Remember I was talking about the five-act structure used in tragedies in my last post?
Act Four is the one that interests me. More than that: how act four is described in that particular definition interests me. (It’s not my definition. I found it online somewhere and I’m a bad person for not sourcing it.)
“tension is heightened by false hopes/fears. If it’s a tragedy, it looks like the Hero can be saved. If not, then it looks like all may be lost.”
It’s about hope and the lack of it.
This is where, in a book that will have a happy ending, you are sitting there thinking, “How are they going to get out of this?” Things are going wrong, they’re getting worse, the characters can’t physically change them, and you have no idea if anyone is going to survive. But that’s a clue right there. If you think it’s not going to work out, it probably will.
And then there’s the reverse. You think it’s going to be all right, it’s coasting along towards an ending where the hero’s goal is achieved and everything is going wonderfully and suddenly, when you hit act five… BAM. They’re dead. It hasn’t worked out.
I’ve read a few books where I was so sure that they were going to have a happy ending, and after the amount of bad stuff that had happened to the characters, I felt they deserved it. I’ll be the last to advocate happy endings, in truth, but in some cases, they’re appropriate. Like The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite. I thought, when I was reading that, that things were going to work out, finally.
When I finished that book, I closed it, and stared at it. And possibly I whispered, ‘No.’ Certainly I described my reaction, later, as ‘YOU CAN’T DO THAT WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT NO’. It’s a book I often cite as being one of the best endings I’ve read, because it’s so heartbreaking and moving. (It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have Tumblr back when I read it, since I would have destroyed the world with my keyboard smashes. Or maybe just my follower count. Not sure which.)
I’ve read books (Messenger by Lois Lowry is a good example) where until a very few pages before the end you’re convinced there is no way out of their situation. So, you assume it’s going to be okay, that they’ll sort it out, because that’s what happens in that sort of book, isn’t it? That’s what structure tells us is going to happen, so it must happen, right?
And then on the very last page, the book breaks your heart.
I love books with sad endings. I love fairytales – the originals, not the prettified Disney ones, the ones full of pain and heartbreak where there are very few ‘happily ever afters’. Why? Because I like books that reflect reality.
But I believe in hope.
I write tragedies. I might have mentioned that. But I don’t like to end them with a death of a character because that seems to suggest there is no story when someone is dead, that there is nothing else. On the contrary. Life goes on, and there is still hope. You have to think about that when you end sad books. There is still something left for the other people.
There’s a song by Frank Turner called Long Live The Queen about the loss of a friend to illness. But I don’t think it’s about death. I think it’s about moving on after death – about remembrance and hope and carrying on, even when everything seems to suck. A lot. You have to carry on.
Sometimes it can seem that the only hope you’ve got is false hope, and you’re telling yourself it’ll be all right because you know the tragic ending is right around the corner. But I think hope is always there, really, in some aspect.
If you carry on, you’ll find it.
(Yes, of course the title of this post is a reference to the fact that ‘A New Hope’ is the fourth Star Wars film, if you include the prequels. It seemed relevant.)