For almost 110 years, the sinking of the Titanic has captivated the interest of billions of people. Even seven decades after its wreck, explorers and nations alike clamored to find its final resting place, sparing no cost and building special equipment to locate the legend. Since then, various exhibits—like the one I visited in Orlando, Florida—have popped up all around the world to quench our thirst for insight into it. Today, its deterioration concerns many who don’t want it to disappear from the ocean deep. The hype can be somewhat confounding if you contemplate it, given over 1,500 souls perished. Why are we so fascinated in such a tragedy?
As I’ve admitted before, I’m not qualified to rattle on about the psychological reason why calamities and their aftermath rivet us. I can only speak to my observations in my own curiosity about the subject and what I’ve witnessed in others. At the heart of it, it is a story, and understanding its lasting impact can help any kind of storyteller who wants their tale—true or not—to resonate with their audience.
Countless ships have met with the same fate as Titanic, yet most of us can’t name many others. What sets Titanic apart? Sure, its status as the largest vessel of its day plays a part in it, but in my opinion, it was its claim to be unsinkable. It touted a promise it couldn’t live up to even on a single voyage. Nobody could’ve dreamed up a more dramatic irony.
This illustrates how much people delight in a surprise, whether it’s a good or bad one. Nobody likes it when a plot turns out exactly as he/she expects. Those surprises often end up being the most memorable element of the storyline, particularly when it’s near the climax.
To create such surprises, you obviously need a stunning contrast to the rest of the plot that leads up to it, like what happened in Titanic’s case. After I finished reading a highly-praised novel this year, I found myself disappointed with the ending because it lacked contrast. Sure, there was a shocking twist, but it was just as sad as the entire book. I kept waiting for it to round that corner and give the heroin the nice outcome I thought she deserved, but it never transpired. Instead, I felt like it was a waste of my time.
On the other hand, my favorite book had a sad ending, but since the book up to the climax carried a positive message, it didn’t bother me. In fact, the somber conclusion made everything more poignant and enhanced the story, in my opinion. Though I would’ve loved for matters to have resulted in a happily-ever-after for the characters, the way the tragedy changed the hero made it more meaningful.
We storytellers shoulder a lot of weight when we craft an ending, and it’s up to us to decide which kind is better for our story. While we can’t obsess over what will please people, we need to carefully consider the impression we want to leave on them, because that’s what will govern their view of the complete work. We may not have the enduring legacy Titanic did, but even if our story sticks with just a few in our audience, it’s a success.