“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
- Orson Welles, screenplay for “The Big Brass Ring”
As any photographer might tell us, even the most representational art can change meaning with the placement of the frame. Picture a sweet, domestic snapshot of two children playing with a teddy bear on the bedroom floor. If you widen the frame to show the window with a stranger at the top of a ladder peering in, you hint at a far spookier story.
Every story, fact or fiction, requires the storyteller to choose where to start and stop. Reality is never done; as my mother used to say, “This too shall pass.” The artist—or journalist, or historian, or documentarian—must set the frame. Life is full of successes and failures, joys and sorrows, interwoven and each leading to the next. Comedy? Tragedy? It depends where you stop your story.
And with thanks to Orson Welles. Some people think he meant it's all tragedy in the end. Not knowing his context, I can't say what he meant, but I relate to the friend who defined a bad time as the period between two good times and a good time as the period between two bad times.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.