24 March 2012

Inversion Endings, Catch-22, and the Liminal Edge

As a writer, there are a few things that intrigue me, things that I try to pay close attention to both in other stories and in real life.

These include inversions,  the catch-22, and anything that rides the liminal edge, for all change must pass through a period of liminality, and story is change.

Inversion Endings
Have you ever read a story that had a soft, quiet ending? Maybe it's a very good story, and you're enjoying it. You get to that point in the story where you say to yourself, uh oh, there's only a few pages left; how is this going to wrap up?!

And sometimes, when the end comes, it's good, sometimes it's bitter-sweet, and sometimes it's a bit of a let-down.

But sometimes, the ending is incredible! In fact, some stories are composed of little more than an ending, the entire story being nothing more than a setup for the ending, such as the movie 'Sixth Sense'.

Sixth Sense created something called an inversion ending, accomplished by violating the viewers assumptions about the story they're reading. Once you realize that your assumption was radically wrong, you review everything you remember from the story and suddenly it clicks--you've been had and everything was different from what you thought was actually happening. Such an ending can be powerful the first time it's experienced, the literary equivalent of a pyrotechnic display, and generate a good deal of attention. But it may be considered the story equivalent of fast-food if the story doesn't have further redeeming qualities such as fine characters and a strong theme.

Stories with inversion endings can often be sniffed out by smart readers, which is a pity because readers will devalue any story they can outguess. Your best ending is a surprise ending.

Catch 22
More interesting than an inversion ending is the catch-22 ending. In this ending, a character is faced with choice, both of which result in equally undesirable outcomes:
A catch-22 is a paradoxical situation in which an individual cannot avoid a problem
because of contradictory constraints or rules. Often these situations are such that solving one part of a problem only creates another problem, which ultimately leads back to the original problem. Catch-22s often result from rules, regulations, or procedures that an individual is subject to but has no control over.
The term catch-22 was coined by Joseph Heller in his novel Catch-22. Initially this is based on the explanation of the character Doc Daneeka as to why any pilot requesting a psych evaluation hoping to be found not sane enough to fly, and thereby escape dangerous missions, would thereby demonstrate his sanity.
 A more abstract way to rephrase what a catch-22 is would be to say that a character needs to accomplish or be A, but in order to do or be A, they discover they need to have first done B. But accomplishing A is a prerequisite for B. Thus, they're in a double-bind with no way to proceed.

A very common example of a catch-22 is the problem some face when finding a job fresh out of college. Many employers require an applicant to have years of experience as well as qualifications. But, the applicant realizes that he has no opportunity to gain any experience at all if no one will give them a job in the first place.

Or say you decided to vacation overseas. You apply for a visa to enter the country. You're told that you need to have actually paid for accommodations in the host country before you will be granted a visa. But, why would you pay for accommodations unless you have a visa? You'd be out a large sum if denied entry.

A story with a catch-22 ending situation is one that readers will have a very hard time guessing ahead of time. The novel I'm working on now has an unfathomable catch-22 ending that I'm quite proud of :)

The concept of the liminal edge means the boundary between two things, it is the edge of a knife, the point of contact, the place where all things happen. All measurement requires liminality, requires a division into units, the edges of those units forming liminal boundaries, such as the space between one and two. When does three end and four begin? That ambiguity is the essence of the liminal.

In Roman times, property owners demarked their property with stone idols, making it a profane gesture to cross the boundaries of one owner's property. So seriously did they take this concept that property owners routinely created spaces between each other's property so as not to violate each other's religious property, resulting in unowned public spaces between property, which became roads in time. And the statues soon became fences. Thus began the liminal practice of the road, the commons between the owned.

Liminality can be seen in nature. Consider the sun, at her most beautiful in her liminal moments--at the sunset of dusk and the sunrise of dawn. Consider the hermaphrodite, a true liminal being somewhere between male and female, feared or revered in various cultures historically as a sign or manifestation of the divine.

Liminality is inherently tied to the concept of change, for in any change of state from A to B there must be a liminal state where neither A nor B exists but, in a sense, they both do. If you're writing a character who is sad but who has suddenly received joyous news, you'd be wise to describe not merely her sad look before the news and joyous look after the news, but an intermediate stage where the two emotions conflict within her and then one wins resulting in that final joyous emotion bursting forth.

So too, situations on mass scale display liminality and should be drawn with it in mind. Rapid inversions of fate are possible right at the moment of victory or defeat, and writing these in, with proper foreshadowing, is one of the best ways to surprise a reader. As such, one might write about the course of a battle, which it seems one side is about to lose, until their reinforcements arrive, the ones that had been lost weeks ago and that hopefully the reader had forgotten about.

In all becoming then, there will be found liminality. One might even write about a character whom is himself a liminal character, in fact these may even make the best characters. Shakespeare was fond of creating liminal characters through the use of disguise and costume, allowing his leading ladies to dress up as men, and vice-versa, and create all manner of confusion and trouble in this guise.

One of the characters I'm writing now is the son of two people from opposing societies. He's a liminal character, and thus the source of all change within the story, in which he acts as the lightning rod, using his dual-nature, a sort of dual citizenship, to violate taboos of both societies and perform that which would be virtually impossible for a member solely of one or the other.

The concept of the liminal edge then has many applications to writing, from the drawing of a character, to the description of all change, be it emotional change or any event the goes from not happening to happening.