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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 31: Tragedy

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 31: Tragedy


Key points: Tragedy is powerful because of the catharsis or emotional release. Even if you don't want to make your whole story a tragedy, you may want to sprinkle tragic arcs in it for extra texture. Tragic flaws can make your characters rounder.

[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And everybody dies.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm dead.

[Brandon] We better be more peppy, before they turn us off. Hi, we're going to talk about tragedy today and we're going to make it fun. A couple of weeks ago, we did a podcast about antiheroes where we realized we had never really talked about the concept of tragedy in writing, which is kind of odd, since it is one of the great classical archetypes for writing. So were going to do a podcast talking about how to write tragedies. This is particularly interesting for me, because I just experienced a really great tragic story, but I don't know if I want to... well, right now if you... ah, I'm just going to spoil it for you. Guess what, Dr. Horrible ends sad.  The Wikipedia article lists it as a tragic comedy. It was genius. I had just experienced this and thought, wow, why is that so compelling even though it's a tragedy?
[Howard] Probably because Dr. Horrible is an antihero.
[Brandon] Yeah. He's not actually an antihero because he's sympathetic. Tragedy. Why do we write tragedies? What's good about it? Why do people enjoy it, or...
[Dan] For me...
[Howard] Classically... sorry...
[Dan] Go ahead, Howard.
[Howard] Classically, I think that the Greek philosophers loved tragedy because of the catharsis.
[Dan] Yes. That's what I was going to say.
[Brandon] That was their big thing. Let's talk about catharsis.
[Howard] They wanted us to have an emotional response because apparently crying is good for Greek people.
[Dan] Crying is good for everybody.
[Howard] I don't like it much.
[Dan] This catharsis, this emotional response, emotional reaction... or I believe that it's strictly called an emotional release... is very powerful. When I look at the movies that I love, so many of them have that, and they have those elements of tragedy. I just watched last night 3:10 to Yuma -- the new one with whoever in it...
[Brandon] I love whoever. He's great.
[Dan] Whoever has got another one coming out soon.
[Howard] He's been in a lot of good films.
[Dan] Anyway. Whoever dies. Spoiler warning. It's really, really awesome. It's sad and it's terrible and because of that catharsis, it's very uplifting at the same time.

[Brandon] Why do you think it is that our society... is it just because we're steeped in this Greek tradition... values tragedy so much more than comedy? Let's get back to defining tragedy and comedy in their classical ways. A comedy being something that ends well -- you don't necessarily laugh the whole time. And a tragedy being something that ends sad. It ends tragically. You may laugh along the way. It's really kind of focused on the concepts of the endings. So why?
[Dan] I would actually say that a lot of our modern culture, movies especially, but it has kind of bled into everywhere, is kind of in the middle of those. Because we have dramatic non-comedic stories that still end well. Hollywood does not like sad endings.
[Brandon] Don't they? Well, you look at the best picture nominations...
[Dan] You'll see them every now and then. But... what won last year? Slum Dog Millionaire? Super happy ending.
[Howard] I think that the guilds of writers and directors and actors place a high value on tragedy, probably because many of them have been classically trained. But the box office values a happy ending.
[Brandon] That's kind of interesting that you would say that, because I used to think that was true. Yet I have seen several times where people have talked about Hollywood endings versus not-Hollywood endings and it's not always happy or sad. It's heroic happy or unheroic sad. If you die heroically at the end of your film, they still like that. It seems like the box office likes that. It does pretty well.
[Howard] But Oedipus did not die heroically.
[Brandon] No, he did not die heroically. He did not die well. And that's kind of the classical concept of tragedy. But... I guess... I may have spoken falsely, because if we look at the nominees, I bet we'll find a large number of tragedies. But if we look at the winners, we'll probably end up seeing the people who... the winners were the ones that were happy.
[Howard] When you talk about what viewers value, so many people complain about what gets nominated for the Oscars that...
[Brandon] Yeah, we probably ought to just throw that whole conversation out. Let's dig into it then...
[Howard] But Jordo can keep it. We'll make everybody listen to it.
[Dan] Pay no attention to that conversation we just had.
[Brandon] Because it's important and poignant.
[Howard] And tragic.

