Aaron Smith’s Response Journal


Narrative Closure in Puzzle Films

I am one of those people who, in writing films, contemplates the major narrative twist before thinking about a single character or event. Whether it is manipulating narrator, order of events, point of view, or character knowledge, I’m constantly on the look out for how I can create the next great formal scheme. I’m also told that’s not the best way to begin writing a film.

But I’ve begun to wonder, why am I so enthused with twist films and not art films when both genres contain a high degree of ambiguity, self-consciousness, mystery, and formal play? The answer has everything to do with narrative comprehension. As Bordwell points out in “Subjective Stories and Network Narratives,” “screenwriting manuals that encourage the new “nonlinear” trends in plotting still demand intelligible exposition, unified strings of events, and vivid turning points.”
Here we have the “same yet different” approach to screenwriting: have all the formal play you want, just make sure there’s a causal framework and coherence so that the mass audiences can understand it.

Bordwell also lays out the Hollywood principle that “the more complex the devices, the more redundant the storytelling needs to be.” Indeed, Memento reminds us over and over again that there’s a pattern unfolding. When we see a physical token, we expect to understand its cause and effect. When we see the beginning of one scene, we expect the next scene to end in exactly the same fashion. When we see the black and white, we expect the story to move forwards. Indeed, Memento is both incredibly “daring and obvious.” But that’s also why it is such an amazing film. The viewer never gets bored of the predictable narrative structure nor does the viewer wonder if an important token or event will go unexplained. Thus, the redundancy of Memento assures us that the film will end in a comprehensible, tight package and it (arguably) delivers just that. That’s not to say nothing is left open ended, but there is a clear, dominant interpretation of the story that answers many of the film’s burning questions.

When we watch Memento, we consistently are in flux between confusion and clarity, chaos and order, until finally, the film gives us enough information to tie up the loose ends in a plausible way. While much is left up to interpretation, there is enough narrative closure to give us peace of mind. It’s  this process, going from a state of uncertainty (or pseudo-certainty) to a state of clarity after a particular event or realization, that I love in puzzle films. It’s like working your way through a complex algebraic problem with messy fractions, until you discover that the solution is x=3. Very satisfying. Sometimes I think that leaving too much interpretation up to the viewer is a cop out, a way to end the story without actually having to figure it out. But then again, not all stories should end in a neat, easily digestible way; it’s  realistic and necessary for them to be more complex than that. In that regard, much of what I’ve said about Memento breaks down when you consider puzzle films like Donnie Darko, which intentionally refrains from narrative closure.

It seems many people are OK with not knowing all the answers. That can be the fun in re-watching a film over and over. But what about the puzzle show LOST? If by the end of the sixth season many questions were left unanswered, fans would be furious. There would be riots in the streets. Audiences make such a huge time and emotional investment in a TV show that we need closure. We need to know that there will be light at the end of the tunnel, that there will be a completed jigsaw puzzle after the final piece is put in place.  Some people have abandoned LOST because they fear that won’t happen.

I guess it all comes down to what a particular text implicitly promises. When you watch art cinema, the abrupt editing and lack of causality lets us know that we need to interpret, not understand. We don’t expect a major breakthrough in the end. But when we watch Memento, the redundancy in plot information and narrative structure lets us know that there will be a final breakthrough; it will come together in the end. I hope LOST goes down a similar path. It is awfully disappointing when a puzzle film promises semi-tight closure through its narration, yet fails to deliver. It will be interesting to see how the Singing Detective concludes…
(P.S. My favorite twist ending? A Twilight Zone episode called “To Serve Man.”)


  1. Brett Dollar
    October 16th, 2008 | 12:03 am

    I’m also anxious to see how The Singing Detective concludes, since it seems to combine elements of art cinema and the twist film. Going into the last episode it seems unlikely that all the loose ends could be tied up in a fully satisfying way—I guess I’m expecting a major breakthrough, as the text seems to promise in its self-conscious use of the detective story, a format where the crime is ultimately solved and order restored. I don’t doubt that the story will be resolved, but I’m not sure the payoff will be sufficient to justify the six hours invested in the series. I haven’t watched much LOST, but you make a good point—how can a puzzle show that goes on for so long possibly end gracefully? It’s much easier to tie up a 90 minute film into a neat and impressive package.

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