Those employed teaching fiction-writing and literature usually have more strenuous criteria for what “works” than the mass populace, as generating such criteria is pretty much what we’re paid to do (varied as compensation might be). We read to engage, whereas the masses, more often than not—not to generalize too much—read to escape. In “Narrative Spandrels,” one of his craft essays on fiction-writing in The Half-Known World, Robert Boswell offers an explanation for how objects in narratives can be used to provide emotional closure in a way that “works”:
…a story’s narrative is typically structured by scenes. The construction of any scene will generate by-products—a lamp that flickers, a passing stranger who comments on a main character’s shoes, an incontinent dog, a green light at the end of a dock, a stutter, a tattoo of a spider’s web, a pattern in the snow that makes the character think of pitted cheeks. These by-products come into existence to make the scene more vivid and complete, but they may ultimately determine the design of the narrative mosaic to such an extent that they will appear to be the primary units of structure.
Boswell first goes through two somewhat belabored metaphors before he gets to this explanation. The first metaphor involves how evolution used to be misunderstood, with people thinking animals survived by adapting over the course of their individual lifetimes rather than the surviving animals already possessing an adaptation that enabled them to survive and that thus got passed on to future generations—so giraffes didn’t get long necks by stretching to eat leaves in tall trees and actually making their necks grow; the giraffes that didn’t die out were the ones whose necks were already longer, so all the giraffes with shorter necks died out and future generations all selected for the long-neck adaptation. The second metaphor, involving architecture, is where the essay’s title comes from. A “spandrel” is an architectural feature of cathedrals that “is a by-product of placing rounded arches side by side.”
Boswell says the spandrels seem like such a natural and integrated part of the design that some people could think the archways are the the by-products of trying to make the spandrel, but really it’s the other way around. The spandrels are something that happened incidentally; they were not planned or intended or contrived.
He then goes on to describe Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” in which the cat the grandmother is hiding causes a car accident that leads to her and her family’s death at the hands of the Misfit. Boswell believes the cat entered the story, like the architectural spandrel, as a by-product: “in the course of inventing the character and the initiating action, O’Connor stumbled upon this feline detail,” which winds up being the critical element that guides the story to its conclusion.
That is, an object that shows up early in the story comes back at the end, but the writer put it in early in the story without necessarily intending it to come back. Then, when they were trying to figure out how to end the story, they realized they could use this object they’d already put in the story for a different reason. This makes stories feel more natural than if you knew at the beginning you needed something for the ending so you planted it in the beginning; such intention and planning would feel heavy-handed and unnatural.
In his discussion of spandrels Boswell identifies the difference between scenes that “work” versus those that don’t—meaning those that are, to his mind, contrived. He uses, among other examples, a scene from the movie Picture Perfect (1997) as an example of the latter:
While he’s lying on her couch, she tells him about a watch she used to own that she had loved, a Cinderella watch. Much later in the film, she discovers that he has sent her a present—a Cinderella watch. This gift encourages her to realize that she really does love him. The watch is meant to function as a spandrel: something introduced early on in the context of a scene recurs in a manner that propels the outcome. The Cinderella watch, however, is very clearly NOT a spandrel; it is an obviously planted symbol. The watch does not initially come up as a by-product; rather, the scene has no purpose but to supply an opportunity for the conversation, which, in turn, has no purpose but to plant the idea of the watch in the viewer’s head. Any discriminating viewer recognizes this as a phony moment, and the watch’s return comes across as a ridiculous contrivance to forcibly compel closure.
One cannot believe the Cinderella watch is a by-product of the scene because the scene does nothing but introduce (and thereby POINT AT) the fact of the lost Cinderella watch.
Boswell may or may not be insulting the intelligence of rom-com viewers; at any rate, the Cinderella watch has been helpful for me to wrap my mind around this concept.
