The Master Contriver

Some stories—especially comedies—include a character who seems to have the job of making sure everything comes out right in the end.  Let’s call them the Master Contrivers.

“I manage things a little”

The Contriver doesn’t force things into place.  Rather, she pulls strings.  A good deal of finagling, a certain amount of chicanery, and a talent for talking people into things are generally involved.

Dolly Levi dances with waitersDolly Levi of Hello, Dolly! is a familiar example.  The show starts with an array of dissatisfied characters.  Horace Vandergelder wants a wife.  His niece Ermengarde wants to marry impecunious artist Ambrose Kemper.  Horace’s clerks, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, want to escape their humble jobs for a day—and maybe fall in love.  Their opposite numbers, Irene Molloy and her assistant Minnie Fay, are also eager for a spree and a romance.  Dolly herself, a self-proclaimed meddlesome widow, is ready to settle down with a new husband.

With magnificent confidence, the ebullient Dolly takes on the task of resolving all these plotlines.  She suggests, cajoles, misdirects, confuses, and manipulates until everything works out.  We enjoy how all this frivolity and chaos converges magically to a neatly satisfying outcome, like a sleight-of-hand trick.

Hardly anyone else knows quite what they’re doing at any given time, but Dolly has everything under control.  Even where she lacks a specific plan, she is an expert improviser.  The other characters can safely rely on her to solve all problems.

Wodehouse’s Maestros

Stephen Fry as JeevesThe Master Contriver frequently pops up in P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies.  The best-known example is the imperturbable gentleman’s gentleman Jeeves.  No matter what sort of absurd scrape Bertie Wooster gets into, Jeeves can always find a way to get him out again.  Half the fun is watching to see exactly how Jeeves will pull it off this time.  (The other half is simply listening to Bertie narrate, which is a joy in itself.)

But Jeeves is far from the only Wodehouse example.  At Blandings Castle, the fiftyish but dapper Galahad Threepwood lives up to his name by spreading sweetness and light in the form of good fun, lovers united, and overbearing aunts thwarted.  The lively and irreverent Uncle Fred (Earl of Ickenham) plays a similar role in other tales, to the alarm and embarrassment of his nephew Pongo Twistleton; sometimes these adventures also take place at Blandings.  (It’s too bad Wodehouse never brought Gally and Uncle Fred onstage at the same time—ideally with Bertie and Jeeves as well.  The mind boggles at what wackiness might develop with three Master Contrivers simultaneously at work.)

All the above examples are middle-aged men or women.  The sublime Rupert Psmith (“The p . . . is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”) represents a rare younger version of the merry manipulator.  He actually becomes a protagonist, with his own romantic plotline, in Leave It To Psmith (1923)—at Blandings, naturally.

SF Contrivers

Science fiction abounds in exceedingly clever manipulators, but most of them fit the mold of the trickster-hero rather than the master contriver:  they are frequently the protagonists, and their stories tend to be more serious.  Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, Salvor Hardin, Gandalf the Grey (in The Hobbit), and Seth Dickinson’s Baru Cormorant are good examples.

But the comic contriver is not unknown.  In Heinlein’s rollicking family yarn The Rolling Stones (1952), Hazel Stone, the superficially crusty grandmother figure, is often the one who “arranges things”—including appearing in court to get her grandsons off the hook in a tax case on Mars.

Masters and Matchmakers

The Grand Sophy, coverThe Master Contriver is perhaps most at home in romantic comedies.  Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances feature a few such characters.  Sometimes they’re the romantic interests of female protagonists, since genre romances are fond of dominant “alpha male” heroes.  But one of the most enjoyable is the titular female lead in The Grand Sophy (1950).  Like Psmith and Dolly, young Sophy cheerfully arranges a romance for herself at the same time as she resolves other characters’ star-crossed affairs.

In the musical Oklahoma! we have Aunt Eller, the spiritual counterpart of Uncle Fred.  She’s perfectly capable of pulling a gun to halt a burgeoning brawl (see this clip at about 3:05), but her main job is to guide her niece Laurey to a happy resolution of her uneven romance with the expansive cowboy Curly.