[Brandon] Why do we like tragedy? What are other reasons... why are we writing this? Is it because it's unexpected? I think that might be part of it.
[Howard] I've got a great example of tragedies that we love. The first five minutes of CSI. Those are little mini stories that set up what happens next. Yes, there's a mystery to them, but they are little tragedies.
[Brandon] Something terrible happens to somebody.
[Howard] Something horrible happens. Even if it's just somebody finding a body. Their day got ruined. I think I love watching that because I know that's not me.
[Brandon] What's that Mel Brooks' book?
[Howard] The circumstances these people are in are not circumstances I place myself in. So I can wag my finger at them and say shame on you and it validates my lifestyle.
[Dan] [garbled]
[Brandon] [garbled] morality plays.
[Howard] Yeah. It's a little mini morality play.
[Dan] Brandon, you said that maybe one of the reasons people like tragedy is because it is unexpected. I would actually say the opposite. Going back to the idea of the tragic flaw, for example...
[Brandon] There is the tragic flaw. I'm talking about something else, though. For instance, when you get to the end of a... well, look at Frodo. You don't expect the story to be Frodo fails at the end. When you read Frodo fails, it punches you in the face and makes you sit up and say wow. It's still inevitable, it's surprising but inevitable. It's a great twist. The same sort of thing happens at the end of Dr. Horrible. Not to give away too much. But I'm laughing the whole time, it's genius, it's funny, it's... oh, my goodness. Oh, that's terrible. Oh, that was inevitable.
[Dan] I heard this described very aptly once when someone was talking about the difference between books and video games. They said that the main difference is that in a book, you can do something to a reader they would never do to themselves. If you were playing the Lord of the Rings videogame, you would not have Frodo do that at the end. You would keep going back and reloading your game until you got it right.
[Howard] Or you get to that point in the game and the game designers switch you to play Gollum -- you have to steal the ring from Frodo in time to fall to your death.
[Dan] I'm not saying this to denigrate video games. I'm just saying that in books, we can do that, we can force the reader into an uncomfortable situation, and that's where the catharsis comes from.

[Brandon] I'm still going to rely on my old unexpected concept. Although I'm going to say unexpected yet expected. You're hoping it won't happen, you're watching it happen, there is a fascination. It's the whole car wreck concept. You're watching the car wreck, it's terrible, your eyes are glued to it though because you have to know. You have to know. My mother, when she watched the Lord of the Rings movies, she got to the end... the first one, we forced her to watch, she didn't really want to watch it. My mother doesn't like this type of film, we made her because this was an important experience for her, darn it. She got to the end and said, "Oh, I hope Aragorn and that nice elf girl get together." That was her reaction to it. We had her watch the second one. This is how I know Peter Jackson got the second one down right, is she got to the end and she said, "Please tell me that little Smeagol turns out all right? Please tell me that everything goes well with little Smeagol?" She had to watch the third movie. She actually wanted to. Because she wanted to know what happened with little Smeagol. When Gollum made the wrong choice at the end, it was tragic and terrible for my mother, it was emotional, it was powerful. She no longer was focused on the nice elf woman and Aragorn that... she was into this character and loving this character. That is something that tragedy can do.
[Dan] While we're on the subject of Lord of the Rings, this is something I think that writers can use, is Lord of the Rings is not necessarily a tragedy, but many of its arcs are.
[Howard] Lots of tragic arcs in it.
[Dan] Boromir's story is a horrible tragedy, that's why he's my favorite character of that book. Smeagol is a horrible tragedy. He sprinkles those in with all those other non-tragic heroes, and it gives a lot of extra texture to the book.
[Brandon] Let's break for an advertisement. We are going to have...

[Howard] I got this one. Stephen King writes a whole lot of what I would actually call tragedies because things end badly and we get emotional responses. They are also horror. I'm not going to tell you whether or not Stationary Bike is a tragedy. Stationary Bike is short, it's only about what 90 minutes long?
[Brandon] Hour and a half.
[Howard] Hour and a half long. I loved this book because it inspired me to exercise and warned me away from buying possessed exercise equipment.
[Dan] Always helpful.
[Brandon] That's a very important lesson.
[Howard] Indeed it is.
[Brandon] All right. You can download it for free and give a listen to the story that Howard loved. We won't tell you if it's a tragedy or not.
[Brandon and Dan] Dum, dum, dum.
[Howard] Peddle, peddle, peddle.

