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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Starting From the End

I don't know what triggered this realization but it occurred in the shower. I was thinking about Othello again --- yes, Shakespeare and GRRM are two things that tend to pop into my head randomly during the day without particular reasons. 

Obviously, it had been decided from the start, that Othello has to kill Desdemona and then kill himself. The play opens with a trial, in which D's father accuses Othello of using witchcraft to seduce Desdemona, and end with another trial, in which Othello accuses and sentences his wife to death for the crime of adultery, and then pronounces her guilty and carries out the execution himself. He is mistaken. Once he discovers the truth, he kills himself.

From Point A to Point Z are a series of events. If I scrutinize these events, it is clear that they are all intricately linked. If any of the events go wrong (for Iago), the ending would be unlikely to happen: If Othello did not believe Iago's innuendo, if Desdemona did not drop her handkerchief, if Cassio did not get himself drunk at Iago's bidding, if Emilia were slightly more suspicious of her husband's strange request to steal the handkerchief from her mistress, if Desdemona weren't so oblivious to her husband's bizarre reactions to her pleas for Cassio, if she weren't so fond of Cassio, if Cassio had not got the promotion that Iago coveted ... Or one could dig deeper and suppose if Othello weren't black or had not risen from the bottom and therefore didn't have a repressed inferiority complex, if Desdemona weren't such a strong-willed, somewhat-spoiled aristocratic girl from the most prominent Venetian family and therefore a bit oblivious, if Iago were not in love with Othello/Desdemona/whatever his hidden motive, if the Turkish army weren't threatening to take Cypress, if Othello confronted her earlier rather than stewing in his suspicions, if he did let her vehement denials shake his belief just a tiny bit, if Emilia came with her explanations five minutes sooner ... If anything in these elements goes wrong, Othello and Desdemona would not have come to their demise.

Shakespeare was playing a very tenuous, high-risk game here. His chain of events could have easily lost credibility with the audience and appeared excessively manipulative if he had not plotted these events and characters carefully. The only reason we do not feel his hand of manipulation (only Iago's) is how he crafted these people and events with the utmost believability. Even without Iago, Othello and the audience would spontaneously wonder, even if subconsciously, why the most eligible girl in Venice would marry him --- old, black, not very rich, with no aristocratic family background. Well, no, not marry, but running away from her father's house into his arms with no regard for the marriage contract. Why wouldn't she be attracted to the dashing young lieutenant who is of her age with a reputation of a ladies' man? Iago only needs to verbalize what Othello himself is already thinking and give him the gentlest nudge. It is also what we, with our own notions of well-matched couples, have already been thinking as well. This is what Shakespeare uses --- the snake in our own heart that Iago merely awakens. That is why the whole chain of events seem so fucking convincing.

If anything goes wrong, of course they would not die. But they have to die, from the moment Shakespeare put the first word on paper. It wouldn't have been a tragedy if they don't die --- it would be "Much Ado About Nothing" instead. The key is to make us forget about the inevitability of the ending and create the illusion that, at any moment in the process, a slight "what if" could have reversed the course and saved them. That's why it is so fucking irresistible.

This is the crucial part that makes and breaks a story. You have a beginning and an end. Can you make the end seem heartbreakingly inevitable? Can you set up a chain of causes and effects that convince the reader? Is your hand both deft and invisible? How the middle leads naturally and inevitably to the doom is what separates masterpieces from mediocre ones and stupid ones. Masterpieces build the middle on human truths and universal flaws. Lesser ones use cheap tricks. Romeo and Juliet may have been undone by Friar Laurence's messenger, but the familial feuds and cycle of revenge loom larger. We can tell what are true deficiencies we are all guilty of and what are convenient coincidences dreamed up by the author.

GRRM does the same thing. Ned Stark has to die. It was decided before the first book began. Robb Stark has to die, too. This was decided before the first book was finished, although it does not come until the third novel. The whole magic is about how to get there without a whiff of cheap trick and lazy plotting. Of course they are all authors' manipulation, but the hand must be invisible, and the only way to stay invisible is a test to the authors' insight into the truth, the human truth. If you can't keep the middle real, the end would come out looking like crap. 

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