The Warrior's Apprentice, coverAs the third-party plot manager for a romantic comedy, the Master Contriver often functions as a matchmaker.  Hello Dolly! was based on a Thornton Wilder play literally titled The Matchmaker.  Even Miles Vorkosigan, in a gently comic scene in The Warrior’s Apprentice, briefly burlesques the role of a traditional Barrayaran matchmaker for his own lifelong crush Elena and the man she’s fallen in love with.  (Miles’ own romance does not develop until several novels later.)

The Character of the Contriver

A third-party Master Contriver naturally falls into the niche of the benevolent uncle or aunt—a kindly older person who isn’t typically a player himself, but an enabler of other characters’ fulfillment (though we’ve seen some counter-examples above).  In fact, this position is not unlike the role of the fairy godmother in Cinderella.

The role resembles that of a mentor, although, unlike the Missing Mentor of whom we’ve spoken before, this mentor-manager is generally very much present, in the thick of the action.  Yet the Contriver is a little detached, not as directly involved as the principals; she can take things a little lightly.  She can thus be more jolly, less earnest.

Since the Contriver is generally working toward other characters’ happy endings, not her own, she lends the story a sense of generosity.  This is why we don’t mind a character who might otherwise seem manipulative.  We typically think of “maniuplative” as a troublesome trait, not an appealing one.  But an avuncular figure who can be trusted to manipulate people only for their own good becomes an asset rather than a problem.

The Atmosphere of the Story

It helps make a comedy pleasant when there are people disinterestedly spreading sweetness and light.  This is why the Contrivers play so well in comedies of manners and romantic comedies, where the plots have to be intricate, but light-hearted.

Since we’re typically dealing with interpersonal relations, not slam-bang action plots, Master Contrivers achieve much of their effectiveness by influencing other people.  For this reason, they generally possess considerable personal magnetism or “charisma.”  This, again, adds to the general air of genial good-fellowship in a comedy.

But the greatest effect on the atmosphere of the story, I think, is that it’s reassuring to have someone around who can be trusted to untangle all plotlines to a happy ending:  “till by turning, turning we come ’round right.”  We come into a comedy expecting things to turn out well.  The more the happy ending is in question, the more the story begins to look like a thriller rather than a comedy.  If Dolly or Gally is on the scene, we can rest easy on that score, and enjoy the ride.

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Future History and Happy Endings

Stories and Endings

We talked last time about SF writers’ fictional histories of the future.  There’s another feature of such backgrounds that must be taken into account.  One of the downsides about a future history is that it blunts the effect of a happy ending.

Those of us who enjoy traditionally constructed stories like to see a happy ending.  It won’t be unreservedly happy, of course.  A story is better if, as TV Tropes puts it, the main characters earn their happy ending—which means they will have gone through a lot of trials and tribulations first.  And there are likely to be losses along the way:  people who die, possibilities that are lost.  But it’s more satisfying if some good is achieved, or at least preserved, in the course of a story.

Even those who scorn the happy ending as naïve generally aim for some sort of closure or conclusion.  It’s pretty generally unsatisfying to read a tale in which nothing at all is accomplished or resolved, even in part.  Such stories exist, but I suspect they appeal mainly to readers so convinced of the meaningless of life that they perceive a pointless story as an affirmation.  For purposes of this discussion, I’m going to assume that one of the elements we look for in a good story is at least some degree of favorable outcome.

Of course, defining the ending of a story is always somewhat arbitrary.  We decide to stop narrating at a certain point, even though life goes on.  (Even in James Blish’s The Triumph of Time, which concludes with the destruction of the universe, new universes are going to be spawned from the death of this one.)

Lakeshore, sunset, coupleThis is particularly true of love stories.  Alasdair MacIntyre once remarked that in Jane Austen’s novels, marriage occupies the place that death occupies in real life.  It brings events to a conclusion.  So it is with many or most love stories, which focus on the formation of a relationship and how it reaches some watershed moment—frequently the commitment of marriage.  Stories about how a healthy marriage proceeds, though exceedingly interesting and valuable, are much more rare—and much harder to write.

And this reflection begins to illuminate our problem.  If we go on telling the story after the high point of the marriage, we run the risk that subsequent events won’t live up to that peak of expectation.  For example, I’ve seen several sequels to Pride and Prejudice that pick up after Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage; but they don’t tend to be nearly as interesting as the original.

