As readers and viewers, we want our stories to end in a satisfying yet surprising way. As writers, perhaps too often we make it easy. Yet the best stories have deep conflicts that seem impossible to recover from. Sharp and worthy adversaries get in the way.
If you’re the writer, to make your story and ending compelling requires thought and emotion, delaying the inevitable. You need to be willing to structure, to taunt, to tantalize. A case in point is the recently concluded HBO series The Night Of, starring John Tuturro and Jeannie Berlin.
Based on Criminal Justice, a 2008–09 British television series, The Night Of was co-written and directed by Steven Zaillian, known for his scripts to such films as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Schindler’s List, and Searching for Bobby Fisher. Novelist Richard Price, who also wrote a lot of HBO’s The Wire, joined in the writing.
Because this is a case study, I’ll be giving surprises away. Having published two crime novels, Blood Drama and A Death in Vegas, I admire much in this series and understand what the writers needed to do to pull off this mystery. You don’t have to see the series to follow my points. Rather, see how Zaillian and Price deliver so much. You, too, can offer a lot in your own work.
The story revolves around Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American college student who, when his friends don’t pick him up for a party, borrows his father’s taxicab without permission. At a stop, a young woman, Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia) pops in his cab, asks to go to a beach, and when they stop, they talk, drink beer, and take drugs. It all leads to a night of sex and more drugs at her classy upper Westside brownstone. When he awakes in the kitchen, he finds her stabbed to death in her bed, and he flees, observed. He’s soon arrested.
Things stack against him. In fleeing, he cuts himself and leaves blood. He takes the murder weapon, perhaps thinking he did it. He’s Muslim. His parents are immigrants. They have little money for his defense.
Only a few small things stand in Nasir’s favor. He’s likable and seemingly innocent. Also, low-end lawyer John Stone (John Tuturro), visiting a low-end client in jail, sees a vulnerable innocent-looking kid in lockup and decides to defend him.
The Dramatic Question
Let’s pause here. A critical element in storytelling is to set up the dramatic question. Will Nasir, despite prejudice, the skewed judicial system, and the preponderance of evidence against him, be found innocent and let go?
Novice writers often muddy or even avoid the dramatic question. Audiences need to know what to root for on the journey. If an audience isn’t clear who the protagonist is or what he or she needs or wants, the story dies quickly.
I’m reading a script now where, after twenty-one pages in, the story skips ahead twelve years and follows someone else. Now I don’t know who the protagonist is or what either the first big character or the second one wants.
In The Night Of, the viewer, you, believes in Nasir’s innocence. It’s what you hope for every minute unconsciously. You’re waiting to feel good when he’s found innocent. You’d be happy if that happened at the end of the first hour—but would you? We like surprises and doubts. We like to be taken on a journey, even if it’s dark.
Another key element has to do with what is the story about? Why are we spending eight hours on this story or, say, more than seventy hours on Game of Thrones? We never consciously look for a message—and we certainly don’t want to be preached at—but we do seek deeper meanings in our stories. It’s why Christopher Nolan’s films such as his Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and Momento stick with us—because they tell us things about our world.
Here, Zaillian and Price make the viewer question American society and its fairness. We see that justice isn’t just. Rather, police are overworked and look for easy solutions to close cases. The coroner asks the D.A. how should he make the evidence go her way? Innocent people take plea deals to spend only half their life in prison instead of more
Story guru Robert McKee uses the term “controlling idea.” He says that master storytellers “never explain… They dramatize.” A controlling idea should be expressible in a single sentence, a universal truth. As he writes, “The more beautifully you shape your work around one clear idea, the more meanings audiences will discover in your film.”
I never write toward a theme, but at least starting in my second draft, I look for where theme pokes its head out, and I follow its truths. I edit my stories to revolve around its theme, its controlling idea. In the end, your story has to be about something, and The Night Of certainly is. How you get there is most clear in the ending.
