Thermopylae Was Not a Romantic Comedy

Romantic sucker that I am, I always get caught up in the moment. Don’t pretend like you don’t know the moment I’m talking about. We’ve come to the final, heart-thumping moments of a romantic movie. In a fit of heartbroken resolve, one character decides to leave the other, but wait! His/her true love races to the airport/bus station/train station to catch him/her just before he/she disappears forever, and all the while I’m clutching my popcorn and screaming at the taxi driver to go fucking faster!

Don’t scoff. I’m not alone here. There’s a whole TV Tropes page dedicated to this.

The thing is, though, when the movie is finally over, I start to feel a tiny worm of doubt. What, I start to wonder, is so damn urgent about this particular flight? Don’t these people have cell phones? Land lines? The whole creaking apparatus of the United States Postal System? Couldn’t the one doing all the rushing just send a text: Hey. Raced to the airport, but missed you! I love you. Please come back. It’s not as though there aren’t hundreds of flights leaving Cleveland every day.

We’re not talking about an early South Pacific Islander, who, heartbroken, sets off across the Pacific in a canoe hoping that he might run into something like Hawaii. That would be a really urgent situation. That’s when you really need to haul some serious ass to the beach. But this airport thing? On Expedia, every departure is reversible for the price of a one-way ticket.

Reversibility and complexity, however, can really confuse a good climax. High stakes, by definition, are fairly permanent. More, the possible outcomes of any climax can’t be too complex. Life-and-death scenarios tend to be more effective than Life-or-injury-or-maybe-death-but-probably-not-but-definitely-a-real-possibility-of-some-sadness-that-could-lead-to-long-term-migraine scenarios. Consider the possibilities:

A)   If Melanie doesn’t get the antidote to the poison by noon, she’ll die!

B)   If Melanie doesn’t get the antidote to the poison by noon, she’ll have to experiment with a more complicated set of options. She can cut kale out of her diet, to see what that does to her blood sugar levels. If that works, then maybe she’s ok as long as she doesn’t get bitten again. Alternatively, if the kale-diet fails, she might need to actually avoid all leafy greens for a year. At that point there are some tests she can have done to determine if she’s at greater risk for a tumor that might develop in five to ten years…

A)   If Sandy doesn’t manage to seduce George tonight, he’ll ignore her forever!

B)   If Sandy doesn’t manage to seduce George tonight, well, there’s a party Saturday. And if that doesn’t work, she’ll probably see him after work next Wednesday. Or she could date Jim until Christmas, and then see how things look with George, who, let’s face it, is kind of a loser and doesn’t have that many options. Hell, Sandy could probably play the field until 2017 and still have a chance of landing George if she hasn’t found something better by then.

The trouble is, most real events aren’t binary in nature. Take the American Civil War. I learned in grade school that the crucial event, the one on which everything hinged, was the Battle of Gettysburg. Well… maybe. Or maybe not. At the very least, it’s an extremely simplistic notion. In fact, if you want to see some of the disagreement that still exists regarding the war’s turning point, check out this page. There are twelve candidates listed, the first in 1861, the last in 1864. And then there’s the fact that the people who fought at Gettysburg certainly didn’t realize it was the turning point. The war dragged on for two years after it ended.

This sort of complexity makes for great history dissertations and dinner table arguments, but it seriously complicates the task of a writer. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re writing epic fantasy, one in which the stakes are appropriately high. Eventually, you need to bring it all to a climax, but what to do? You probably want something – an event – that is both obvious and decisive. We might call it, oh, I don’t know… maybe THE LAST BATTLE. Actually, never mind, the term is already taken. Twice.

Still, the narrative advantages of THE LAST BATTLE are obvious. High stakes! Binary outcome! Good triumphs, or evil does!

The trouble is, true “last battles” are pretty rare. Take one of history’s most famous last stands: the Battle of Thermopylae. Three hundred Spartan warriors (with some help) stand against the assembled might of Xerxes and the Persian Empire. They fight heroically, holding the pass for three days, battling to nearly the last man. It’s a truly do-or-die situation. Except it’s not. The Spartans lose the battle and it’s not until next year (479) that the Persians are conclusively defeated at Plataea.

This is a serious pain in the ass, dramatically speaking.

You can see Tolkien grappling with this problem near the end of the Lord of the Rings. After the victory at Pelennor Fields, Aragorn and company are at loose ends. They know, we know, and Tolkien knows that the only thing that matters is whether or not Frodo destroys the Ring. Everyone else could spend the end of the book playing Grand Theft Auto, but that wouldn’t be all that satisfying, dramatically speaking. Tolkien, of course, comes up with a plausible reason for the rest of his cast to tromp all the way over to the Black Gate: they need to distract Sauron, to buy Frodo some space. Fair enough. The battle becomes relevant. But notice that Tolkien is still reliant on a binary event: ring destroyed/ring not destroyed. Without an event like that, it’s tough to have a satisfying climax.

