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A popular writing theory states that any story worth telling describes the movement from one status quo to another, and that major uncertainties in the inception and conclusion should be avoided.

How does one break away from this mold, and could you provide educational examples of stories that have successfully done so?

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    Can you tell us why you want to "break away from this mold"? In what way is it holding you back from the story you want to tell? – wetcircuit Jan 13 at 23:32
  • @wetcircuit: I could see this working in a sort of tragedy where the MC fails to develop even though they've had their chance to do so (Dubliners comes to mind) – Sara Costa Jan 14 at 0:36
  • @wetcircuit: or a story where a rebel fails in their fight against the evil empire, but, again, it'd be a tale of failing to reach one's goals. – Sara Costa Jan 14 at 0:46
  • In very general terms you'd need to erase the characters memories as well, or hint at the fact that the story is one of many countless cycles so that it had no marginal contribution to the characters experience. – NofP Jan 14 at 11:14
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    @Weckar E. I think you need to better clarify a "new status quo" - how is it different from "resolved conflicts" (if different at all)? – Alexander Jan 14 at 21:38

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A popular writing theory states that any story worth telling describes the movement from one status quo to another, and that major uncertainties in the inception and conclusion should be avoided.

Uncertainties "should" be avoided because as human beings we long for a satisfying conclusion. Up to a point, we expect to be told if the main character gets to live happily ever after. But that, per se, doesn't make the story more worth telling. It makes it easier for us reading it.

So, back to our question, other users already mentioned formats (like slice of life fiction) where a new status quo is not necessarily required.


Another example of this may be thrillers, when they are episodic in nature. We may have a detective dealing with a particular killer in the course of the book. When the book ends, you may say that the status quo is re-established when the killer gets caught. But this isn't always a new status quo: it's just a problem that gets solved in the arc of the novel.

Take for instance Jo Nesbø's character Harry Hole. When he solves the case, he's still pretty much the same Harry Hole that we had at the start. He will be more scarred, sure, he may have solved some of his personal issues and opened new ones, but he'll still be the character we know in the next book. At large, the setting will be the same as well: colleagues, general worldbuilding, and so on.


Lastly there are books that deal specifically with this. In King's The Dark Tower series, at the end of the seventh book, we discover that

literaly nothing changes. The main character is stuck in a loop, and goes back to the start of book one with only a minor item under his belt that may (or may not) help him in the next iteration.

King himself breaks the fourth wall in the book and discourages the reader from reading the true ending in more than a paragraph. He is aware that it will be not satisfactory for most readers, and it does leave a bitter aftertaste, but it's a pretty relevant example for our discussion, since "The Dark Tower" had huge success and it's widely considered King's magnum opus.

Notice that, while no new status quo is estabilished, the whole story remains worthwhile. Roland's struggles are still interesting to read, even if his journey is somewhat doomed from the start.


I think that Murakami's books can be an example of this, also. While he does provide endings to his stories, it's often unclear what happens to his main characters, and I'd say that most questions remain unanswered.

A clear example of this is Kafka on the shore, whose ending is almost completely open to interpretation, and a similar case could be made for Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Leaving things open to interpretation means that there is no clear-cut on what happened. It can be frustrating, of course, but it can be done; and maybe one of the main virtues of those books is not forcing an happy ending where there ought not to be one.


So, to sum up:

As readers and humans, we enjoy the feeling of closure. But that is not a sufficient, nor necessary condition to tell a good story.

Stories with a clear path from condition A to condition B are indeed common, but this doesn't mean that they are the only stories that can be told.

I imagine that the popular writing theory that you refer to says that as an over generalization to help aspiring writers. It's easier to stick to the basic plot of well-known structures (think about the three-act structure or the Hero's Journey), that are also well-known to the audience too. In general, giving closure (and a new status quo in some genres) is much more likely to make a story feel more complete, more satisfying.

But - as writers - we need to remember that, even if it may be more difficult, we are allowed to leave questions opened, and characters unfinished, to prove a point or evoke certain feelings in the audience.

  • It seems all your examples still end with a status quo, just not a new one. Is this an incorrect reading? – Weckar E. Jan 14 at 20:48
  • @WeckarE. It is a reading. In the thriller example the status quo isn't altered, yes. In Kings and Murakami's examples, though, I think you're missing the bigger picture - there is no clear-cut closure at the end of those books, and thus, no definition of what the "status quo" may be. – Liquid Jan 14 at 22:05
  • Don't forget the classic 1984. – JAB Jan 14 at 23:15
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That's pretty basic structural advice, aimed at producing a enjoyable reading experience, so you wouldn't expect to see it often violated, even in otherwise very different stories. With that said, I can think of a few categories of examples that transgress this rule:

  • Deliberately iconoclastic and/or experimental fiction: A prime example is Samuel Delany's Dhalgren (in my opinion, one of the great all-time achievements in the world of literature). The ending descends into contradictory, fragmented metafiction, it's strongly implied that the ending takes place before the beginning (and also after it), and a lot of what seems to have been established as the new status quo is directly subverted. The Upshot: In my opinion, this is a success, but it's a deliberately rule-flouting work by an eccentric genius, and plenty of people hate it, so it's really more the kind of exception that proves the rule.

