Friday, January 29, 2016

Inverse Joy Plausibility

To recap: I'm university this semester, at a price tag of about a thousand dollars I don't have, because I was sticking around to take classes that were discontinued after I decided to stick around this year and thus told my mental health practitioners they had until the end of this semester to manage to smoothly hand me off to someone else, thus I need to keep them until the end of this semester, thus I need to take a class even though the good ones no longer exist.

In that class (only takes one to be a student) the teacher likes people taking notes in the books and wants us to do it.  I'm actually a fan of marginalia myself.  There's so much that we only know about from people scrawling stuff everyone knew in the margins.  That said, I'm not good at making it.

None the less, at the top of the page, over the title, I wrote "Inverse Joy Plausibility".  That's not a fully formed phrase, much less a coherent thought, but here's what happened.

I was thinking, in depth, about a certain kind of story, then I sat down to read the assigned story and got that sort of story vibes, though I dismissed them when the vibes didn't seem to pan out, then I hit an emotional turning point and felt sure that it was that kind of story, and the ending bore that out.

The story was "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin.  It was written on April 19th, 1894 and published on December 6th of the same year.  If you don't want it spoiled, stop reading now or, you know, take this moment to go and read it.  It's not very long at all.

Ok, so what happens is this

  • The main character has a heart condition and they're worried any shock could kill her
  • In comes a telegraph saying that her husband is dead, the husband's friend gets confirmation that he's really dead and then rushes off to try to break the news lightly, picking up main character's sister on the way
  • Main character doesn't have denial or anything, the blow hits her all at once and she goes off to be alone
  • She has a feeling that she's been so conditioned not to feel that she sees it as something external to herself and is afraid when she feels it coming but when it does come...
  • FREEDOM!  In the society (and class) she was in the only free women were widows and where before she'd hoped for a short life because it kind of, you know, sucked, now that she's awakened to this freedom of widowhood she wants a long life in which she is in charge of herself.
  • Turns out her husband isn't dead, he wasn't even near the accident and didn't know there was one.  The shock of the freedom lost does in fact kill her.
  • The doctors assume that the only thing a woman could feel at seeing her thought dead husband alive is joy, so they assume that the joy killed her.  Fuckers.
There is an emotional structure to this kind of a story, and that's what I was thinking about before sitting down to read the story, thus before I knew it was this kind of story.

Things start really fucking bad.  She's emotionally wrecked by the news, sobbing uncontrollably.  When the good part of the situation starts to dawn on her she's afraid of it.  In class there was looking at the exact words and as the teacher put it "When an unknown thing is creeping out of the sky to possess you, that's usually not good," or thereabouts.

But then throughout the course of the story things get better and better.  She realizes the freedom and the more she thinks about it the better she gets.  She realizes that, while she did love her husband (sometimes) and was and will be sad that he is dead (she knows she'll be crying uncontrollably again at the funeral) she cares about freedom more than love and indeed more than anything else in her life.

She seriously went from a position of wanting to live a short life to wanting to live for a long damn time.  And then, when good emotions are at their peak, a twist brings everything crashing down to tragedy.

That works.

We as readers, viewers, listeners, and general consumers of fiction are prepared to believe in a dramatic story in which things get better and better and then a deus ex machina destroys all hope and joy.

But what if we flipped it?

She starts out in a good place, awaiting the return of her love, but as the story progresses there are subtle hints, then not so subtle hints, and finally confirmation that he died on the return journey, she her good place is destroyed and she sinks lower and lower into depression and even reaches the point of being suicidal.  Then, when things are at their darkest, the husband walks in and it turns out that, just like in the real story, he's fine, he wasn't near the accident that was reported to have killed him, and didn't even know there had been one.  Joy reinstated and they live happily ever after.

It would never work.  We can have the out of left field thing in comedy, but not in drama.  Mind you if I remove the last sentence "Joy reinstated and they live happily ever after" it can work.  Think the Twilight Zone episode where it turned out, oops, there wasn't a nuclear attack coming.  What people did in the dark times made it impossible to go back to the way things had been.  There was no returning to the light.  That ending worked.

Down endings, it seems, work.

If him returning had somehow made everything better though, it wouldn't.

It was reported that the husband died and the first thing that happened was that a telegraph was sent back saying, "Are you sure this guy was killed," and the reply was, "Yup, he's totes dead."

To have him return and make everything good would be rejected by the audience as implausible bullshit.  Deus Ex Machina at the worst.  (And you don't even get Dionysus on a crane.)

But to have the exact same thing, return home unscathed after being reported and then confirmed dead with an explanation of "He was never even there in the first place" that works.

Somehow, the idea of plausibility is tied inversely to the idea of good outcomes.  Does this produce joy?  Not plausible.  What if it did the exact opposite but was otherwise exactly the same?  Totally plausible.

