Imagination is a powerful thing. Any good horror writer knows that the scariest monsters are not the ones described on the page or shown on the screen, but the ones the audience conjures in their own minds. But what about when storytellers aim our imaginations not towards horrors unseen, but at wonderful events that are never to be? What about when they give us fantastic characters full of life and possibility, characters we grow to love and cheer for against all the challenges arrayed against them – and then they take them away, leaving us forever wondering what could have been. What if, what if, what if.
What am I talking about? In my guise as a storyteller, I observe, analyze, and catalog tropes as a matter of course. That is to say, I can’t help it – this thing goes on in the back of my head whether I want it to or not, dissecting the world for its narrative qualities with all the attention and skill of a mad scientist slicing into the brain of a slavering, eight-foot monstrosity, and with about as much concern for the consequences of my actions. Today, I want to talk about one especially notable bit of storytelling wizardry which I have seen used to devastating effect a time or seven. And, I bet if you think about it, you’ll realize you’ve seen it a few times too.
I’ll stop being coy, since I gave away the topic in the first paragraph – “I wonder.” That’s what this is about, stories that leave you wondering about what could have been. By this, I don’t mean that plot threads are left unresolved because they were forgotten, or the author wrote themselves into a corner, or the series was cancelled. I mean when things are left unresolved deliberately, for the effect it will have on the audience. What’s more, this only applies to matters left unresolved which the audience dearly wishes hadn’t been left so. The audience must be drawn in, made to know and care for the characters and the events going on, so that when the loss is suffered or the question is left unanswered, they go “No, no, wait! What happens after this!?” Though, perhaps unresolved is the wrong way to put it. Cut off, perhaps.
You know what? I think it’ll be easier if I give you an example. The first time I came across this, or rather, the first time I recognized it for what it was, wasn’t in an anime. It was in a Star Wars novel. Yeah, I know, some of you are scoffing now, and laughing at my bad taste, but none of that! I was a lad at the time, and didn’t know there was better out there. And you know what? Some of them were pretty good. Case in point, here’s how one particularly memorable event happened.
Once upon a time, there were two Anakins. There was Anakin Skywalker, the one we all know who became Darth Vader, and Anakin Solo, the son of Han and Leia. Yeah, they got married. Like you didn’t see that one coming. Anyway, both of these Anakins died. That’s not saying much, of course – we all die eventually, after all – but they both died in fairly spectacular ways. I’m not going to go into detail about young Anakin Solo’s death, but I will say that he died a hero, and in a way that a much younger Stilts found to be quite tragic. He also left behind a young girl who liked him very much, as fallen heroes are apt to do.
Ever since I read of Anakin Solo’s death, I always wondered about what could have been, in regards to him and that young girl – here I am, showing my hopelessly romantic side again. Sorry. Would they have stayed together? Marriage, kids, the next generation of Jedi brats for young Stilts to read books about? I wondered about these things, wondered for quite a while, and was left restless by the lack of answers. What could have been?! I wanted to know. I still want to know!
And that’s the thing. I still want to know. I haven’t read a Star Wars book in years, and I’m sure that young girl went on to do things I know not what, but I don’t care about that. It’s the untold stories of her future with Anakin Solo that I pine for. Any of you fledgling storytellers out there ever wondered how to dig your claws into your readers and never let go? That’s how you do it. Give them a great character, full of life and possibility and prone to heroic endeavors, and then take them away. Don’t be callous about it, nor abrupt, or your readers will hate you for it instead of the enemies or circumstances that did the dead. You must do it deftly, and well, but if you can do that…you’ll have them forever.
That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about, and I’d wager you’ve seen it before. Let’s get into the anime examples. The first picture of this post is of Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, so it shouldn’t surprise that it’s an example. And in fact, it’s a fantastic example. Who here who has seen it hasn’t wondered what might have been had Mami, or Sayaka, or Madoka lived past the end of the series? We were given tantalizing glimpses of them all together and happy, but it never ended well, and that only made those moments hurt all the more. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is another that left me wondering. First Kamina, then Nia…what may have happened had one or both of them lived? I know that the day I ran across this happy family picture that never was, I badly wished it had come to pass. Oh, if only.
