Writer's Guidelines: Rules for Writing High Tragedy

As part of an occasional series (i.e. when the mood takes me), I'm writing analyses of story genres and components. The few I did were on Rules for Writing Classic Teen Movies... an analysis of the new category of Not Quite Teen Movies (or Anti-Teen movies)... and the observation that Ferris Bueller's Day Off isn't really a teen movie at all - in fact he's the Trickster archetype - aka Loki.

From here on out, I'm going to put "Writer's Guidelines:" at the beginning of posts which perform this kind of analysis. Note - these are all my own personal definitions, and might not agree with the traditional definitions (some of which go back several thousand years to people like Aristotle). As such, they come from the perspective of ... well... if you wanted to write a classic movie - the kind that would have people talking about it for decades - how would you do it? This is my take on it. It may be wrong in places - but that's what the Post Comment button on the blog is for.

So without further ado...

What is High Tragedy?

Let's look at some examples of what is tragedy, what is high tragedy, what is retro-tragic (i.e. doesn't make itself apparent as a tragedy until after one knows the story), and so on:

What Dreams May Come, Titanic, >Gods and Monsters, Episode 8 of the new series of Doctor Who (Father's Day), When the Wind Blows, Moulin Rouge and The Messenger are all examples of high tragedy stories.

Shakespeare In Love, and Romeo and Juliet are simple tragedies - not high tragedy. Star Trek 2: The Wrath Of Khan crosses into tragedy (or is it high tragedy?) when Spock goes and gets himself irradiated. Similarly, in Star Trek 3: The Search For Spock, the destruction of the Enterprise is a tragic moment.

Some stories are not obviously tragic at first, but become so as the story evolves - Requiem For A Dream, Leaving Las Vegas, Dead Ringers (although it becomes high tragedy at the end).

Some movies paradoxically don't actually become tragedies until the second watching. Examples of this include Donnie Darko, Memento, City Of Angels. They may have elements of tragedy in them, but to take in the full scope of the high tragic story arc, one must have global view of the story - and that requires familiarity with it while watching it.

So What Makes Something High Tragedy and not plain Tragedy?

Tragedy is a story which leads to an unhappy ending for one of the characters. Most importantly, the stakes must be high (death, loss of friends, family or loved ones, unrequited love) - losing money at a gambling table is not tragic; whereas a gambler who cannot control himself and so leaves himself millions of dollars in debt to a loan shark who will kill him is.

The difference between a tragedy and a high tragedy is that in high tragedy, the audience knows well in advance that the only way out for the characters is the unhappy ending. The perfect high tragedy establishes the stakes and the unhappy ending at the beginning of the movie, and the rest of the movie only serves to explain what events lead up to the ending.

The high tragedy ending must be telegraphed; that is, it must not be a surprise. It must be an obvious conclusion to the events we are seeing onscreen. Unlike the murder mystery, surprise is the last thing we need in a tragedy. There is no twist at the end. The job of the writer is to start with hints at the ending, provide a multitude of ways out of the situation, and then to prune them all away one by one until by the end of the story there is no choice left to the tragic figure but to conclude the story as the audience already knew it would.

Tragedy is not about surprises. It's all about giving the audience exactly what you told them would happen.

Pacing then becomes one of the most important elements to the story; for maximum emotional impact, ways out of the scenario must be presented, and then each one must be taken away. They do not all have to be presented at once, but they must be logical and consistent with the story, or else disbelief will be broken.

There's an important side-note to this, and it gives us the difference between a heroic tragic figure and a non-heroic tragic figure. The heoric tragic figure makes a choice - through either deliberate action or inaction - to help others by facing the unhappy ending head on. The non-heroic tragic figure is either oblivious to the plight of others, does not care, or tries to take them down with him (which, by the way, is the hallmark of your traditional good vs. evil morality adventure yarn - viewed from the right perspective, the villian is a tragic figure, because the good guy always gets the bad guy in the end).

Not all tragedies must end the story at the point of tragedy; however, the climax must be tragic. For example, in What Dreams May Come, Robin Williams plays the tragic hero character Chris. The story is high tragedy, because we are shown Chris's wife Annie's unending descent into depression and eventually suicide - and Chris's increasingly failing attempts to reach her and bring her back end with him deciding to succumb and live in the hell of her own making forever. However, unlike other high tragedies (Gods and Monsters, the ep. of Dr. Who, The Messenger, Titanic), the story does not end with the tragic ending; Chris's sacrifice causes his wife to recover - and she brings him back.

(I really need to come up with the right name for this kind of reversal ending - there has to be one, but I just can't think of it right now).

Gods and Monsters is a high tragedy because James Whale (Ian McKellen's character) starts the film out terminally ill - and you know it's only a matter of time.

When the Wind Blows is high tragedy because we all know that trying to survive nuclear war is pretty much futile. And when the two main characters become sick from radiation poisoning, one knows that the end is near. The story is made all the more poignant by the fact that even if they don't know sometimes how deadly the situation they're in is (e.g. going outside and walking through the ashes of the fallout) - we do. And so the next domino falls - and the next - until the story reaches its end, back where it began.

Closely related to the High Tragedy story is the Descent story - examples include Falling Down and Requiem For A Dream which compete for the position of best cinematic example of the genre of all time.

The Descent story type is almost the exact mirror of the High Tragedy story. In a Descent story, the character's own choices and actions are the direct cause of their problems - with external influences only serving to push the character from one faulty judgement to the next, leading inexorably to the Tragedy's unhappy ending. The Tragedy is the opposite, in that the external influences serve to limit the character's choices, removing their options. (As such, Leaving Las Vegas is much more of a Descent story than a Tragedy).

Descent stories share elements of morality tales, by hammering home the "crime does not pay" moral conclusion in illustrative form.

I'll add more to this later, including a discussion of melodrama and its importance in tragedy stories.

About the author

Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.

The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).

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