Archive for November 29th, 2011

A Writer Reviews: Black Death

You have, by all likelihood, never heard of this movie.  And that’s alright, neither had I.  It’s one of those direct-to-DVD releases that showed up in our Netflix recommendations and intrigued us for several reasons.  First was Netflix’s predictive score of 3.9 stars.  Second was appearance that it would be a rather brutal portrayal of plague-era England.  Third was Sean Bean.  And it delivered on everything we hoped for.  Crucifixions, fake witchcraft, nasty teeth, and Sean Bean dying.

This is not a spoiler.  Sean Bean always dies.  Hell, one of those clips is from this movie.  I’ll leave it unspoiled which one.  Hint: none of the ones with guns.

I’ll say this much for the Netflix predictive score, it was dead on.  3.9 is about right for this movie.  I was entertained throughout, but it’s not really going to stick with me.  However, I wanted to pull out one element of the movie and use it as a Writer Reviews subject: the denouement.

I’m sure we all had the denouement drilled into our heads in middle school; it’s all the parts of the story that happen after the climax.  It serves to wrap up the story, wrap up the characters, potentially provide a quick clean-up of a sub plot, and ideally serves to bookend the whole work with the opening.  They’re tough, and I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on them, as they’re one of the areas that I’m still unquestionably growing as a writer.  However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t know a flawed denouement when I see one.

And the denouement is where Black Death falls apart.

The movie ends with the protagonist returning home after all the horrors he has seen in the world, all the evil he’s unintentionally done, all the good he’s tried to do.  This is the standard ending for the heroic journey story.  He is accompanied by the only surviving member of the party (not Sean Bean) who proceeds to provide narration for an extended sequence where the protagonist seeks out revenge for what he has seen.  It’s a really dark sequence, and I typically approve when a movie feels it can Go There, but it fails on two very important fronts.

First: it’s too long.  This is a fault of many movies.  To pull some more mainstream examples of overly long denouements, let’s look at AI: Artificial Intelligence and Return of the King.  In AI, the climax of that movie is the robot boy David finally completing his quest to see the Blue Fairy and begging to be a real boy.  It’s a hell of an ending, too, if you choose to stop the movie at that moment.  The denouement is all that stuff that comes after, set 2000 years in the future and taking 20 minutes to unfold.  It shifts the story to a new location, introduces new concepts, and plays out almost as a short film tacked onto the end of the movie.  Return of the King is absolutely infamous for the length of the denouement, which features several false endings before finally drawing to a close with Samwise home again in the Shire.  Here I give a little more leeway, as the denouement is scaled to the trilogy rather than just the movie, but it still received plenty of criticism.

An overlong denouement has several effects.  For one, it makes the audience all squirmy when they really need to go pee, but that’s more a movie issue than a written issue.  More importantly it can dampen the emotional high of the climax by separating the audience from it, or worse invalidate the emotions of the climax completely.  It also serves as an imposition on the audience’s time and patience.  How much of either the author have to play with depends entirely on the investment they’ve secured from the audience.  It’s hard to keep going back and say “just one more thing,” and ultimately makes the story look poorly structured, like there was so much more to tell but the author got to the end of the main plot too quickly.

Second: it’s told from rumor and conjecture.  I am all for the unreliable narrator in fiction, so long as it’s done well.  In film, it’s so much harder than in written fiction.  Fight Club?  Brilliant use of the unreliable narrator in film.  Black Death?  Not so much.  The trick with the good use of an unreliable narrator is that he or she can’t know they’re unreliable.  It pulls the audience in and leaves them guessing.  The end narration in Black Death begins with the narrator admitting to no direct knowledge of the events as they unfurled.  At that point I’m done with the story, because the narrator has been removed from it without even an opportunity to wonder.

It also relies on narration in a movie largely devoid of it.  However, at least in this case the narration bookends the entire movie.  The denouement is not the place to start narration, though this is really more of a movie problem than a written work problem, as books rely on at least some form of narrator from the start.  However, the sudden narrator in a movie is akin to a book switching suddenly from third to first person in the last chapter.  Consider how jarring that would be as a reader.  Again, this was a flaw of AI.  It’s also the flaw of the original cut of Blade Runner.

Alright.  One of the flaws.

So what are the hallmarks of a good denouement?  Largely they’re successful when they don’t feel like a denouement.  I’m always disappointed when I can step out of a movie or a story and say “aha, I’m in the denouement now” on first consumption.  It’s the same sensation that started the Writer Reviews series when I talked about finding the act breaks in my first viewing of Thor.  This probably doesn’t apply to everyone, but I cannot really dissect a piece of media I’m enjoying it on my first trip through.  If I can, it means I’m not engaged with the story in some way.  And disengagement of the reader/viewer is a problem in any work of fiction.

Be aware of your denouements.  Keep them sort, keep them on task, keep them to the point, and don’t go changing the style of story in them.

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