Storytelling: A Study in Opposites
The more I read and the more I write, the more I realize that storytelling is really the art of opposites. This is one of those things that we already know but becomes difficult to put it into practice. The same way that you can hear a song and know how it goes, but then when you try to sing it, it comes out horribly. I’m sure there’s a neuroscientific explanation for that particular phenomenon, but I believe the same thing holds for writing.
Even Aristotle understood that stories are about opposites, typically from the protagonist’s reversal of fortune from good to bad due to his own character flaws.
This structure of opposites is very well exemplified in Blake Synder’s Beat Sheet. I highly recommend the book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder if you’re interested in storytelling structure.
Let’s look at one of the most important opposing pairs in any well-structured story, the opening image and the final image.
The Opening Image & Final Image
According to the beat sheet, the opening image and the final image of any good story should be opposite images. This is the easiest way to show that change has occured in your story. No change, no story.
An example of this is Fahrenheit 451.
Here’s the opening image:
“It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.”
The novel starts with Guy Montag doing his job as a firefighter, burning down a house that has books in it, and enjoying it.
Now here’s the final image:
“But now there was a long morning’s walk until noon, and if the men were silent it was because there was everything to think about and much to remember…Montag felt the slow stir of words, the slow simmer. And when it came to his turn, what could he say, what could he offer on a day like this, to make the trip a little easier?
“‘And on either side of the river was there a tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.’
“Yes, thought Montag, that’s the one I’ll save for noon. For noon…When we reach the city.”
The bit of context here is that Montag is walking back to his now-bombed city to help rebuild, and he’s trying to remember something from The Book of Ecclesiastes that he can contribute, since the city and so many books have been destroyed. So whereas in the beginning Montag starts out as a book burner, by the end, he’s trying to remember and preserve what used to be in books and be part of the rebuilding effort.
In simpler terms, he goes from a destroyer to a creator.
Brave New World
Another example is Brave New World.
Here’s the opening image:
“A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.”
The final image is:
“The door of the lighthouse was ajar. They pushed it open and walked into a shuttered twilight. Through an archway on the further side of the room they could see the bottom of the staircase that led up to the higher floors. Just under the crown of the arch dangled a pair of feet.
“Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south-south-west; then paused, and after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left. South-south-west, south-south-east, east…”
In this opening and final image pair, we see life and death. Brave New World opens with a description of the fertilization room, where the citizens of the state are engineered and incubated. The Director is explaining the modern fertilization system that results in the Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons, the caste society that BNW is about.
The final image is death. The character of John, who was born on a savage reserve and then visits this society, is so horrified by its emptiness that eventually he hangs himself.
Those are just two examples from the books on my list.
The opening and final image are a bit easier to ascertain in movies.
For example, in Inception, the opening image finds the main character, Dom, washed up on a beach, regaining consciousness. The first thing he sees a ways away are his children playing in the sand, but their faces are turned away from him as they run away.
The now-famous final image of Inception shows Dom entering his house (to Hans Zimmer’s incredible soundtrack), taking his top out of his pocket and spinning it on the table to ascertain if he’s dreaming. But when he sees his children, James and Philippa, who turn towards him, he forgets about the top and rushes to greet them, the moment he’s been dreaming of the whole movie. The camera pans back to the top, which is still spinning, but also starting to wobble, before cutting to black.
There are a few opposites nested within this opening-final image pair. The first one, that we realize only later, is that the opening image is a deep layer in a dream, and the final image, presumably, is reality (dream-reality). The second set of opposites is that James and Philippa’s faces are hidden in the opening image, and we see them in the final image when they turn to face Dom (hidden faces-visible faces). A third set is how the opening image ends and how the final image begins, which I didn’t mention above. So the opening image ends with Dom being take off the beach by Japanese soldiers to see Saito. We learn later that he has to save Saito from this extremely deep level of the subconscious. The final image can be said to begin with Saito making the call so that Dom can enter the United States a free man. Indeed, this was the deal Dom and Saito made, if Dom incepts Fisher, he can then go home. That being the main plot, it is present in both opening and final image.
The opening image and final image are one of the most important pairs of opposites a well-structured story must have. It’s the easiest way to show that change has taken place in your story. As we’ve seen above, it applies to both books and film. Next time you’re reading a book or watching a movie, look out for the opening image and final image. A well-crafted story will present these as opposites. Indeed, that change from opening to final image is what the story should be about.