This is true not only of love stories, but of all stories.  At the end of Star Wars IV:  A New Hope, victory is declared, the Empire’s plot is foiled, we exit on cheers and applause.  But at the beginning of the next episode, the rebels are on the run—again—and by the following installment, even the Death Star is being rebuilt.

Early Mr. IncredibleThis sort of thing can rather take the bloom off the original victory.  Aaron Leitko’s December 2015 article on Star Wars VII makes this point about “franchises” that don’t end:  “the galaxy can never truly be saved. It is always in peril. With each victory, a new and greater threat amasses over the horizon. Our childhood heroes are destined to struggle onward until they get old, run out of luck, or are conveniently written out of the script following an unsuccessful contract renegotiation.”  One is reminded of Mr. Incredible’s fretful remark at the opening of The Incredibles:  “Sometimes I just want [the world] to stay saved.”  Don’t we all?

Endings and History

A future history, in effect, equips every story in the sequence (except for the last one) with long-range sequels. This means the problem of stabilizing the happy ending applies not only to the individual characters, but to the story’s large-scale outcome as well, like the struggle against the Empire in Star Wars.

Empire (Piper) coverI mentioned last time that H. Beam Piper’s cyclical future history would ultimately have been thrown out of whack by the happy-ending-inducing Fuzzies.  In its original conception, a certain sort of gloom spread over Piper’s future history.  As John F. Carr observes in his introduction to the Piper collection Empire (Ace paperback, 1981), each book seems to offer the prospect of a brighter future, but the books that follow never show that result.  Rather, the promise of each earlier ending is vitiated by later developments.  “At the end of each of these stories it appears as though the self-reliant man has won; however in future stories we learn that while the battle may have been won, the war was lost.”  (p. 9)

Not every imagined history has to embrace a deterministic or cyclical theory like Piper’s.  But any realistic history has to recognize that things don’t always get continuously better in this life.  There are setbacks, reversals, and recrudescences of attitudes and problems we thought we’d disposed of.  We can legitimately hope that our favorite characters’ victories will make things better at least for a while—but the betterment will not last forever.

Song of Roland coverThis isn’t a modern discovery.  The eleventh-century Song of Roland, one of the legends that surround the mythical court of Charlemagne (France’s answer to the Arthurian Matter of Britain), ends with a victory, avenging the heroic death of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew.  But even this somber triumph is not final.  In the very last stanza, Charlemagne is told that he must rally his forces yet again to face a new challenge.  “Small heart had [Charlemagne] to journey and to fight; / ‘God!’ says the King, ‘how weary is my life!’”

Happiness in the Moment

We need to be willing to accept a happy ending that is not unqualified.  Something can be good without being forever.  Subsequent failures do not invalidate genuine achievements.

To enjoy a future history, we have to recognize that the uncertainties of the future do not extinguish the glory of success.  Our newly-wedded lovers, for example, will have their ups and downs, but that doesn’t keep their lives from being happy on the whole.

The same is true of civilizations—the large-scale achievements whose fate is frequently at stake in adventure stories.  The establishment of a better world can make a lot of people’s lives better for a long time, even if that achievement is eventually superseded by later events.

A Midsummer Tempest coverValeria Victrix Matuchek, from Poul Anderson’s A Midsummer Tempest (epilogue), put it this way:  “Nothing ever was forever, anyway.  Peace never came natural.  The point is, it can sometimes be won for some years, and they can be lived in.”

Meta-reading

The Sign of the Sequel

Ever find yourself approaching the end of a new book—and you realize there’s no way the author can tie up the plot in what remains of the novel?  It’s that moment when you realize:  we’re in for a sequel.

That realization may be awful, or it may be exciting, depending on how much you enjoy the story so far.  But it changes the way you look at the book you’re reading, to know it isn’t complete in itself, but only part of a larger tapestry.  Your sense of the pacing and the shape of the story has to adjust.

Book, fanned openBut the story alone hasn’t told us there will be a sequel.  Rather, we’re drawing on something outside the text itself—our knowledge of how much of the book remains—to tell us something about the story.

