I used to think I was cheating when I used movies and television shows to illustrate topics in my writing classes. Not any more. I’ve come to accept that I need all the help I can get for teaching and studying story structure in particular.
For analysis, nothing compares to a story presented visually. The stories are short (one or two hours, in one sitting, instead of the many hours, spread over days, that it takes to read a book); plot points are often emphasized by music and crafty camera work; characters change visibly, before our eyes, not needing a thousand words. We may miss the leisurely enjoyment of language, but we feel the immediacy, being hit over the head with structure.
Two of my favorite television dramas ended recently, each one in a very satisfying way, and in a manner that is most useful for studying good endings for novels.
BURN NOTICE — SPOILER
The pilot opened with this voice over: My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a spy, until I got burned.
Through 7 seasons, every episode began the same way and the actions of every episode were chartered by further VOs from Michael. The episodes themselves were unremarkable in my view—full of explosions, unlikely B&Es past barbed wire and beefy armed guards, and wonderworking shoot-outs that left the good guys standing. But each week, I checked in to hear the latest VOs from Michael, often a tip that might be useful if I ever write a spy novel. Mostly, I wanted to visit with Michael and his crew.
Fast forward to the end of the final episode. Michael has miraculously escaped to Ireland with his girlfriend, Fiona. His 3-year-old nephew, Charlie, whom he will raise, is asleep on his lap.
“What will I tell Charlie?” he asks Fi. You can tell that Michael is thinking of all the damage he’s done, people he’s blown up (deserving or not), the havoc he has wreaked.
Fi answers. “Just say, My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a spy, until I got burned.”
It finally dawns on me: the whole show, beginning to end, is Michael talking to Charlie.
Amazing. What a structure.
DEXTER – SPOILER
More character-driven (a slashing per episode notwithstanding), the 8-season show featuring serial killer Dexter Morgan came to an end in a Solomon-like way.
Sure, Dexter killed according to a code, ridding the world of other serial killers, keeping his dark urges focused on those worse than he was. But on the way, innocents were also killed or deeply affected, or left morally bereft, as his sister, Deb.
Should Dexter be allowed to live a happy life while his beloved sister lies brain-dead in a Miami hospital?
The writers (one can only hope they had the deciding vote) split the difference.
In the end, Dexter pulls the plug on Deb, buries her at sea where dozens of his other victims were buried, and fakes his own death by sailing into a hurricane. He’s now free to join his girlfriend and son in Argentina.
But he can’t go. In the final scenes, his girlfriend is grieving over his obituary, and Dexter is living alone in an isolated logging camp. He’s not dead, but he can’t allow himself to live happily, either. The light that had come into his eyes when he entertained thoughts of escape is now gone, replaced by the darkness of his cruel Passenger.
In these stories, in any story, it’s the beginning and the ending that really matter. If those two elements are tied together in a way that’s interesting, meaningful, and aesthetically pleasing, the middle will take care of itself.