grey’s anatomy

sad endings

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories that end badly. And I don’t mean that the storytelling is bad; I mean that the outcome for some or all of the main characters is tragic in some way.

My thinking on this was triggered when Beth (who won a pile o’ books sometime ago) emailed me to say how disturbed she was by the way A Thread of Grace ended for some of the characters. And it’s true. A Thread of Grace is set in northern Italy during WWII, and not everybody survives. Mary Doria Russell is one of those brave authors who can take on a story like that and do it justice. When she was writing the novel she tossed a coin (or maybe she asked her son to toss the coin; I can’t find the email right now where she told me about this) for each character. Fate is just as arbitrary, was her reasoning. And she was right, of course.

People die suddenly, in unexpected ways. Sometimes they are the people you love most and are most attached to. An author is like anybody else with a community of people. You like — even love — some of your characters, and you dislike (strongly, at times) others. The easy way would be to have happy things happen to the people you like, and make all the nasty people step in front of speeding trains. And that may work, but first you’ve got to earn those endings you want so much, by putting the characters through their paces.

So there I was, thinking still about Beth’s discomfort with the resolution of A Thread of Grace when three things happened. Both Grey’s Anatomy and Lost had their season finales, and in both cases we’re talking dark, dark, dark. Grey’s left everybody — and I mean every character — in a bad (depressed, enraged, disappointed, desperate) state. If you haven’t seen it but plan to, you had best set your mind for some serious stuff. Lost was even worse, in terms of dark and truly sad endings.

The third thing is this: I am listening to Lonesome Dove on unabridged audio whenever I’m in the car. I love that novel, I truly do. I think Augustus McCrae is in my top five favorite fictional men. But whenever I think about Lonesome Dove I think about the fact that McMurtry wrote a sequel sometime later, which I was looking forward to and then couldn’t read beyond the first chapter because I hate what he did with the characters who survived the first novel. One of them is summarily dispatched by the kick of a horse before the story ever gets started. That made me angry. Grey’s, Lost, A Thread of Grace — in none of those cases am I angry. I am tense, maybe. But I’m trusting the writers to take the characters — and me — someplace interesting.

Good writers take chances. A good writer challenges the audience. Such writers (or film makers, or whatever) are betting that you’ll come back. And they’re right, if they’ve handled things well.

My point (and I do have one) is that good storytelling isn’t about happy-go-lucky people who never have a problem, or bad guys who always get what they have coming to them. On the other hand, when bad things do happen to good characters, there’s got to be bedrock underneath. A solid story will survive terrible things happening to a major character. That is, the audience will go along with the loss, even if they are put out and unhappy.

If you’ve read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, you know exactly what I mean. King has said that PS is the novel that scares him most, and that he can’t re-read. It’s tragic in the classical sense, and it is scary. But nothing that happens is unfounded or unearned.

At the end of A Thread of Grace I was sad but the Lonesome Dove sequel just made me angry at the author, for the way he tossed a particular character aside. He could have simply left the character out of the story, in which case the readers would be free to imagine a future for him. That would have been acceptable.

So that’s a very long reply to Beth asking me about A Thread of Grace. I was shocked and disturbed by the death of characters I liked and who I expected to survive. One of them was even named Rosina, so sure, it shook me a little. But in the long run the story made both logical and emotional sense, and that’s what counts.

Pajama Jones, odd coincidences, Grey's

About a year ago I wrote a scene for Pajama Jones I want to talk about. Here’s the scene (I’m dropping you into the middle of it; he’s Dodge, she’s Julia).

“You’re good at reading people.”

A smile hovered at the corner of his mouth and then was gone. His face was dark with beard stubble but his eyes were clear and his gaze alert. He studied her for a moment as if her life story were written on her forehead.

“All I know about you is what other people have told me,” he said. “And what I’ve seen with my own eyes. I discount about eighty percent of the first, and thirty percent of the second.”

Julia wished now that she had sent him on his way. She said, “Let me guess, you heard the mercy killing story.”

He didn’t look surprised or embarrassed or even particularly interested. Any of those things would have been irritating, but this lack of reaction was oddly off putting in its own way.

“People like a tragedy,” Dodge said. “And they like you. If so many people who think so much of you are worried about you, maybe there’s a reason.”

Goose flesh rose on Julia’s nape and arms and with that a feeling of acute disorientation and embarrassment, as if she had caught sight of someone spying on her through the bathroom window. That this image was off and inadequate only added to her discomfort. She swallowed hard until she was sure of her voice and then she said. “Look, I know they mean well. But that particular story is just plain fantasy.” she stopped to gather her thoughts. “Tell me, do strangers always open up to you?”

“It’s been known to happen,” said Dodge. “Listen, I’ll tell you something about me, and maybe you’ll feel easier.” He stuck out his hand and Julia took it automatically, a big hand, calloused for reasons she couldn’t imagine.

“Hi, my name is Dodge, and I’m a claustrophobic.”

Julia put her free hand to her mouth and hiccuped a laugh. “I’m sorry, it’s not funny, but–“

“Sure it’s funny,” Dodge said. “When I got to the point I could laugh about it, I knew I was really getting better. Sometime I’ll run through my stock of claustrophobia jokes.”

“But you had to get out of your apartment–“

“I’m a recovering claustrophobic,” he said. “I had a relapse.”

Julia said, “You could let go of my hand now.”

“Oh. Sure.”

To fill the odd silence Julia asked a question she would not have allowed herself even a half hour ago. “Does the claustrophobia have anything to do with –” she paused.

“My nomadic ways? Sure. Of course if you had asked me that a few years ago, I would have denied it.”

There were questions she might have asked, but discomfort won out over curiosity. And Gloria, big dopey dog that she was, somehow sensed that Julia needed a distraction and came over to drop a stick on the ground in front of them, her whole hind section wagging hopefully. Dodge threw it and Gloria disappeared into the shadows.

Dodge said, “So how did your husband die?”

His tone calm and matter of fact. Julia took stock, and found that she could answer.

“We thought he had the flu. Fever, aches, tired all the time, but he just kept popping aspirin and refused to go to the doctor. Then he collapsed on the street outside his office. By the time I got to the hospital he was already out of emergency and in cardiac intensive care. Bacterial endocarditis was the diagnosis, and then heart failure. He died waiting for a heart transplant.”

By coincidence, Grey’s Anatomy has had a somewhat similar storyline going. Now, I really like Grey’s Anatomy particularly because the writers are so committed to complex characters. People who make mistakes. Sometimes they revel in their mistakes and push on to greater acts of self destruction; sometimes they get a little wiser. They deal with the stuff that comes their way, or they run from it.

Any good story — in a book or on a screen — will provide this kind of complex characterization. I put my characters through hoops to see how they’ll react. That’s the way it works.

Now, Grey’s Anatomy’s second season ended yesterday, and in that ending was a resolution to this particular storyline. A very well done resolution, but now I wish I hadn’t seen it. Because I’ve been trying to write a flashback resolution scene for Julia, and I thought I had it pretty much blocked out, but all I can think about is how they did it on Grey’s. Let me assure you: nothing at all like Julia’s experience. So why does it keep following me around?

Oh yeah. Good storytelling.