Literary fiction, of course, has long eschewed any attempt at an epic climax. It is acceptable in literary fiction to end on an ambiguous scene in which a middle-aged man contemplates a dilapidated canoe that once belonged to his father while a loon sounds its mournful cry in the distance. I’d like to see someone try that shit with epic fantasy.

13 thoughts on “Thermopylae Was Not a Romantic Comedy

  1. As much as I love Tolkien, it has been repeatedly pointed out that his dramatic structure sometimes leaves something to be desired. Peter Jackson said that, in particular, in dramatic terms, Pelennor Fields should have been a defeat for Aragorn and the good guys, to put the cause we’re rooting for into maximum peril and make the darkness before the dawn really dark. But Tolkien was a linguist and only accidentally a novelist, and I personally cannot throw stones about dodgy dramatic structure.

    As to your main point…I don’t know. Genre fiction is usually trying to accomplish something different than literary fiction, and usually requires a clearer dramatic structure (beginning, middle, end, that sort of stuff), particularly when you have clearly delineated sets of good guys/bad guys. But it does not seem impossible to me that an epic fantasy could reflect the ambiguity of real life– Tolkien himself accomplishes this to a large extent in the action after the destruction of the Ring (100 pages worth in my paperback edition of The Return of the King), in which there is yet one more battle to fight in the Shire itself, and the fruits of victory turn out to be bittersweet, at least for Frodo.

    It’s not impossible for epic fantasies to be true to life, but few do so. That’s probably a large part of the reason I’ve stopped reading fantasy, for the most part, except for that little series by that Martin guy. Which, come to think of it, has a lot of gray in it….

    Good post.

    • Thanks for the comment, Daniel. You make a great point about the end of LOTR. The “scouring of the Shire” does do a really good job of complicating the earlier victory in all sorts of ways. If you’re looking for a great fantasy with an ambiguous ending, I’d recommend Joe Abercrombie’s THE HEROES. It’s a stand-alone (although there are a few carry-over characters from his earlier series). I thought it was really excellent.

  2. What I’m most interested is in what sound a loon makes, and whether or not you’ve cried at rom-coms, although I had you pegged at the beginning, for the record.

    Loved your parallels. I’m till learning the art of making goals clear to the reader, instead of allowing sideroads. Why it’s complicated and difficult, I have no idea.

    • Great! I wrote it in the middle of struggling with my own ending. I’m discovering that tying up a series is even trickier than ending a book. Very satisfying, though, when the pieces all start to fall into place…

  3. I wish I could write, but alas, I cannot. You know what they say, “Those that cannot write attempt to create a business of selling signed first editions.” LOL

  4. I thought you were going to go with the Mytilenean revolt for a comparison:

    A ship was immediately dispatched to Mytilene to countermand the execution order sent out the previous day. The Mytilenean representatives in Athens offered a sizable reward to the crew if the ship arrived in time to prevent the executions. Rowing day and night, sleeping in shifts, and eating at their oars, the rowers of the second trireme managed to make up the first ship’s one day lead and arrive at Mytilene just as Paches was reading the original order, in time to prevent its execution. –

    • That’s a great story! I wasn’t familiar with it; thanks for bringing it up. It would certainly fit the bill for a truly climactic end to a novel (or at least, one thread of a more complex finale).

  5. Dear Brian
    I have quite recently run into your writing, and I have really enjoyed it. I am also enjoying your blog.

    It’s true about last battles and binary outcomes; I read a lot of fantasy, but a lot of the series are still unfinished. However I’ve noticed in general that often the last book just ruins the series. Usually the first book is good — it sets up everything. The second book is good — but evil wins at the end. Then the third book is highly anticipated and everything, and good wins, but it’s just unsatisfying for some reason. I’m thinking in particular of Mistborn by Sanderson, Empire series by Feist and Tuttle, Night Angel by Weeks. Perhaps it is easier to write evil winning than good winning — somehow for good to win, the characters end up having to be good, and then it gets a bit moralizing. The endless self-sacrifice just ends up grating.

    It seems unfair to just give a list of works I didn’t like. Some endings I liked were “Golem and the Jinni,” Codex Allera by Butcher. One book I remember which almost ends with that canoe of yours (not quite) is Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars, which I really liked. I’ll think some more on that canoe — surely someone somewhere has done something like it. That would be pretty cool.

    • Hi Anna — Thanks for your thoughts on this! I agree with you about the unsatisfying nature of many endings. Even the last volume of the Codex Alera didn’t really do it for me, although I enjoyed that series immensely. I’ve heard really great things about the Golem and the Jinni, and hearing from you that it has a compelling ending is reason enough for me to finally get down to reading it. Thanks for the suggestion!

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