There are two types of people in this world (I’ll explain them in a bit). I will illustrate the difference between them by discussing how they react to a very particular ending to a specific kind of story.
In this type of story, the big question of the entire book/movie/tale hinges on the sanity of the main character. Are all of the events a figment of his or her imagination? Are we, the audience, watching a downward spiral into madness through the eyes of the protagonist, or is our story-guide the only one in the fictional universe who can see the coming danger?
Pulling off this technique until the end requires skill, because the writer/director/creator must dole out enough information to make it interesting but not enough to give away the answer.
Let’s look at an example.
I just finished watching Take Shelter, a movie released in 2011 that slipped under almost everyone’s radar. Here we have a slow, quiet, thoughtful movie that asks one very simple question: is he crazy or isn’t he?
Michael Shannon plays a family man who starts to have apocalyptic visions (or does he?) and is seized with a choking sense of impending doom (or is he?). Further clinching the answer for the audience is that no one else see or hears these visions. Oh, and his mother was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic when she was in her thirties. WHAM. It’s in the bag, right?
I followed Shannon over to this movie after seeing him in Premium Rush, a 90s movie that somehow got made in 2012. His character was wacky, over-the-top, and refreshing. I’m an instant fan. What we get in Take Shelter is a subdued portrayal of a man who will do anything to keep his family together, even while dealing with the fear that he is truly insane.
I’m not going to spoil it for you because it’s worth a watch. Just be warned: it’s a slow movie. But HOLY CRAP, did I enjoy the ending. If you see it or have seen it, you will realize which of the two types of people I am once the credits start to roll (and probably even by the end of this post).
The two types of people are:
1.) Those who want the craziness to be real (i.e., not imagined). These people want monster stories to be about monsters (I’m looking at you, The Village) and they want an element of the otherworldly mixed in with their human struggles.
2.) Those who want it to be imagined (i.e., all in the character’s head). This expectation is anchored in the real world—no magic, aliens, etc. These people are all for the human struggle aspect of a story because (and this is my personal opinion) they can more easily relate to it. As soon as the dragons turn out to be real, these people Clap Off their lights and go to sleep (bit of a generalization, forgive me).
The way this type of story ends will affect how a person thinks about the entire product. Up until the reveal during the finale of a film, the person could have been saying it was the most fantastic movie they have ever seen. Then it turns out that all of the craziness was in the character’s head and suddenly it’s a one-star movie. This person wanted monsters or judgment day or aliens or whatever. They didn’t want it to be another story about some person losing their mind. But the other kind of person prefers this ending. They want a real, human story. Do they feel the meaning is diminished if the character isn’t actually crazy? I’m not sure. But I think a story can still be human even if it isn’t just about humans, know what I’m sayin’?
I, for one, feel a very particular kind of rage when this type of movie ends the opposite way I desire. I bet it’s the same way for people on the other side of the fence as well. But maybe not. Maybe everyone just shrugs their shoulders and moves on. I think I’ll work on that right after I get d—OH COME ON, M. Night! They were PEOPLE in MONSTER SUITS?!?! Really?!?! (Eight years later, by the way, and I’m still mad at that guy.)
I guess for a story of that kind to appeal to everyone, the storyteller has to never fully reveal the truth (the spinning top of Inception, for example). Instead, it’s left as a question—one that, if posed correctly, will have people guessing at an answer for a long time.
Which type of person are you? Do you want the supposedly insane character to have been right all along, or do you prefer a “real” explanation that requires the revelation of true insanity?