A lot of my favourite books and films feature “flawed” storytelling—whether it’s suddenly ending a story without resolving the central conflict (Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love) or abandoning a protagonist through sudden, off-screen/off-page violence mid-way through (Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory or the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men).
These techniques, if they can be called that, are risky. You can easily lose an audience, as Michelangelo Antonioni did at the Cannes premiere of his now-classic film, L’avventura (1960). The central character disappears in the first half hour and the search for her only provides an opportunity for a new love affair to take place. It’s not difficult to imagine what that original audience was thinking: WTF?
All stories contain a series of subliminal promises between the storyteller and audience, and Antonioni played with this to great effect by intentionally ignoring them. Doing this creates a schism between what’s happening in a story and what an audience feels should be happening. That’s where the gamble takes place.
A lot of what’s said in creative circles about the difficulty of ending stories comes from an inability to see what has been promised at the beginning. The expectations don’t have to be fulfilled in an obvious way—subverting them is more satisfying for audiences because that acknowledges what they’re thinking while simultaneously surprising them.
In Vertigo, Hitchcock offers a few different promises early on. The plot starts off with the protagonist investigating the wife of a college buddy, but her apparent suicide takes us on a sharp turn into the pain of obsession. By the time Hitchcock wraps up the mystery that sent us on this journey, the answers don’t matter nearly as much as the psychological state of the main character. Our expectations are fulfilled, but in a way that bends the unofficial rules of good storytelling.
When developing my first play, Prodigals, I remember trying to answer one issue that kept coming up all throughout the workshop process, and even afterwards in reviews. Set in my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, the story involves a murder trial but puts the focus on a love triangle between three characters—none of whom are the accused. In the play, we never even meet the friend who’s on trial; he’s inconsequential to the story I wanted to tell and his violent, off-screen actions only provide the excuse I need to bring my characters together.
After a workshop production and the official premiere, I adapted the play into a screenplay with the help of director Scott Weber (Desolation Sound) and veteran story editor Brian Casilio. In Canada’s less-than-ideal film funding environment, it was too big of a risk to commit to telling a story with an off-screen murder trial, so I backed off a bit and brought in some of the drama from the courtroom. I later sold the screenplay to Vancouver’s Whiskaye Films, who partnered with Sociable Films (Afterparty) for a production that wrapped early this year. The film stars Sara Canning and David Alpay from The Vampire Diaries.
It feels kinda gross to mention my work alongside such great projects, but I know that I’ve benefitted in the past from hearing other ’emerging’ writers talk about the struggle to tell stories that aren’t so predictable. So much of writing is devoted to meeting an audience’s expectations that we forget that it’s the unique narrative choices that give each story its life. While it’s hard to take these risks in independent feature films, where financial concerns sometimes motivate more conservative (i.e., bland) storytelling, that shouldn’t totally negate the urge to incorporate “flawed” creative choices—even if it means people are scratching their heads a bit.
I think audiences easily forget stories that follow overly formal storytelling. For me, it’s the intentional imperfections that stick out and make for worthwhile narrative experiences.