it to an unexpected secondary emotion.
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