The Monster at the End of this Book, Arrival, and How Nonlinear Stories Help Us Think
Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
“There is a monster at the end of this book. So please, do not turn the page.”
Sesame Street character Grover pleads with the reader to be reasonable and not continue reading his story in the modern children’s classic The Monster at the End of this Book (by Jon Stone). If you’ve never read this story, the title alone seems to tell you what will happen at the end: a monster will be revealed. And as both the main character and narrator of the book, Grover speaks out of the pages, breaking the fourth wall, to appeal to the reader’s sensibilities to cease reading—with the certainty that they share the same fear of monsters he has. As the story progresses, his pleas become more frantic until, alas, the end of the book is reached and the discovery is made that Grover himself is the monster.
When aspects of the end are revealed from the very beginning, they can add layers of mystery, weight to character development, and provide fodder for examinations of our own lives.It’s a nice little narrative twist on what might otherwise be considered a spoiler from page one—from the cover and title, even. The knowledge that there is a monster at the end of the book is never withheld from the audience, it is carried through as part of the participation in the story itself. The revelation that the monster is Grover, the very character who is not only terrified of monsters, but who has been warning the reader away from finishing the book, only serves to elevate the experience of the story.
When knowing the end of a story is part of the narrative structure of the beginning of a story, we carry a special knowledge through it with us. It is a knowledge that grows and matures as we go, and it can introduce a virtue to the story that wouldn’t otherwise exist there. Not only does it cause us to work out what makes the ending that was revealed to us a worthwhile one, but it adds weight to every decision made by the characters along the way—characters who also know the end from the beginning, as Grover knows there is a monster at the end of the book. These things, in turn, invite us into a more active participation in the story, because we—like the characters—know the ending. Thus we also question each decision made and feel a challenged levied against our own judgments.
How a story is structured is often one of the greatest tools for manipulating audience participation in it, and although the example of The Monster at the End of this Story is a simplistic one, it’s a good way to demonstrate how the composition of a story can elevate an audience’s experience with it. Rather than spoiling elements, when aspects of the end are revealed from the very beginning, they can add layers of mystery, weight to character development, and provide fodder for examinations of our own lives. Such stories can help us to ruminate on how nothing in our lives is unintentional or without meaning.
The 2016 science fiction movie Arrival uses nonlinear storytelling to dramatic effect, shifting aspects of the end to the beginning and dispersing them throughout to slowly reveal that what are initially taken for memories of the past are visions of the future. The main character, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is a linguist who has to work out a way to communicate with aliens who have landed spaceships all over the globe, and it falls largely on her shoulders to avoid catastrophic first contact. But the farther she delves into the circular, nonlinear language of the gentle giants who have arrived on earth, the more nonlinear her own thoughts become. As we watch her memories turn into dreams turn into visions, we come to realize that Dr. Banks knows the end of her own story. But we, the audience, don’t come to realize this until Dr. Banks does. Once this revelation occurs and we watch her walk through certain choices in the film—not only knowing how those choices will end, but also knowing that she knows how they will end—the weight of her decisions falls heavier than ever through the fourth wall.
Every act of turning a page is a moment of curious rebellion against fear. It is also an act of faith and trust that everything will ultimately turn out okay.In the story, Dr. Banks has a daughter named Hannah—whose name is a palindrome and who acts as a signifier throughout, not only of the nature of what is actually going on in the story, but of the weight of the choices Louise has to make. Hannah is important for Louise Banks as the main focus of her memory-visions, but Hannah is also important for the viewer: as a character, and as a symbol. It’s not that our lives are palindromic, or that we serve a God who is—or who views us that way, which would communicate an endless cycle of futility—but stories like Arrival that reveal aspects of the end from the very beginning can serve as helpful meditations for us on the nature and scope of our lives in light of eternity. Posing questions such as, “What would we do if we knew the end?” Reminding us that we do know some parts of the end. Challenging us to think about the compounding effects of each of our daily choices. When Dr. Banks learns the non-linear, circular language of the alien race in Arrival, she moves forward simultaneously aware of the now and the not yet. Her decisions carry more weight because of her knowledge, but they are still the same decisions a person like her would be asked to make in her place regardless of her special knowledge. A decision to make a phone call, a decision to fall in love, a decision to have—or not have—a child whose end she already knows.
If you know there is a monster at the end of the story, it takes great bravery to turn those pages. For children reading Grover’s tale—especially as he pleads with them to stop—every act of turning a page is a moment of curious rebellion against fear. It is also an act of faith and trust that everything will ultimately turn out okay. A film like Arrival is more sophisticated in form and function, but in revealing aspects of the ending from the very beginning, it asks for the same trust from the audience.
In some stories, knowing the ending as you go makes the ending more satisfying when you get there. Keeping the end always before your eyes makes each choice the characters make of greater significance than it would otherwise be. Your own decision to persevere through the story itself to see why the ending was revealed—like the child who turns the pages to meet the monster at the end of the book—becomes a synergistic participation in the art of the story. Knowing the end, whether happy or sad, becomes more about processing how we get there. It ascribes value to the life lived along the way and weight to the characters’ journeys. It’s not a spoiler to know the ending, in stories such as these. It’s a glimpse of God’s nature, who knows the end from the beginning, who was the lamb slain before the creation of the world. Who planted a tree in a garden and knew his beloved creation would betray him. The end has always been written.
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