The Important Ending
Over the course of the next seven episodes, The Night Of brings many turns and surprises. As in any good story, your hopes build and get dashed. That’s the job of the storyteller.
Nasir awaits trial in Riker’s Island, a dark, brutal penitentiary where his life is threatened. Most of the prison population hates him for being small and Muslim. However, an inmate leader, Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams), who the prison guards let run his little fiefdom, protects Nasir, bringing Naz into the prison culture. Soon Naz works out in the gym, shaves his head, and gets tattoos.
We come to the end, the trial. At this point, Naz looks like a criminal, even if he remains soft-spoken. Stone is not his lead lawyer, but second chair. Rookie lawyer Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan) runs the defense. She essentially talks Naz out of taking a plea deal. Everything is on the line.
Kapoor decides to let Naz testify, against Stone’s strenuous objections. Stone says a defendant has the cloak of presumed innocence, but if he testifies, he’s assumed guilty and has to prove his innocence. When district attorney Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) cross-examines Naz, we see Naz still isn’t clear what happened. He has his doubts. Weiss’s questions hammer home what appears to be Naz’s guilt.
Before this, the viewer has had hopes. We learn that Andrea’s stepfather, the murdered girl’s antagonist, had designs on her estate, worth ten million. He filed for it days after her murder, and the police did not even investigate him. We learn that three other people who met the young couple that night all had criminal backgrounds and motive. The police didn’t investigate them, either.
District attorney Weiss plows through these possibilities, brushes them aside. Naz, she says, clearly murdered Andrea brutally, and when he had a chance to call 911 if he didn’t do it, he did not. Weiss appears focused and brilliant—even if at this point she knows of another more likely murderer.
When Kapoor has to step aside from delivering her closing arguments in a twist that has to do with judicial ethics, the judge forces John Stone to deliver the final thoughts to the jury. Stone, who has had health problems with eczema, has a major flare-up, has to go to the hospital, and now appears before the jury much like a leper. Can he overcome the D.A’s brilliant presentation and make the jury see?
As much as we want that, we have our doubts. Then smart writing and Turturro’s brilliant acting come together. Stone admits he’s not the best lawyer or even used to speaking to juries, not looking the way he does. Still, he focuses on what’s truth and what’s speculation, what’s fair and not fair, and before our eyes, we can see at least some jurers might have doubts about Naz’s guilt.
An old-fashioned Hollywood movie might have the jury come back beaming, eagerly saying Naz has been treated unfairly and he’s clearly innocent. Naz and his family would have a big party, and the girl next door (if there was one) would kiss him and everything would be all right.
Rather, here, the jury is deadlocked, six to six. That could mean another trial. Still, the D.A., knowing there’s a more-likely murderer, drops the case. Naz is free.
It could end there, and we’d be satisfied, but theme now comes most clear. While Naz is free, he’s not the same person. He’s addicted to crack. He’s covered in tattoos. His own mother had felt he was he’s guilty, and Naz knows it. He’s a broken person. Justice isn’t fair.
Still, the series makes one more point. Shortly after the murder, Stone sees the murdered girl’s cat now has no one to feed it. He takes the cat home, but he’s deeply allergic to it. Will the cat at least be saved?
No, Stone takes it to a shelter. It will have only ten days to be given away or euthanized. Here, Zaillian stumbled on something important.
As he said in an interview, “When [Stone], and we, first see the shelter, its stark walls and cages resemble a prison cellblock. This, too, was intentional. And as the cat with no name is carried by a volunteer past the chain-link cages housing loud dogs, it’s an experience not unlike Naz’s when he’s first taken into Rikers by a corrections officer. The outlook for both of them is grim. From there it was a matter of asking, ‘now what,’ ‘what if,’ and ‘then what,’ and ‘then what if.’ This is what writing is.”
One of the last images is the cat prancing back at Stone’s apartment. Stone has saved it once again. While justice isn’t always fair, there are the small victories.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.