How to tell a story where everyone knows the ending

Actors Leonardo DiCaprio (L) and Kate Winslet (R) in a scene from the movie "Titanic" which was nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards 10 February.  Among the nominations "Titanic" received are for Best Picture, Best Actress for Kate Winslet and Best Director.     AFP PHOTO      Paramount Pictures/20th Century Fox/mn
Spoiler alert: The boat sinks. (AFP PHOTO Paramount Pictures/20th Century Fox/mn)

While I wait to hear how The Ghosts of Reseda High does in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, I’m starting work on my next novel, Amiga. This book describes the early days of the personal computer industry.

But it is a story where we already know the ending. Commodore went out of business in 1994. Attempts to revive the brand and its products have mostly failed (although there is still an Amiga, Inc.) How do you get readers to care about characters when they know they’re doomed? How do you build dramatic tension when readers know their fate? How do you tell a story where everyone knows the ending?

We can start by looking at the perfect example of a story where everyone knows the ending, the 1997 movie Titanic. (I must give the obligatory spoiler alert warning, but you probably already know the story.)

When Titanic starts, we already know several things about the ending. We know the Titanic sunk, of course. We also know that Rose survived and lived long enough to go on the expedition. When Jack shows up, we know he’s the one who is going to die (but could have lived if Rose scooted over and let him get on the door).

So, why do people get so involved with Rose and Jack?

We find ourselves caring about the characters and their romance. We know Rose is trapped in an unhappy engagement and a restrictive, unfulfilling life, and Jack is the key to her having the happiness and freedom she seeks. We get so wrapped up in their story that we almost forget that the Titanic had an appointment with the iceberg. Even when the inevitable happens, we still hope that somehow both Rose and Jack can escape. And they go through a number of close calls until they reach the ending we know was coming. By that time, we’ve become so deeply connected to the characters that the outcome still hits us hard. In fact, it hits us harder because we already know what is going to happen.

Tragedies that seem inevitable to us in hindsight weren’t even considered by the people who experienced them. Everyone who went on the Titanic expected to arrive in New York. John F. Kennedy sat down in his limousine in Dallas mentally preparing the speech he was going to give later that day. People boarded airplanes on 9/11 planning to catch up on their reading or do some work on their laptops. No one expects disaster, and even as it unfolds, they either can’t believe it is happening or if they are aware, they expect that they can survive.

The key in fiction is to provide that same sense of normalcy before the unexpected. Get characters to carry on as if everything will go as planned, as if they can continue their relationship when they get to their destination, as if nothing terrible would ever happen to them. All of this adds to the dramatic tension because we know what is coming. When it hits, we can feel the terror more strongly because we put ourselves in the character’s place. We have seen mundane situations like the kind we are in every day go horribly wrong.

Of course, the failure of a computer company is nothing like a tragic ship accident or terrorist act, but the same sense of normalcy and shock can work there too.

In 1985 when Amiga takes place, the future of the computer industry was still unknown. When people thought about business computers, they thought about IBM, not Microsoft. Apple made waves with the Macintosh, but stumbled financially and ousted Steve Jobs. On the other hand, Commodore had a best-seller with the Commodore 64. The Amiga seemed to have as good a chance as any to be the computer to dominate the market. The fact that it wouldn’t didn’t cross anyone’s minds, especially its most ardent fans.

Remember that even when we know how the story ends, our characters don’t. We need to get the reader invested in those characters, to care about them, to get them to buy into the characters’ belief that nothing will happen to them, and if it did, everything will turn out fine. That’s the reader hopes as well, even as the reader knows the character’s inevitable fate.