Arcs and Endings (2)

Should you write a happy ending?

Commercial common sense will tell you: yes, you should.

Robert McKee says: “Tell the truth.” (see the previous post)

McKee means: your story needs to reflect your worldview. If you contradict whatever you believe in for the sake of commerce, you will fail. During his Arthouse seminar, he gives the example of Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, where Bergman forced an ending upon the story in which he didn’t really believe. The story didn’t work, McKee says. Even the great Bergman couldn’t go against his instinct.

The discussion about happy endings is not exactly the same as the discussion about arcs. Protagonists without arcs have starred in films with tremendous success (see the reference to Mystery Man on Film in the previous post).

Although writers with a positive world may have more success in connecting with a large audience, I believe that talented and skilled screenwriters can create stories that work, irrespective of their worldview.

First-timers will have a harder time.

Here is the dilemma: to break in, you need to write something the market wants to see. Yet you’ll have a better chance if this first spec screenplay is written from the heart. You need to tell the truth.

My advice to beginning screenwriters: see how different genres allow to make different statements about the human condition without compromising the chances of success. Horror, crime and satire are darker genres than romance, adventure or kids movies.

Finally, to illustrate McKee’s point, below is a transcript of his introduction to THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY for British television.

Robert McKee: I saw my first Bergman film in Detroit, Michigan when I was 15. It was The Virgin Spring, a tale of revenge for rape and murder. Next came a comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night. After that Brink of Life, a social drama set in a maternity ward, Monika: A Teenage Love Story, Hour of the Wolf, a psycho-horror film. Bergman was like a one-man film studio bringing a fresh eye to many genres and by word of mouth filling cinemas everywhere. But then in the sixties he became a creature of the critics. They treated his films as intellectual crossword puzzles and drove the audience back behind a barricade of critic-speak � symbology, metaphysics, alienation � until it was impossible to watch a Bergman film without the feeling that you were taking an exam. And that�s where he stands today, on a pedestal, intimidating, distant, watched only by a tiny circle of cineastes. I think that over the years we forgot what the early audiences instinctively knew � above all else, Ingmar Bergman was a master storyteller.

Bergman�s difficult. Not to understand, but emotionally tough. He shines light into the darkest corners of life. He asks us to empathise with complex characters who, although very human, are not particularly loveable. Then he spins his stories over an emotional rollercoaster, taking us on a quest for the truth, truth that explodes the little lies that make life comfortable. To watch a Bergman film you have to be willing to invest all your humanity, to open yourself up, to care about life so much you want to know the truth though heaven may fall. It is not intellect Bergman demands so much as courage.

Bergman�s also difficult because he explains nothing. He doesn�t force his ideas into the mouths of his characters. Like Hollywood he tells stories visually, writes naturalistic dialogue and layers his meaning in the subtext. Unlike Hollywood his films are not tales of wish fulfilment, telling seductive lies about how everything works out for the best.

1a: The Film

�for now we see through a glass, darkly:
but then face to face; now I know in part;
but then I shall know even as also I am known

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