The Under Ground Writing Project

Making writers right since 2008.

Notes from Under Ground Post New Entry

The Improbability of Infinite Progress

Posted by Oliver on August 24, 2012 at 9:30 PM

There's a famous thought-puzzle with many forms, the most famous of which is the chicken and the egg problem. (Which came first? Probably the dude. There. Puzzle solved.) My favorite version of it involves sourdough bread, and it goes like this: To be made correctly, every new batch of sourdough bread needs a chunk of the dough from the last batch. Which begs the question, how could the first batch of sourdough bread predate everything? See. A puzzle.


There's a philosophical answer to this puzzle. Philosophy is dumb and needs a schmancy name for everything, and the name for this concept is "the impossibility of infinite regress." Logically speaking, no series of events can stretch infinitely into the past. There must have been a first baker/brilliant marketer who invented bread-gone-sour, because we can logically argue that sourdough bread didn't just bake itself. An baker baked, and sourdough bread resulted. The argument of a natural, spontaneous explosion of sourdough bread is always an option, but it's still an argument that, at some point, sourdough bread wasn't, then it began...


This would appear to be evidence that human minds are hardwired to include structure in comprehending the world. We want to see that things have a comfortable termination, whether it is where those things start, or that they end. Cap'n Hair wrote a good summary of the psychology and necessity of sensible endings in fiction a couple days ago, (discover it here). Go read it. It'll give this one context. From here on I'm going to look at a few endings that I view as successful, concentrating on how they signalled the end had come.


Seven Samurai is a film by Hiro Kurasawa about seven samurai--shocking! It starts (you can't think about endings without thinking about beginnings, so that's what's with all the fucking talk of beginnings when this is about endings--shush!).... Thank you. It starts with a little village having problems with invaders. They require defenders, and can pay the defenders nothing, and samurai tend to be expensive anti-invader systems. Hoping to essentially plead to the charity of samurai, the villagers go to the local...hub of samurai activities is what it appears to be in the movie. Long story short, they discover one samurai who wants to help. He's called Kambei. What Kambei wants from the rest of his life strongly impacts how the movie is shaped from there on out.


Kambei is a weathered samurai, who wants nothing more than to be done with fighting. He doesn't want to help the village because he doesn't want to be in any more battles. Eventually he agrees to help, because he's a good dude--honorable and such--and understands their plight. He is then able to do what the villagers couldn't do by themselves: lend legitimacy to their pleas for help. Kambei begins recruiting other samurai, and soon has two more dudes: Kasushiro, a teenaged rich boy who wants to be a samurai and has ultimately good intentions; and Shichiroji, another weathered campaigner who's an old friend of Kambei's.


Not too far into the movie, Shichiroji and Kambei have a conversation in which they muse that this battle could be the last one, both of them smiling about it, almost happy at the idea that they could soon die in battle and end the fighting. The conversation was significant. Explanation below.


Kambei continues recruiting samurai till he has seven guys, including himself. After Shichiroji, the remaining four samurai are all men in their prime, experienced and ready for a fight and not yet tired of it. These guys, the last four samurai, all have many years' possible service to honor and the movements in the world, and they're wise enough to know what they should do. So the adventure begins.


Over the course of the movie, three particularly relevent things gradually progress. The first is the Kambei, our weathered campaigner, tries to keep the teenage rich boy Kasushiro out of harm's way. Kambei is wiser and more experienced than the headstrong rich boy. Kambei knows best. And Kambei clearly wishes to keep the rich boy away from the long, tiring life of a samurai.


The second relevent thing that happens--important to the movie, though secretly much less important to the point I'm making--is that the seven samurai save the village.


The third relevent occurance is this: Four samurai die. The four who die are all the samurai in their prime who I have not here named. The rich boy, Kasushiro, survives, as do the two old campaigners on their ways out. Kambei, Shichiroji, and Kasushiro survive this story.


The movie ends a little bit after the battle for the village is saved. Why, might one ask, would a movie about saving a village not end precisely when the village is saved? The answer to that, my dearies, is that Seven Samurai is not about a village being saved. Seven Samurai is about seven samurai. The movie ends with a great shot. The three surviving samurai looking up at the graves of the samurai who died. Go find a screen shot of it. It's a good shot.


The samurai standing on the left is Kambei, in the middle is his old campaigning buddy. The hot rod kid is the other. The four swords in the top of the hill are the graves of the other samurai.


Good stories end frequently with enduring images. In Cap'n Hair's example, there's a complex image of heartbreak. The King Arthur legend ends with an image of the dying king sailing across the mysic lake to Avalon. Frankenstein ends with an image of the monster wandering into the wide world. Strong images encapsulating...something. I'm still unsure what.


Seven Samurai, a story about an old soldier who just wants to be done with all the dying, ends with an image of that old soldier looking at the graves of younger men, an old friend at his elbow, and the a kid--new generation eager for the fight--receiving his first taste of reality. Kambei survives. He also gets to watch a young samurai grow. So that's not all bad.

Tying my concept together is somewhat tricky. Some dude once advised not to confuse activity for story, or something to that affect. What one might take away from this treatise, as far as advice goes, is a suggestion for a process. Begin by examining the story you're writing. It is no doubt filled with all kinds of motion and excitment. If you are thoughtful, then it also has at its core somebody who is trying to do something--to gain something, accomplish something--something personal. Everything must have an end--there's philosophy supports it, the improbability of infinite progress--and every enduring story ends when your character either gets or doesn't get his strongest personal desire. Usually, the most elegant stories end when he doesn't get what he wants, but he gets something better.


And then the whole world exploded!

Categories: Endings, Patterns, Advice

Post a Comment


Oops, you forgot something.


The words you entered did not match the given text. Please try again.

Already a member? Sign In

1 Comment

Reply Shane
12:54 PM on August 25, 2012 
Okay, Seven Samurai happens to be one of my favorite films of all time. I think you hit on some good points. The story takes the typical ideals of right and wrong and turns them on their heads. First we get to see how hard it is to convince a "noble" samurai, even one down on his luck, to help out for very little reward (they get some rice balls). Then we get to see that the poor villagers aren't all so nice and even worth saving in some cases. The reason you may think that stories where characters don't get what they want are more elegant is that if we see it coming, there is very little to reflect on. However, sometimes the elegance isn't earned through the ending, but in how we get there. A story that is too straightforward can be boring. But there are a lot of different aspects to a good story that elevate it. The ending that goes slightly, or completely, beyond expectations is just one of these. Now go watch The Magnificent Seven and tell me if you think that this retelling of Seven Samurai meets your criteria.

Oops! This site has expired.

If you are the site owner, please renew your premium subscription or contact support.