Resolution is important. You’ve spend all that time getting involved in the characters’ problems, intrigues, romantic complications etc., and you want a properly satisfying climax to all that. When Poirot winds his web of words around the murderer during the denouement, or Rick tells Ilsa to go with her husband – whether it’s a cheerful resolution or a sad one, and no matter the genre or medium, there’s that sense that everything is wrapped up in a way that life so seldom offers. The strands of the plot are tied up and everything, for a moment, makes sense. It’s one of the best things about fiction.
They’re hard to create, though, and easy to get wrong – to make overlong or dull or just unconvincing. Luckily, every now and then, you can get away with a neat trick: you can simply cheat. Providing – and this is important – you’re really, amusingly blatant about it.
Let us take, for example, the 1950s musical comedy Anything Goes. I love the plots of classic musicals. As many of my friends have pointed out to me, they often make no sense.* But then, the plot of Much Ado About Nothing makes no sense, and if Shakespeare can do it I don’t see why musicals can’t.
Anyway, Anything Goes is a perfect example of its genre. Bill (Bing Crosby) and Ted** (Donald O’Connor, who you will recognise from Singin’ In The Rain if you are a decent human being) are two showmen about to star in a Broadway show together. But – plot alert! - they lack a leading lady. Before rehearsals start, they happen to travel to England and France respectively and each signs an actress for the role without telling the other. Oops. They all end up on a ship to New York together, songs are sung, and each of the men falls for the actress the other has signed. But there’s only one role, and both women believe they’re getting it. How can they resolve this without losing their new loves’ affections?
This is how.
After various misunderstandings, arguments, sung expressions of passion etc, Bill and Ted go for a walk on deck and discuss their problem. Bill says he’s suddenly got the answer – a way to use both actresses in the play. Ted asks how. Bill tells him. But in front of Bill are two sailors, talking over him. When we come back to the conversation which is resolving the entire plot of the film, Ted is saying, “That’s brilliant!”
I love this because it’s such a clear, fourth-wall expression of the fact that nobody is watching this film for the plot. It genuinely doesn’t matter how they solve that bit of it – in fact, they’ve probably agreed to rewrite the play somehow, which is obviously what they should have done in the first place. So why bore the audience with five minutes of exposition when you can make a joke about it instead? And suddenly, a mostly-average musical is lifted into a moment of fudgy greatness.***
This means of ‘resolving’ a plot has been named, by me just now, The Delicious Fudge. You wouldn’t want it all the time. But if you earn it, it can be just as satisfying as a proper resolution, with a bit of extra tooth-tingling sugary joy added.
A second and rather more contemporary example is the Simpsons episode Das Bus in which the Springfield children are stranded on a desert island. The point of the episode is the Lord of the Flies-style way the children behave while they’re there, but clearly they do have to be rescued. Therefore, we have a voiceover at the end which says: “So the children learned how to function as a society, and eventually they were rescued by, oh, let’s say…Moe.” It’s probably my favourite line in the Simpsons. Again, it’s an acknowledgement that sometimes it’s more fun just to cut the Gordian knot. And burn it and dance a little dance on its ashes.
I had a third example of this, but I now realise that it isn’t exactly a third example. It’s a children’s book – The Tooth Fairy Book. Now, children’s books are often terrible at plot resolution. Most of the Mr Men and Little Miss books have appalling endings, for some reason, and don’t even get me started on Miffy. (If you want good plot at primary school level, just buy all of Julia Donaldson.) But The Tooth Fairy Book sets a new standard for sheer unadulterated cheating by being its own resolution.
In brief: the book’s heroine, a fairy, doesn’t know what she wants to be. She eventually decides to become the Tooth Fairy, a previously non-existent job (very entrepreneurial of her) but she doesn’t know how to tell all the children of the world that they now have a magical friend who will buy their teeth for money (or in this case presents). Her friend the Rainbow Fairy informs her that the answer to the problem lies at the end of the rainbow, so she goes there. And indeed, at the end of the rainbow is the answer, which is… this book. This book, The Tooth Fairy Book, was allegedly written to tell children about the Tooth Fairy – as a solution to its own plot. This book is how the Tooth Fairy is marketing her new skills to her audience. There follow some instructions on how to leave one’s tooth under one’s pillow, proper tooth cleaning etc.
I finished reading this to my daughter with a sense of precisely mingled irritation and awe. I felt cheated: there was fudge, but the fudge was not delicious. I don’t feel cheated by Anything Goes or The Simpsons. I think this is because The Tooth Fairy Book was not funny. It did not win a delighted laugh from me with its chutzpah. Nor did it earn its postmodern resolution with literary skill, like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which oddly enough may be one of its nearest relations in plot resolution terms.
Well, of course it didn’t; it’s just a book about teeth. But it did help me to clarify my thoughts about The Delicious Fudge. The Delicious Fudge has to know what it’s doing. It has to run into the fourth wall with absolute confidence, demolish it, and stand in the wall’s ruins grinning – which is quite a lot for fudge to manage, but you get the idea. That’s how you get the laugh that replaces the satisfaction of a resolution.
One more point occurred to me while writing this. Why did the Delicious Fudge feel so familiar? And I realised that this trope is also how my partner and I sometimes resolve arguments. Instead of trying to unpick the complex, awkward strands of our discussion, one of us will simply make a joke, or do something funny, and somehow everything is solved, or at least stops mattering so much. Doesn’t work for everything. But it’s a great relationship trick.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to eat some fudge.
*I read a Guardian review of the stage show Top Hat which included as a criticism the fact that the plot was silly. This is up there with the Guardian review of the film Mamma Mia which criticised it for having too many Abba songs in it. Some people just do not get musicals.
** Having realised about the names while writing this, I have now mentally rechristened the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Musical Adventure.
*** Average is not an insult. I like Anything Goes a lot. I rank musicals from ‘ok’ to ‘life-changingly wonderful’ with no negative scale. Apart from High School Musical 2.