Of course, though these moments usually involve character deaths, that’s not necessary. Romances can also leave us wondering. We were almost left that way at the end of Ano Natsu de Matteru, though in some ways we still were, in regards to the Kanna, Tetsuro, and Mio situation. Angel Beats! is another one I find myself still wondering about from time to time, about whether Otonashi and Tenshi met again in the next life. So many questions unanswered, so much I wish I had seen…
So what’s my point in all of this? I’ve talked for paragraphs on end about stories that left scars on my heart and questions in my mind. It seems at first blush like a story that leaves you wondering hasn’t done its job properly. Fiction is all about escapism, right? Better to clean up the loose ends, Give us a tidy resolution, and let us get back to our lives, right? Wrong. The thing these stories have in common is not just that they are phenomenal stories (in my not-so-humble opinion), but that they have an effect on their audiences. They make us not necessarily think, but feel.
You see, to me the point of fiction has never been solely about escapism. Sure, it is often pleasurable, and I will freely admit to watching many a show that are carefree and silly. Yet, when fiction is done truly right, it can become a lens through which we can see our world in ways we otherwise would not, and experience feelings and events that are beyond our everyday lives, often for good reason. That is to say, a great story doesn’t just entertain, but it teaches us something as well, and has an effect that lasts long after the book is closed or the screen falls silent. Whether that lesson is that even heroes can fall, what is magic is not always right, even going beyond the impossible has its limits, or sometimes the guy and the girl don’t get together by the time the curtain falls, each has something to say, which they pound into us with scenes crafted like emotional depth charges. That’s what stories like this do. They don’t just entertain, but also change the way we think.
But I didn’t answer my own question. What’s my point with all this? The title of this post implies that the best stories always employ this tactic, but of course that’s a bit of artistic exaggeration. What is not an exaggeration is this: stories that do this, and do it well, are fantastic. To have an effect beyond the immediate and stay in a person’s mind for years after the fact is an impressive feat. Perhaps it’s just me, but I like to know why this is so.
But more than that, the better question is, what’s my goal with this post? Other than to relentlessly spew my personal philosophy out onto the internet, I think it’s to change how you view stories just a little bit. Many people see them solely as a means of escape, as distractions from the rough-and-tumble bullshit of everyday life, and nothing more. You, as readers of Random Curiosity, a site which has extolled the virtues of shows like Steins;Gate and Bakemonogatari in our year-end polls, probably do not fall into this category; in that case, I seek only to tell you about one particular mark of good storytelling, and perhaps give you some ammunition the next time someone says anime is only moe shounen nonsense for kids. The fools.
As for the reason why I’m bringing this all up now, you have Aquarion EVOL to blame for that, specifically in regards to the situation with Andy and Mix. With everything that has happened in the last half-dozen episodes, things are looking pretty bleak for them, but I badly want them to have their happy ending, more so than any other characters on the show. And yet, maybe it would be for the best if they don’t get their happy ending, if one or both of them perishes and I’m left wondering what could have been forever more. Imagine it: a future without Andy digging holes, and Mix filling them in; Andy’s hot-headed optimism, and Mix’s dishonest tsundere mood swings; Andy’s silly hat and goofy grin, and Mix’s poofy skirt and big bangs. It would hurt to be deprived of this, but I am sure that I would remember the series for much longer if that future does not come to pass. Perhaps that would make for a better story in the end.
No, screw that. I want that happy ending after all! So what if I forget about this show sooner than I might. That moment where Andy and Mix are reunited, and, dare I hope for it, they kiss, would be simply sublime. You did this, Satelight. You made me love them. Maybe it would make for a better story if we were denied that moment of their glorious reunion, but I don’t care. Sometimes, being remembered forever is overrated. Give them the happy ending they deserve, Satelight. A happy ending with big bangs, plenty of holes, and above all else, each another.