Years ago, when I first read Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation, I almost missed the last chapter altogether.  The conclusion of the novel consists of a series of successive surprises, each overturning the last.  The second-to-last chapter seemed to end so conclusively that I only turned the page because I was in the habit of reflectively turning over the blank endpapers of a book.  —And there was the final chapter!  I could only make that mistake, however, because the last chapter was so short—six pages in my hardcover edition.

It’s harder to make that kind of observation in an e-book, where there are no physical pages to observe.  You can usually find a percentage or “location” indicator, but it’s not quite as obvious as the physical thickness of the pages.

Let’s call this process of drawing on outside information “meta-reading.”

Sources of Meta-Information

There are a number of sources from which we glean this meta-information, consciously or not.

Starting from the broadest case, we get some information from the genre to which the book belongs.  If you find a book in the science fiction section of the bookstore, then no matter how mundane the opening scenes may be, you can be pretty sure that something out of the ordinary is going to turn up at some point.  If you’re reading a genre romance, you can rely on the ironclad rule that a genre romance must have a happy ending:  either “happily ever after,” or at least “happily for now”—HEA or HFN, in the jargon of the trade.  Even if the characters’ relationship seems doomed as you approach the ending, you can be pretty sure it’ll turn out well—which may not be the case in a “mainstream” novel.

Getting to know an author’s habits and preferences is another way to guess what’s going to happen in the end.  If we’ve read a fair sampling of an author’s work, we can gauge fairly well the chances of a happy ending, the likelihood of violence or sex scenes, the kinds of characters you’re likely to meet up with.  It’s a little more tense approaching the end of a book by a new author, because we’re not yet familiar with what kinds of tricks the writer may (or may not) be willing to pull at the denouement.

Then there’s the back-cover blurb, or the flyleaf—often the reason we pick up the book in the first place.  The half-dozen paragraphs or so of teaser text on the flyleaf are designed to tell us just enough to get us interested.  They shouldn’t give away the whole plot, but they do create expectations—which the book as a whole may or may not meet.  Something that comes as a complete surprise to the characters may be something the reader is already primed for, because it’s part of the plot setup that the blurb describes.

Reviews take this principle further.  A review may include spoilers, but even without actual spoilers, it tells is something even before we open page one.

Once we get into the book, there are still more clues.  Chapter titles are out of fashion these days, but if there are such titles, they inevitably tell us something about what’s going to happen.  In my current novel-in-progress, I use temporary chapter titles that remind me what happens in the chapter, but remain obscure enough not to telegraph the outcome to test readers.  Still, when you reach the chapter titled “The Battle of Tremont,” you’re inevitably going to have an idea what to expect.

Finally, in the example I started with, the length of the book tells us something.  As we move through the story, we can measure our sense of pacing with the literal progress through the pages.  There have been a number of cases where it’s looked as if the plot was being wrapped up nicely, and I’ve looked at the mass of material still to come and thought, Something’s bound to come unglued here . . . or we wouldn’t have a hundred pages to go.

Setting Expectations

This kind of insight relies on an awareness of narrative practices.  There are internal necessities to good storytelling.  Guessing the imminence of the climax from the number of remaining pages, for example, depends on our assumptions about how much time after the climax will be devoted to wrapping things up—which, in a long story like The Lord of the Rings, can take quite a while.

Likewise, gauging the amount of space needed to resolve the plot assumes that the plot will be resolved:  good authors, at least, don’t leave things totally dangling.  Our use of meta-reading plays off our assumptions about how stories are told—and can go awry if the author’s views are radically different from the reader’s.

For that very reason, the writer of a story has to take into account the context in which the reader encounters the story, and the expectations raised in that context.  The reader doesn’t come to the story as a blank slate.

If there will be major surprises in the tale, the writer (and publisher) need to make sure they aren’t given away in the blurbs.  If the author wishes to undermine the expectations created by genre classification or advertising, it’s important to be aware of the consequences.  Subverting reader expectations can be illuminating and satisfying to the reader, but it can also be annoying and frustrating. The implicit contract between writer and reader—‘I’m going to tell you a story you will enjoy’—places boundaries on just how subversive one can be without leaving the reader feeling cheated.

The writer’s conversation with the reader, then, extends well beyond the contents of the text itself.  It’s something that’s useful to remember for the writer—and the reader as well.