The Pirates at the Top of the Escalator

Ever since I have been reading fiction, I had always be struck by how many stories were largely a description of the relationship escalator.

The book Backwards and Forwards describes how stories start with a stasis, which is quickly broken, and the story ends when a new stasis is formed.

As it so happens, the relationship escalator and old stasis/broken stasis/new stasis pattern work together really well:

Stasis: Two people don’t know each other.
Breaking the Stasis: Two people meet.
[the two people go up the escalator]
New Stasis: Two people are happily married (or otherwise at the top of the escalator)

It’s actually a pretty good story. I myself like good, escalator-style romance tales. But why aren’t there more variations? I’m not talking about off-the-escalator relationships – though more fiction about those would be very welcome. I’m talking about stories *about* escalator relationships where the beginning is not ‘two people begin a romance’ and especially where the endpoint is not ‘two people are happily married’. Why aren’t there more stories like this:

Stasis: Two people are happily married.
Breaking the Stasis: One spouse is kidnapped by pirates.
[plot plot plot]
New Stasis: The married couple is reunited.

It seems that there are way more stories in which the unestablished ‘love interest’ gets kidnapped (literally or metaphorically) by pirates.

The above story doesn’t seem to challenge the relationship escalator – the pirates are an external factor. The couple could experience a lot of personal growth along the way, and personal growth is good,right? If anything, wouldn’t kicking pirate butt demonstrate the strength of being at the top of the escalator.

Or would it?

Is the promise of the escalator ‘at the top, you’ll be really good at dealing with life’s twists and turns?’ Or is the promise ‘at the top, life will stop twisting and turning’?

The story of ‘Pirates Kidnapping the Spouse’ makes it very clear that reaching the top of the escalator is no guarantee of happiness or stability. Even if the couple is absolutely perfect for each other, those pirates can still mess things up.

If you say ‘getting married to The One means that you will have a happy stable life, which no outside force can disturb’, it sounds absurd – what about pirates?

But then again … why are there so many stories in which reaching the top of the relationship escalator represents a new stasis/conclusion, yet so few stories in which an established escalator-style couple have their ‘stasis’ broken, and they have to create a new stasis? I think it’s because once the new stasis is set, it’s supposed to be unbreakable. People stop growing, because they’re not supposed to need that growth to confront the unexpected.

People yearn for stability, and the escalator gets a lot of its power by offering a predictable, unchanging, ‘safe’ situation. If people truly understood that this promise is an illusion, I think the escalator would lose much of its sway over people’s visions.


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12 thoughts on “The Pirates at the Top of the Escalator

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  3. I think you’re on to something, and also that when the new stasis is identical to the old, the story is seen as less interesting. Further, the fact that the setup you describe disrupts a stasis that people want to believe is permanent makes it frightening, and consequently better suited to be a horror story than anything else. Ever played Alan Wake, for example? It starts with Alan’s wife being abducted by a supernatural being, similar to your pirate story. Unlike the pirate story, though, this is horror, and there’s no happy ending. Instead, [hover for spoilers]. In fact, in-game, the reason why there’s no happy ending is that Alan is wrote his own story (the supernatural being makes it come true), which gives him a great deal of control over what happens, but he’s still required to make his story an interesting one, and a happy ending for all just wouldn’t suffice. I think most people would agree.

    • Well, if the stasis is completely identical, it does seem pointless – but it’s quite possible to have a satisfying story which starts as ‘a happily married yet naive couple’ and ends with ‘a happily married and much wiser couple’.

      An example of an extremely popular story which follows the happily married couple – separation – happily reunited pattern is Homer’s The Odyssey (Agamemnon, Menelaus, and the Greek gods are the pirates).

      The story I talked about in this week’s post (Goong) is also a great example of a story in which … well, I shouldn’t spoil anything here, so if you’re interested I suggest you read that post yourself (which already has spoiler warnings).

      I’m considering looking at other works of fiction – particularly ‘The Orphan’s Home Cycle” by Horton Foote and ‘The Giant Eagle and Its Companion’ by Jin Yong.

      And yes, I think the reason why this kind of story is rare is because it is so very frightening. But I think that is all the more reason to explore it in fiction. After all, frightening thing ofter make for compelling storytelling!

  4. Reblogged this on SoloPoly and commented:
    Thoughtful take on why the relationship escalator holds so much power in our culture — which affects which kind of relationship escalator storylines tend to get portrayed in entertainment media.

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  6. Wow – thank you for these thoughts!
    My bf was just recently reading a book with a married couple as the leads, and expressed to me how awesome of a dynamic it was and how he doesn’t see why it isn’t more common.
    And, I think this is exactly it!

  7. Stasis is temporary.
    Happily ever after is a myth. Everything ends. But in the west, we are generally taught otherwise.
    Also, escalator imagery seems to only go up. What’s that about? In reality, escalators can go up or down, depending on which way a motor is turning. And pirates are everywhere! Not just at the top.
    Everything rises and falls. Sometimes instantaneously, like the small aircraft crashing into the dome in the miniseries Under the Dome.
    So, despite the endless cultural depictions exclusively promoting an escalator mentality, urging me to do otherwise, I think about trajectories more than elevators, and that everything has an “is” and “is-no longer” time.
    So please, tell me a story that ends well. I love a happy ending. I cry tears of joy and relief that difficulties and obstacles were overcome and everything worked out in the end. I suspend my disbelief in the true nature of impermanent existence. In real life, things probably go wrong as often as they go right. Not so in stories and commercials. (Unless we are being scared into buying or believing something)
    Practicing kindness and staying open-hearted and denying impermanence remains a great teacher for me.
    Suzuki Roshi said, “Life is like getting into a little boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink”. Can I go forward open heartedly, knowing that it will end? seems to be a better question for me at this time.

    • I definitely agree that pirates can appear at any point of the escalator – and the often pop up on the stairs too! However, there are plenty of stories, even in the most mainstream of media, which depict pirates showing up at the beginning or in the middle of the escalator. It’s much harder to find stories which have the pirates show up *after* the escalator couple has tied the knot.

      You’ll get no argument from me about escalators being capable of going down. I know people who went down the escalator while still having a mutually satisfying relationship.

      It’s definitely true that the insistence that *every* story have a happy ending is a cultural thing, but even in the West it’s not universal. For example, in American non-musical theatre (and I presume this is also true of British theatre, but I don’t know enough about contemporary British drama), many stories do not have happy endings.

      Much as I like happy endings, the Japanese perspective always seemed more realistic: that life, like a cherry blossom, is so wonderful and precious because it will not last long.

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