I will now attempt to redeem some of Jennifer Aniston’s literary panache (while providing another example to elucidate narrative spandrels) via her more recent and dramatic movie Cake (2014). Is its eponymous symbol a spandrel? Aniston’s character, Claire, suffers from chronic pain after surviving a car accident that killed her son, and the movie begins shortly after the suicide of Nina, a woman from Claire’s support group. Claire starts seeing visions of Nina, who encourages Claire to kill herself. Late in the film, Claire has a vision of Nina bringing her a cake, which we learn in this scene is what Nina told the support group she wished she was capable of doing for her son—bake him a birthday cake. Claire later ends up taking in a runaway whom she asks to bake her a cake (which the girl does before absconding with everything valuable she can get her hands on), and Claire gives the cake to Nina’s son for his birthday, along with a kite the kid mentioned to her in a previous scene, when Claire was riding in a car with him and the kid’s father, Nina’s husband. This offering is supposed to be cathartic for Claire, whose meanness and anger in the wake of the car accident has driven away so many people in her life. And yet, it has problems similar to the watch in Picture Perfect: the cake and the kite don’t really come up all that organically. It seems like the writers knew Claire needed to give Nina’s son something to close the arc of Claire’s emotional transition and worked backwards to put in the scenes planting what would be meaningful things to give the son. In the scene where Claire has the vision that introduces the cake, she’s in the hospital after trying to kill herself, a natural enough place to have a potentially redemptive vision, I suppose. But in the scene where the kid asks for the kite, they’re in the car driving to…nowhere that actually matters to the story. They’re just driving so the kid can ask for the kite. The scene is, as Boswell would say, a “phony moment.”
But despite these shortcomings, and its being “a redemptive arc you could trace with your eyes shut,” Cake does at least one thing better than Picture Perfect: it makes use of a real spandrel in addition to its planted eponymous symbol.
In scenes throughout the movie (including but not limited to the one where the kid asks for the kite), Claire rides in vehicles’ passenger seats that are reclined all the way back so she can lie flat—otherwise the pain is too much for her to ride in a moving vehicle. The fact that there are many of these scenes prove that none of them exist for the sole purpose of showing her riding in this posture—they exist for other reasons, to show, say, how much her nanny is willing to do for her by taking her to Tijuana for pain pills, or for Nina’s kid to be able to tell her what he wants for his birthday. The character is in chronic pain, so it makes total, organic sense that she would need to lie down like that, while at the same time it provides a visceral visual demonstration of how her pain has sunk her below the levels of others’ normal lives. She can’t drive herself: she’s not in control of her own life anymore. At the very end, when Claire finally visits her son’s grave, she gets back into the car, her seat preset in the reclined position, as usual. She lies down, and her hand hovers over the handle that will raise it. For a second it looks like she’s not going to do it…but then she flips the switch and the seat jerks her upward, toward the camera, and then the shot cuts to the credits. Perhaps it sounds heavy-handed, but in the moment it’s perfectly natural and believable, and was, I think, the main reason this film managed to move me despite the much clumsier use of objects like the cake and a gigantic photo of the dead son her husband mounts on Claire’s living room wall.
Perhaps one way to think about symbols v. spandrels is that the former is trying to make a cake so you can have it and eat it too, while the latter is simply eating cake when cake it’s available. The ultimate point is, canvassing your story for objects you’ve put in earlier without thinking too much about why, just to make the scene feel more real, can help you generate an ending that feels organic. Something you put in early on might seem like a minor detail, but by pulling it back in at the end, and the recurrence of that object will make the story feel more coherent. That object can show you something about how the story should end.
Addendum: As a followup example, I had a student write a story about a man who frequented a bar in a small town, and early in the story it mentioned that he tried to leave the bar at a certain time so he didn’t get stuck by a long train that always passed at the same time:
He liked to know information about people and he always left Benita’s by 1 A.M., because if he waited any later he would have to stop for the night train to pass through town.
Then later in the story the man ends up getting stabbed outside the bar and is left bleeding, possibly to death. He starts hallucinating that the people nearby are people from his past, the revisiting of which causes him to realize some of the mistakes he’s made (an epiphany). The writer does not say explicitly whether the character will die, but ends the story with a line indicating he probably will:
He distantly heard the night train, which meant it was past 1 A.M., and he wouldn’t be getting home any time soon.
The writer did not mention the train early in the story with the intention of using it in the last line. When looking for a way to end the story that was not too “cheesy,” as she put it, she remembered the detail about the train she had used in rendering the character and the setting early on, and pulled it back in, creating an effect that was not cheesy at all, but emotionally powerful.