[Brandon] For the last third of the podcast, I want to do my standard thing and force us to dig in and speak directly to writers and say how can you use this? What tools can you put in your toolbox related to writing tragedies and how can you make them work?
[Dan] First one, I think, is the tragic flaw. My example for that is going to be... sorry, we keep talking about movies all the time... the original Night of the Living Dead by George Romero. It's a bunch of people trapped in a house. Every single one of them has a tragic flaw. Every single one of them is undone by their flaw by the end of it. It's fascinating to watch and see oh, that guy who has this one thing, yep, that's what does him in in the end. It's really, really well done.
[Howard] I like what you said earlier about whether or not you're planning on writing a tragedy, employing tragic arcs is critical. In fact, it ups the ante a lot. If somebody...
[Brandon] Knowing that it could end... yeah.
[Howard] Not just knowing that it can end not well for a character. If it can not only not end well, but end not heroically. If a character ends like Oedipus, failing abjectly. I think that's a great way to handle some of your characters. I was going to say something else, but I forgot what it was.
[Brandon] Willy Wonka works very well in a similar way... a more obvious way with the tragic flaws leading to people's downfalls. Even kind of almost with Charlie himself.
[Dan] Those tragic flaws are helpful because first of all they round out a character quite a bit. The typical character that you start writing when you first sit down to write your fantasy story or whatever tends to be a little flat, a little too heroic. Giving them a tragic flaw not only creates some tension like Howard said because then you start to think oh, well, maybe his excessive pride or drinking or whatever is going to do him in. But it also just makes that character a lot rounder and a lot rougher.
[Brandon] It also allows you to seed a whole bunch of these in a bunch of different characters and drive your plot by the readers wondering which of them is going to succumb to their flaws and which of them are going to overcome their flaws. I would say that the tragedy used in a toolbox is very important to the concept of the three act format or the three book format. There is a reason why the middle volume often ends in tragedy. Look at the original Star Wars trilogy and you'll have an example of heroic end, tragic end, heroic end used for their proper beats which allows you to have a little bit of each one, but also it allows the third movie to have an extra punch because of the lows with which you are starting. I think it's a wonderful tool to have in your toolbox, so to speak.
[Howard] I can't remember who it was who described the three act format as act one, chase the characters up a tree, act two, throw rocks at them, act three, cut down the tree. Tragedy is at some point during act two, one of the characters pulls out a saw and actually begins cutting off the branch that one of the characters that we like is sitting on, as a result of his flaw.
[Dan] They cut down their own tree.
[Brandon] Right. It can be wonderfully compelling. It can allow you... but it also means that you don't have to end on that note. You can use it as part of a story arc. What other tools can tragedy help you with?
[Howard] I think the catharsis. Coming back to that original point, if you don't have that emotional release, then the tension that you've built up in your story may end up insufficiently fulfilled. If you build up tension and the releases just all joyous, I don't think it's complete. I think you have to have some of that release be of the cathartic unhappy kind.
[Brandon] We've talked about before that some people say... and I won't say whether I believe this or not... but some people say a story is about putting characters through an unimaginable torture and pain for the course of the story. If none of that torture and pain and failing end up in a tragic situation, then what you've done is you've not given payoff to your promises. Someone who is brilliant at this is George R. Martin. He uses the tragic flaw, he uses a lot of concepts of tragedy in his books. It makes them brutal, it makes them almost... I can't take them, because they are so well done that they are so brutal. But if you want to learn how to write some tragic flaws, and some tragic characters, you can look at those books -- or even tragic ends to heroic characters.

[Brandon] Let's go ahead and give our writing prompt to Dan. Dan, what'cha gonna give us?
[Howard] I am sure glad he picked you.
[Brandon] You love it when I do that, don't you?
[Dan] Yes I do you're going to write a delightful story about happy, cheerful woodland creatures who are all horribly killed.
[Howard] You just described Happy Tree Friends.
[Dan] Okay, they are happy, aquatic creatures.
[Brandon] Happy aquatic creatures that all die horribly?
[Dan] Yeah. Okay, I just described The Little Mermaid. You're going to write a tragedy that hasn't already been done before.
[Howard] An anthropomorphic tragedy?
[Brandon] It's already tragic.
[Dan] You're going to write furry fanfic.
[Howard] My fur suit, the zipper is stuck.
[Brandon] Before we go any further, we're going to end. This has been Writing Excuses, you're out of excuses and so are we. Go write.
Tags: catharsis, character, tragedy, tragic flaws, writing excuses
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