Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Keeping it Mysterious

Mostly, I like a story or novel or movie to resolve at the end. I want the loose threads neatly wrapped up, the murderer revealed, the lovers together.


Sometimes, I don't mind a bit of ambiguity. Easier for me than some folks, because I can easily come up with a resolution I like. If it were mine, I think, here's what I might do.

Alfred Hitchcock used to leave questions at the end of some of his tales. In The Birds, the set-up is that all our avian friends suddenly go crazy and begin attacking people hither and yon.
Not a real problem if it is Pancho your parakeet, you bat him silly, but if a couple hundred crows dive at you at once? Enough ducks, they can nibble you to death.

Sitting in the audience, the first question is, how come the birds did this? And onscreen, they ask that too, but as the engineer who went to the swamp realized, when you are up to your ass in alligators, the draining project suddenly takes a lower priority.

Birds are attacking, why is not as important as duck and cover. Why? Figure that out later, because in the moment, there's nothing you can do about it even if you know why. You need to get out the way.

Hitchcock used to do this now and then in his TV show, back in the fifties. Bothered me no end as a boy -- What? What just happened? But as I got older, I began to realize that all questions were not equal, and if the really important ones got answered, that was enough. And sometimes, not even those get answered in real life.

In the fifties, there was another television show, The Millionaire. Set-up was, a batty billionaire (John Beresford Tipton) would, each week, pick out somebody and send his employee to present them with a check for a million dollars. Real money, back in those days. The stooge, Michael Anthony, would show up, tell them his boss wanted them to have it, and not say why. No strings attached, do whatever you want with it, taxes already paid.

You never saw more than Tipson's hand in the show. Who he was and why he did it? Who knows? Nor did it matter.

The show was all about what happened to folks who suddenly found themselves unexpectedly rich. What the money did for them. Or, to them.

As we have come to see, not everybody who wins the lottery is happy they won. Yeah, I know, give me a hundred million bucks, I expect I can fake being happy pretty good, but consider what that might do to your relationships. Is my old friend pissed because I didn't pay off his house note? Is that woman smiling at me because I rang her bell -- or because she knows how fat my wallet just got? Are my kids going to be safe on their way to school? Kissing your phone number and email address good-bye are the least of your problems -- you are going to need an armed guard to keep people away from your door, or a gated community is in your future.

Big money changes your personal climate.

I bring this up because last week I stuck The Trinity Vector up as an e-book, and not to spoil it for you, I did much the same thing in the telling of the story. The set-up is that a mysterious box appears and it has the ability to answer all manner of questions, from whether the Shroud of Turin is real to tomorrow's winning lottery number. What it won't do is tell anybody where it came from, or why it popped up.

At the end of the novel, I wrapped up the main story lines, resolved what the main characters needed, to get their come-to-realize moments -- or die, which also works. And then I sent the players off on their ways.

I didn't explain what the box was, where it came from, who sent it, or why. Because that wasn't what the story was about, it was a "What now?" tale.

Book got a couple of reviews on Amazon when it first came out in paper, and one of them took me to task for not explaining about the box. And I've gotten a couple of emails and letters asking the questions.

Ambiguity can be frustrating. People don't like it, they want concrete answers.

The origins of our martial art are as murky as tar. While there are some fun theories as to the history, including some I've come up with, one is as good as another, insofar as provable validity is concerned. We have a mysterious one-armed man, a cloistered, secretive tribe, and all manner of who-was-born-where; who-was-buried-where; and who-taught-whom-when. I enjoy playing with the notions, but there are two things that are apparent: 1) Nobody knows. 2) It don't matter anyhow.

For me, what matters is does the art itself speak to me? Does it have something I consider useful and valuable? Can I learn it? If those are true, everything else comes a distant also-ran.
As far as I am concerned, if my teacher made it all up from scratch, it wouldn't bother me a whit. (I don't believe he did, though he has surely added much of value to it.)

Neither the history nor a gilt-edge curlycue certificate is going to save me from an ass-whippin'.

A lot of life is that way. In my from-the-neck up mode, I want all the answers. In my heart- touchy-feely mode, I realize life won't always supply those, and I need to take what I can and move on.

P.S. Not to be a total bastard when I wrote the novel, I did include a Big Clue as to the origin of the box. The last two lines are a dead giveaway. I don't know who got it, but when I point that out to people who ask, they sometimes shake their head and go, "Aw, crap! I missed it!"

If you read my stuff, now and again, there will be little tidbits I've left out for you ...


VC said...

Aw, crap! I missed it!

Had to dig out my copy.

Justin said...

Ambiguity is a tough opponent to wrestle with, especially as a new writer. When my wife read Act 1, draft 1, she had some questions: "How did he know the main character's name?" "Why did that guy run away?" A few of them were intentionally left unanswered -- either because I'll be explaining more later, or because I wanted to make the reader think a little.

But when you don't have a legacy of published stories under your belt, it's a little scary to leave things up in the air like that. I guess it's just a matter of having confidence in your tale, and confidence in your decision.

Steve Perry said...

One of the reasons it is hard to workshop a partial of a novel or play -- what the writer might add later.

Maybe he missed it, but until you read the whole thing, you won't know for sure.

And if the story is satisfying overall, if you pay off the important parts, leaving out bits that want reflection upon is okay.