Storytelling is your chance to play God. But God doesn’t always have to make sense, whereas you probably do. Storytellers know that the proof is in the ending. If it resonates with the audience, if it feels true in light of what’s come before, then they’ve done their job.
Nothing is more satisfying to an audience than the sense that things have played out as they should. This goes for even the most novel or surprising of endings. It is not a sense that can be bought with exposition: “Here’s what you should feel now that we’re done. Let me explain why.” No. Instead, the story itself must have that resonance. To achieve it, there’s a trick that storytellers often use. The trick is to establish some object or gesture or motif or line of dialogue that carries a meaning; to introduce it early; and to reintroduce it late.
I call this trick a touchstone. I’ll use three classic movies as examples.
When it’s time for Rick Blaine to say good-bye to Ilsa Lund on the airfield at Casablanca, he explains to her that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. And then he tells her he loves her. But how does he say it? He doesn’t say, “I love you, Ilsa.” Instead, he says something we heard him say much earlier, in happier times, in Paris, when even the approach of the Wehrmacht couldn’t threaten their love. He said, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
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When he says it this time, we think back on the last time, and so does Ilsa, and she understands—as do we—that despite everything, everything is as it should be and everything will be fine.
When King Kong first carries off the fair-haired Ann Darrow, the place he takes her is his mountain lair. It is the highest point on Skull Island. Once there, he can take a breather from fighting other monsters and look her over. On a ledge overlooking the island, with vast skies beyond, he holds Ann in his giant paw, stroking her with fingers as big as she is. He sniffs her clothes. He’s smitten. We begin to like him. He’s been fighting off dinosaurs for her, after all, and there’s gallantry in that. And, of course, there’s the endearing folly…he’s not the first big lug we ever saw who fell hard for the wrong girl. Now another adversary comes to take her. It’s a giant prehistoric flying creature…up here, the only way to challenge Kong is through the air. He kills this adversary as he did the others, but Ann escapes. You know the story. He’s gas-bombed, taken to New York and chained onstage in a Broadway theater. The swells in their evening clothes gawk. The photographers come to take photos for the tabloids. But when their popping flashbulbs lead Kong to believe Ann’s in danger, chains cannot hold him. He rampages through the panicked city, finds her again, grabs her up and takes her…where? “Kong is heading for the Empire State Building,” says the voice on the police radio. That’s right, the highest point on the island.
At the top, with Manhattan spread out below and vast skies beyond, we know—we feel—that we have been here before. No one has to tell us what we’re seeing or how we should feel. Kong is what he is, and here he is again. So again, here come the inevitable prehistoric flying creatures, only this time they’re World War I biplanes and they’re equipped with machine guns. Who are we rooting for now, and why? Why do we cheer when Kong catches one of the biplanes by the wing and hurls it to the earth? And when at last he’s killed, why are we brokenhearted?
Because we were set up, that’s why.
The opening scene is the death scene for Citizen Kane, when his lips form the word Rosebud and from his hand falls the snow-globe that shatters on the floor. Before long we’ll be flashing back to Kane’s childhood, playing with his sled in the snow when suddenly he’s given over to the executor of the vast estate he has—astonishingly—inherited. Then we find out what happened since then—the restless energy, the ruthless empire-building, the scandal and corruption, the decay. The whole picture’s about a reporter’s quest to find out what made him like this, but the quest never does pan out, and then it’s time to throw into the fire all the old relics of Kane’s life. And so into the fire goes that sled he used to play with, and the flames begin to lick around the emblem of the company that made it: Rosebud. Now we understand.
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” and that scenario atop the highest point on the island—whether it’s Skull Island or Manhattan Island—and the word Rosebud and all its associations . . . they’re touchstones. They’re a reliable technique…a trick.
Think of Braveheart, and that scrap of cloth belonging to his martyred wife that William Wallace carries throughout, which drops from fingers only upon his death, and which reappears in the hand of Robert the Bruce at the moment he decides not to submit to the English lords but to carry on the fight for freedom. Think of Gladiator, and the way Maximus always reaches down for a handful of earth, rubs it between his palms, and sniffs it. When he does that, we know we’re in for a reckoning. Especially when he’s on the floor of the Coliseum, and he’s been mortally wounded, and it’s the Emperor he’s facing at last.
Just keep your eyes open; you’ll see touchstones in stories all the time. Use them in yours.