The hidden law of a probable outcome

I have written before about what I call “negotiated suspension of disbelief“.

To give an example, I gave up on a book recently about three-quarters of the way through. The novel was a dystopian adventure in which a group of rebels were fighting against a striated society. The rulers of this society controlled all of the communications media and the rebels needed to get the message of their rebellion out to the masses.

So the heroes decided to contact the outer space colonies that had access to the communications satellites in order to override the rulers’ broadcasts.

At that point I said “You can’t do that” and gave up on the book.

Why? Because “outer space colonies” hadn’t been negotiated. There had been no mention of them up until that point. Granted, it was a far future Earth, and there was a high level of technology stipulated, so it wasn’t as if the existence of the colonies was as far outside of the zeitgeist as, say, magical flying dragons would have been. But at no point (at least no point that I recall) were the colonies mentioned prior to them becoming an important part of the plot. They just appeared.

That’s cheating. That particular kind of cheating is called deus ex machina, but there are others, not quite so obvious but often just as damaging to the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.

Sometimes the issue isn’t the sudden addition (or subtraction–how many problems in the Harry Potter universe could have been solved if the Time Turner existed in more than one book?) of a single contrafactual element, but rather a change in the overall nature of the story–what might be considered the universe’s “Alignment” (to steal a term from Dungeons & Dragons.)

For example the sudden alignment shift of a Hollywood Ending. (Again, I am not talking about the characters, but the story as a whole. Characters can and do change during the course of a story. Having a previously evil character find redemption or a previously good character succumb to temptation can be part of the story without violating the alignment of the universe as a whole.)

What I mean by Hollywood Ending is the basic nature of the story changing in the final moments. Everything is bleak and all hope is lost, the characters doomed to failure—and then suddenly everything is wonderful and the characters are happy and the credits roll. The issue isn’t whether or not the ending makes logical sense (although Hollywood endings usually don’t) the issue is the sudden change in tone. The story has changed alignments, and the audience is fully justified in shouting “You can’t do that!” and walking out.

It’s a subtle business and one that most writers feel their way through rather than working out in any logical fashion. Certain actions or events just seem to fit the type of story that is being told better than other ones.

However, again cribbing from Dungeons & Dragons, it is possible to describe the Alignment of a story universe in terms of two intersecting indices.  Let’s call them Tone and Ethos.

Tone is an indicator of the audience’s expectation of outcome in terms of the effects on the lives of the spotlighted characters. In broad strokes one can either expect a “Happy Ending” (the main characters are better off than when the story began) a “Neutral Ending” (the characters are approximately as well off as when they began the story) or a “Unhappy Ending” (the characters are worse off than when they began the story.)

A couple of caveats before I continue.  First, this is an index of final outcome–bad things can happen to characters before the final credits, but if the end state is positive, it can still be a happy ending. Second, this refers to the final state of the spotlighted characters. Nameless mooks can die by the busload without making the ending an unhappy one. (There is more death in Raiders Of The Lost Ark than in the first four Saw movies combined–and, yes, I counted.)

Ethos is an indicator of the audience’s expectation of the degree to which the outcome is determined by the morality of the character’s actions–as defined by the universe in which the story takes place.  That last point is very important. In order for an ending to qualify and “Moral” or “Immoral” there must be a negotiated agreement with the audience regarding the morality in question. (This step gets skipped a lot when the author assumes that the audience will share her or his personal sense of morality.)

So the Ethos can be divided into “Moral Ending” (the good guys prevail, the bad guys fail) a “Neutral Ending” (the characters final state is unrelated to the morality of their actions during the story) or an “Immoral Ending” (hearts are broken and the bad guys win).

Putting this together yields nine “Story Alignments”.

Happy, Moral: The Good Guys Win. This might be considered the “Default Heroic Ending”. Most action and adventure stories end on this note. The characters face hardships, stand true to their principles, and save the day.

Happy, Neutral: Everybody Wins. In this sort of story the positive final outcome is not the result of adherence to any particular ethos, but either by luck or through an amoral quality such as competence. (Yes, one can make a virtue of competence, but outside of Rand it is seldom stated and hence fails the negotiation test.)

Happy, Immoral: Victory goes to the characters least burdened by scruples. Usually this is an unsatisfying ending for the audience, but it can work in crime thrillers with a Noir sensibility. (The final shot of the 1981 film Body Heat, for example.)

Neutral, Moral: The “Berenstain Bears” ending. Frequently used in episodic TV shows. Everyone learns a valuable moral lesson, but it has no lasting effect on the characters’ fortunes as a whole.

True Neutral: This would be your Slice Of Life sort of fiction. Some would argue that these aren’t really “endings” in a narrative sense, more just the place where the author stopped. However, such stories can be satisfying for the audience provided that the focus of the story is understood to be an exploration of a theme or idea rather than a personal journey for the protagonists. Many Hard SF “idea stories” fall into this category.

Neutral, Immoral: A lot of so-called “realistic” fiction falls in this category. Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, for example. Characters perform actions that are explicitly described as being immoral, without any consequence at all, either good or bad. While the overall tone of such works can be bleak and depressing, many absurdist or comic works can make this tone enjoyable–Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels, for example.

Unhappy, Moral: The “EC Horror Comics” ending–one of my personal favorites.  Characters do bad things and bad things happen to them. Poetic Justice, usually served cold and with a healthy slice of irony on the side.

Unhappy, Neutral: A lot of Horror stories–particular when the horrific elements are defined in science fiction rather than fantasy terms–end this way. Rocks fall, everyone dies, and the monsters eat the just and the unjust with equal relish. Frequently there are momentary advantages to behaving either morally or immorally, but in the end the doom comes for everyone.

Unhappy, Immoral: These are the endings that tend to leave audiences in tears.  Bad things happen to good people, and they happen because the people are good. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four is a classic example.

Now, I am not saying that any of these Alignments are intrinsically better or worse than any others, that is largely a matter of personal taste.

What I am saying is that the Story Alignment should be clear and consistent. In order for a story to prove satisfying to the audience the author should be upfront and honest about what kind of story she or he is telling–and stick to that type of story all the way through to the end. 

I will be discussing techniques for telegraphing story alignments to the reader and the consequences of changing alignments mid-story in my next post.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, New Wave, pulp revival and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The hidden law of a probable outcome

  1. Lilyn G says:

    Interesting post. I like how you clearly laid everything out. I feel you on the negotiated suspension of disbelief thing. There’s been times where I’ve definitely slammed my book down.

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  4. Loyd Jenkins says:

    This explains why Rogue One felt flat when everyone died. Being Star Wars, I was expecting Happy Moral or Happy Neutral. The Unhappy Neutral ending was not set up.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Exactly. I didn’t have as strong a reaction because I’m not really a Star Wars fan, but the franchise implied a particular alignment that Rogue One did not deliver.

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