No, I’m not having 70s flashbacks. I have instead been asked to look at the components of tragedy in terms of story-telling technique. What are the basic building blocks? Given my penchant for writing tragic endings – or rather, my complete inability to write happy ones – plus my admittedly fading qualifications as a classicist, this is a subject I’m interested to address.
1. He’s A Nice Guy Really
The protagonist has a redeeming feature that lets the audience really identify with them. Orestes is quite a good example of this – his doom was guaranteed when he killed his mother. Not a prime candidate for sympathy, one might think, until you learn that the reason he killed his mother was because she’d murdered his father in cold blood and taken a lover. And because Apollo told him to. So you might conceivably see yourself having the same reaction (especially in the days of Ancient Greece). Which means that everything that follows could have happened to you. This is absolutely key – above all else, tragedy is founded on empathy.
2. It’s His Choice
The protagonist is given a chance to avoid his fate. Pentheus could have freed Dionysus, Orpheus could have not looked back, etc etc. The trick to the heart-wrench is that, in the end, they brought their doom upon themselves despite the lifebelt that was available. Quite often the audience, with the benefit of omniscience, knows that the chance is being offered and discarded even if the character doesn’t, and can therefore feel all the worse because the character is heading blindly towards a bad end.
3. So Close
Victory is in sight, the audience starts to believe that there could be a happy ending after all, and then it all goes horribly wrong at the last minute. Theseus is a good one for this – he defeats the minotaur, escapes the guards, and manages to sail home. But in all the excitement he forgets to change the colour of the ship’s sails to let his father know in advance that he’s alive and Aegeas, seeing the black cloth from a cliff top and stricken with grief, throws himself into the sea. This is a tricky element to play with as getting the timing right is crucial, but it can work beautifully.
4. It All Goes Horribly Wrong
Obviously. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a tragedy. There’s a couple of options with this, though – either it’s the fate long feared, or it’s something completely left-field which the audience didn’t expect. The Ancient Greeks weren’t big fans of the latter option, preferring to signpost everything along the way. The only example I can really think of is Antigone – the protagonist’s impending death is the expected tragedy, which King Creon is finally persuaded to avert. He does it too late so she’s already dead (tragic, but not a shock), but his son has killed himself as a result because he was in love with her. Which drives Creon’s wife to commit suicide too. More tragic – it could have been guarded against but wasn’t because Creon didn’t think it was an issue. As a result, he has lost everyone. That’s another aspect for ‘It All Goes Horribly Wrong’, of course. All. Keep piling up the disasters – why stop at one?! You can take this too far, and shouldn’t do it often, but it’s a good way to drive the character – and thus the audience – past the point of endurance.
5. Nothing Can Be Done
The nail in the coffin, so to speak. The audience is utterly helpless. They can’t warn or prevent, despite having greater knowledge than the character. The important thing is to make them want to – to have them clutching at the arms of the chair, or shouting at the TV screen, but they are completely without power. Provided the author has got the first key part right and made them care about the protagonist, this is the real kick in the teeth.
Obviously the above points are all written from the perspective of ancient Greek theatre, but it’s very simple to transfer them across to a written story. It does need a subtle hand, though. Greek Tragedy was fairly formulaic and no audience wants to feel like they’re just watching boxes being ticked.