  • Stories that end before they fully resolve: My favorite movie, Children of Men, ends without letting you know what happens to one of the most central characters. It's hard to argue that a new status quo has really been achieved here. On the other hand, the main POV character has a complete story arc. The Upshot: Maybe that's the key to making it work. You need to have some sense of completion, even if you're short of full resolution. There are plenty of other examples of this, although people tend to be divided sharply on whether they like this or not.

  • Episodic or Ongoing Work: The Chronicles of Amber is one long ongoing adventure, and every book, including the last, ends with some cliffhangers and unresolved questions. The series is continually introducing new status quos (is that a legitimate plural?) but there's never any suggestion that any of them will survive for long. The Upshot: It works great if you want to keep your audience hungry for the next book.

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The mold you want to break away from has - in my point of view - two distinct but collaborating aspects:

A. A change in Status Quo and
B. Avoiding Uncertainties at start and finish

Now I like to apply mathematical logic to most things and if that theory states that a story worth telling consists of both (say: A AND B), breaking away from this mold means telling a story worth telling that does not apply to this rule.
This means any story that is not an "A AND B"-story that is worth telling would break away from this mold.

"Not(A AND B)" is actually a logical expression which resolves to "Not A OR Not B", so logic tells us that breaking the mold means having one of two things:

  1. No movement from one status quo to another
  2. Major uncertainties in the inception and conclusion of the story

1. Status Quo

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines status quo as the existing state of affairs.

Now that is a definition that can be interpreted in a very broad manner. I think it means the state of things as they are at a certain moment of time.
If we now consider two moments of time: The start and the end of a given story we see that we cannot escape moving from one status quo to another unless nothing happens or the story loops.

Now I think we can agree on the first of these two options being rather boring but we actually see the second one happening, e.g. in stories about time travel. The stories end where they started and even though it seems that nothing has happened, the stories are worth telling. They stimulate discussion and thought towards the subject.

2. Uncertainties

There is some ways to do this. Most popular ways are the "slice of life" story or the "cliffhanger" (there's not always a sequel)

  • the "slice of life"-approach tells only some of the story of a given set of protagonists leaving an open beginning and an open end. The reader is abruptly thrown into their world and sometimes sucked out of it as abruptly. Still, since the stories mostly focus around one major plot point, they often are worth telling.
  • "cliffhangers" leave the reader with an open ending ... everyone can finish the story for himself and the author has no intention of tying up loose ends

Conclusion

In conclusion I think it is possible to break away from this mold but it could prove hard to be successful going this way. Open ends, infinite loops or the feeling of being tossed into a story sometimes give an impression that the author did not know what he/she was doing, even though it might be intended.

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A typical story finds the MC in a certain status quo (both for the character themself and for the world around them) and ends with the MC having overcome a series of events. At the end, there is a new status quo for the MC and, maybe, for the world around them.

What is the objective of this typical structure? To tell a satisfying story of growth and, possibily, self-discovery.

Why would one want to break away from the rule? Well, it'll depend.

Situation 1

"Eveline", in James Joyce's Dubliners, presents the story of a young woman stuck in a despairing life. She has one chance to break away from it all but, at the very end, she ends up not taking the step forward. She went through the events that would allow the character to grow and attain a new status quo and, instead, shrank from the change and remained as she was.

What effect did the 'break from the mold' create? The image of a person who, given the means to save themself and start a new life, is unable to do so. Perhaps the author wants to point out some people are impossible to save, or perhaps the fault was the world around which effectively twisted the MC into a helpless being, stripping them of the imagiantion and will to swap despair for hope.

So, if the objective of the author is to focus on the reasons why a person/character would refuse to improve themself or their situation, this is a good option.

Situation 2

Although I can't think of an example, another situation would be the MC who strives to change the status quo of the world around them. A rebel freedom fighter, for example. The tale would start off with a tyranical world and a group of fighters trying to change the social status quo. But perhaps, through all the events, all the fights, the rebels end up exactly where they were and the dictatorship remains as unshakable as at the beginning.

There may have been growth for the main characters. Personal goals may have been attained. But the fact remains: both the rebels and the dictatorship are still in the same spot. Perhaps the moral is that a group of freedom fighters cannot succeed because it takes an entire people to raise their collective head and fight.

Or perhaps it's a serial story and the only growth is within the characters, with a token victory - or defeat - thrown in occasionally. Of course one would expect the status quo to change eventually. Slowly. Perhaps suddenly at the end of the series. Nevertheless, there would be a lot of episodes where the characters would go through the motions without any change to the status quo.

Situation 3

One could play with partial status quo changes. I think the first film of the Matrix (have never seen it but have heard a lot about it over the years) may fit the bill. The status quo of the MC (Neo) changes as he stops being a normal person and becomes a warrior, but the world around him is still the same. This particular example works because the goal of the characters is to radically change the status quo of their world.