It's part of why happy endings are so much harder to pull off.  A lazy writer (which Kate Chopin was not, it's a good story with important things to take from it) can do down endings just fine.  It takes really fucking craft to make a happy ending that resonates with an audience as non-contrived.

For some reason, we're accepting of contrivance provided that the result is "It got worse."

Before looking at Chopin's story focused me on that, I was imaging a land dispute.

Imagine someone's great grandparent's farm.  If it was divided equally at each generation then, depending on how many kids were common in the family, there could be a lot of partial owners.

If they had kids like my dad's family then whoever our protagonist is finds themselves with about 343 family members of their own generation plus however many of of the about 49 members of the previous generation are still involved.  If they had kids like my mom's family then the numbers are a bit more reasonable 8 same generation stakeholders and 4 older generation stakeholders.

Add in a few developers, the city council, a nature conservatory group or two.
If we take this land dispute and have things get worse and worse until the protagonist is going to have to give up because ze doesn't have the funds to compete, and then when all hope is lost the protagonist finds buried treasure, is able to buy out the other stakeholders, and saves the farm then readers are going to cry, "bullshit!"

Flip it.  The protagonist goes around to the various stakeholders and interested parties and slowly, with ever so much difficulty, there's hope and everyone is just about ready to agree to a deal mercifully just before the protagonist isn't able to afford working on this shit anymore.  Then that same buried treasure is found and suddenly everyone isn't willing to agree to the deal because they now believe the property is worth more and now archaeologists are joining the bickering table.

The readers are going to say, "Figures."

I don't really have a point beyond the fact that it seems like people in general find joy and happy endings unbelievable and thus not credible while they're much more ready to find the opposite plausible.

And that makes down endings easy and happy ones hard.  Not that it should be used to judge writers.  The built-in plausibility of of down endings doesn't take away from the craft of good writers who use them.  A lot of writers who do up endings aren't actually up for the task of selling them and so it comes off as forced and false.


  1. (For anyone who hasn't found The Story of an Hour, it's here.)

    I don't think that's the way I parse stories. I'm much more interested in the plausibility of the setup: if the things that happen are things that could happen given the world in which the story is set, and the actions people take are in keeping with their characters, then I'll go along with it whatever direction the plot takes. If you're going to dig up buried treasure, I want to know what it does to the character of the person who finds it.

    So why does everyone think the husband's dead? Why did the newspaper list his name among the victims? If you're writing a literary story you can say that these things don't matter; but I'm a technical reader and a technical writer, and I'm less interested in your artfully-constructed emotional arc than in who these people are and what happens to them.

    So my reaction to this is the same as it would be to the happy version: it's all a bit too contrived for my taste.

  2. "People in general" can have their (fictional) doom and gloom if they prefer so, but they better not expect me to join them. Real life is awful enough - when it comes to fiction, I want all the happy endings. Or at least some semblance thereof. ("Not dead until they show us the identifiable bodies", or, for the less dramatic not-complete-hoplessness, "well, they're still on speaking terms, that's something.")


    See, I prefer happy endings *that I, personally, would consider happy*. And that's a problem. Like, I watched a lot of telenovelas, and more often than not absolutely hated their male leads, so ideal happy ending for me would usually be not "and then she forgave him for being a jerk, and they lived happily ever after", which was the creators' idea of the happy ending, but "and then she killed him, and no one really minded" or at least "and then she told him to fuck off and never come back". It's not really about the implausibility for me - mostly just about supposed good things not being good in my opinion.


  3. I think people are taught that tragedy is real and plausible and happy endings are fake and implausible. I squabbled a lot with English/literature teachers when I was in school because, like, Firedrake, I find that sort of tragic ending to be completely contrived and no better than an equally contrived happy ending. (Personally, I find contrived tragic endings worse because I see them as written solely as a gotcha on the audience. I don't like being punched figuratively any more than I'd like it literally.)

    But that does make it tough as a writer. Because you're right, it's much easier to get people to believe tragedy. Even over the top tragedy that makes the whole point of the story pointless. (Like a lot of Jodi Picoult's books.) Very few people will argue the plausibility of rocks fall, everybody dies, even if there's no place for the rocks to fall from. :\

  4. I read this and have been thinking about...

    As a person who is not a writer and did not take English classes in college or since...

    I don't think I personally agree with this in terms of plausibility, which may mean that I don't grasp what you mean by plausibility, not sure.

    There is definitely the thing where reality gets to be stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense... And I agree with depizan that we are taught that happy/positive things are either not real or not valuable. And that may come from a place where some sadness and failure and conflict is required in any believable or interesting story, but then it just gets... grimdark or soul-crushing and for some reason that's considered more literary.

    Maybe hope is hard to write well? Or hope or joy in the face of loss and uncertainty still comes across as tinged with unhappiness, at least in this culture?