Another example would be the opposite: the efforts to change the status quo of the world around are successfully but the MC remains essentially the same. So you'd start with a warrior fit to live in a warring world but, as the world shifts from war to peace, the warrior stops belonging in it because they didn't shift their ways. This makes me think of countries ravaged by war for so many generations, that people may have difficulty re-imagining themselves -and re-making themselves - as anything other than soldiers, killing, pillaging and destroying. Literally, because that is all they have known.


Conclusion

For one to break away from the rules, one must understand why those rules exist, what they create. Once one understands them, then one can twist them in order to create something different but very specific.

Above all, know why you want to break away from the mold. Then you'll know when and how to twist the rules.

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Many books follow a hero that does not really change; consider detective novels going back to Sherlock Holmes.

What is essential for a story to be entertaining is that the book is spent on a hero solving a difficult problem; but doing this does not have to upset the status quo, or change the hero, or change the world at all.

In the course of the story, Sherlock begins in his study, gets a visitor, finds the killer and then returns to his study, and the case never needs to be mentioned again.

And that's true for all the other investigators, mystery solvers, secret-agent stories and most "exploration" stories, like Star Trek. For modern series there is usually some long-running arcs for characters, but not always. Many follow the model of Captain Kirk and his buddies encountering something new, getting into trouble, getting out of trouble by wits and derring do, and then laughing about it on the bridge as they move on to the next adventure: Status quo undisturbed.

You don't have to create a new status quo at all.

As for wrapping up uncertainties; you cannot leave plot uncertainties unresolved; but others you can. By plot uncertainties I mean events or decisions that the plot turns on. If Mary gets a mystery note that makes her visit the brewery and that is where she sees a murder, or that is where she sees something new that lets her solve the crime, then you must explain where the mystery note came from. Otherwise you have a deus ex machina; a too lucky coincidence in the reader's mind, and that is not a satisfying story. Because protagonists are not supposed to crack the case by luck or coincidence, they are supposed to use their wits and skills.

That said, if one of the complications in the story is Mary dealing with a chatty new neighbor, as long as the new neighbor doesn't have anything to do with her case, we don't have to explain why she has a new neighbor; that is just something that can happen to all of us. And although many writers might be tempted to solve the new neighbor problem by the end of the book, it could equally be left unsolved to provide for a humorous ending.

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P. G. Wodehouse, one of the greatest authors of all time, rarely if ever reached a state change of anyone in his stories. But his are mostly romantic comedies.

I guess the point is a state change is needed if it is needed. (look at Seinfeld. nothing ever changed)

with comedies, a state change is not necessary.

with epics, I think it is hard to get away with not having any changes of states.

  • Situation comedies on television usually rely on the status quo being restored at the end of each episode, so you are right to say that comedy is different. – S. Mitchell Jan 14 at 18:17
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Any story that has an open-ended ending essentially does this. Star Wars is a great example. At the end of the first movie, most of the personal plotpoints are fairly well wrapped up, but some are left to sequels. Yes, the rebels won this battle, but what about the rest of the war? What happened to Luke's parents? What will Darth Vader be up to? Clearly, Star Wars; Episode 4: A New Hope does not end with a new status quo.

Lord of the Rings does something similar. Yes, the Ring gets destroyed, Sauron gets defeated, but Middle Earth still has a lot of problems. The Entwives are still missing, orcs still exist and still hate everything, Melkor is still out there somewhere trying to corrupt things, and the elves are still fading away. Again, not a status quo.

So basically, the key is to not wrap up every plot thread. Just wrap up a handful of major plot threads.

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    I think this is different. While some plot points are left open, both in Star Wars and LOTR a new status quo is well estabilished. In LOTR, is clear that Aragorn is now king and will propel the Age of Man over middle earth. It's not important that we don't see it happening, but it's heavily implied that Gondor's political and economical power is restored and will be mainly influencial over the next centuries. So, plot points or character arcs left do not undermine a status quo. – Liquid Jan 14 at 9:48
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Slice of life describes the depiction of mundane experiences in art and entertainment. In theater it refers to naturalism, while in literary parlance it is a narrative technique in which a seemingly arbitrary sequence of events in a character's life is presented, often lacking plot development, conflict and exposition, and often having an open ending. (ref)

Slice of Life is an old genre (despite the popularity of the term now in anime/manga) but is one way to do as you suggest.

Many other novels use other methods to avoid tying up their loose ends. Sometimes the primary plot point is resolved, but not always.

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Breaking a particular formula just for the sake of braking a particular formula seems pretty self-obsessed to me.

If you have a story, tell it.

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Another standard non-status quo changing device is: TIME TRAVEL!!!

It is one of my favorite bullshit writing crutches.

After many BIG adventures, and more trials and tribulations, your heroes can triumph and yet not change the future. So while there is some character growth... the overall scenario does not change.

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