Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Death, The Kiss And The Sunset

Throughout the summer of 2011, I’ve had some trouble ending my stories.  The last three in a row, in fact.  Normally, or now considering the last three stories, previously I know how the stories end before I start them.  Then it’s simply a matter of getting there in an interesting fashion. 


Excuse me.


Not so with these babies, which all started life in an episodic manner.  It’s a big problem because a weak ending is a killer.


All elements of a story are equally important to its success.  The sentences have to be readable and entertaining, the opening must grab the reader, they must be able to invest in the characters, the plot should be compelling but not predictable.  But if all the elements are equal, then the ending is more equal.

 


A good ending can’t save a bad story, but it helps.  Check out the film Birdy, hardly a masterpiece, but possibly the greatest ending I have ever seen.


But a bad ending will destroy a good story, even if up to that point it was perfect. 


So how do you end a story?

I find, broadly, that there are only four possible endings to a story.  (Here follows a diagram in which I liken endings to doorways.)


There here follows some broad sweeping statements (or ‘over-generalization’ as Word insists I edit it).

Ending 1: They All Die.  This is when at the end of the story the characters have failed against whatever it was they were struggling against. 


For me, it’s the weakest of the three endings, and while arty people may sit around sucking on pipes and saying, “Mmm, yes,”



it will never be a satisfactory outcome.  It doesn’t have to be the literal death of the characters, more the death of their hopes, but people fail all the time in life.  The point of a story is to show how the characters will overcome the odds, even though this may seem impossible.  If they fail, what has the audience gained from that?  Nothing. 

Failing is the easy answer.  The audience already knows how the characters won’t succeed, the trick is supposed to be to show how they will. 

Okay, Ending 1s tend to be the most critically acclaimed endings, because they are doing something a bit ‘out-there.’  This means it isn’t done often, so it must be clever or groundbreaking, rather than it isn’t done often because it’s stupid and clever people know to avoid that, like they know it’s stupid to jump off a cliff on to a spike.  That’s why it isn’t done much. 

Of course, those critics would call jumping off a cliff on to a spike art. 


I think people like Ending 1 because it avoids clichéd happy endings (Ending 2) (or they are moral tales — but I never got anything out of those moral tales as a kid)


But if they could just look past that for a second, what pointless tales.  To end a story by reaffirming what we know at the start is dull.  Oh look, they’re all dead no matter how hard they struggled.  I feel I’ve just wasted several hours of my life.

Ending 2: The Disney Kiss.  At the end of this story the leads win and the story closes on this triumph. 


I find this far more satisfactory that Ending 1, but it isn’t intelligent.  If all the audience wants from the story is a few hours out of reality, then it works, but if they want something to seriously consider, or to truly care about these characters and remember them after the story has ended, then it falls flat.  The Disney kiss is neat, but there is no way for the audience to imagine these characters existing after the story containing them.  The idea of the literal Disney Kiss is that the romantic leads have found each other and they kiss.  But they don’t finish the kiss, go home, have sex, have children, have mortgages, get old or die.  They are too fragile and childlike to have to face reality.  They just kiss and stop existing, another happy ending in the bag. 

It can be very sweet, it can be gloriously uplifting, or the audience can be puking into their shoes with cheese, but I don’t believe for a moment after the book closes, the actors bow or the credits roll that the story carries on.  It ends on the climax, and it feels good, even if that doesn’t make much sense and ignores the complexities and trauma of earlier plot developments.  At the end of a story, when you’re done with all the turning points, climaxes and resolutions, big life changing stuff has happened.  And with Ending 2 that’s where we leave.  It’s not worth thinking about how the characters are going to deal with all this.  Ending 2 is happy, but bears no thought and any prods at its reality tears it apart.  They kiss.  The End.  Any more and you spoil it.

The idea that there is something after the Happily Ever After is ludicrous.  Disney themselves proved this when they went through that fad of sequels in the late 90s/early 00s (horrific).  There can’t be anything else, because they are happy forever.  There’s no story there.  So all Disney could do was tear down the happy ending and show how everything the characters worked for in the first film was in vain.  Why would Disney do this to us?  The happy ending is finite.  You cannot open it up without destroying it.


Although I suppose it could be worse. See my earlier post, The Errant Soul



Disney sequels suck!  Unless of course…

This leaves Ending 3: Driving Off Into The Sunset.  This is the ending in which the characters continue with their lives.  This adventure is over and they’re fairly happy (though generally not ecstatic), but although we can’t see them any more, we know the road for them continues, that just over the horizon are new adventures, new problems, life will never be bliss, but it’ll be a hell of a lot of fun and we wouldn’t mind going to see.


To an extent, the characters don’t know what the rest of their lives hold for them and neither does the audience, but they can hope.  That’s an Ending 3.  This is the perfect happy ending, but with potential for so much, these characters will continue living forever after the credits role or the book is closed.  These are the endings with all the classic lines, and the potential (but not necessity) for a satisfactory or convincing sequel.  Ending 3 draws the most out of what has gone on before.  Struggles (what makes all plot) aren’t wiped out or ignored by bam, dead, or smack, kiss.  They continue.  They are overcome to an extent, but there’s more to come.  Ending 3 can even save an ailing story.  Ending 3 can even stop death. 

Ending 4, the Cliffhanger.  These endings cut out before the finale, but I don’t think of them as endings at all. 


There can be many different reasons for a cliffhanger, but the main two are either to get the audience to tune in next week because they’re desperate for a resolution, or there is no resolution and you did it as a shock tactic.  Horror stories do this a lot, because the sheer shocking uncertainty of it leaves the audience chilled, not through a skilled narrative, but by being left in the dark. 

It is certainly nearer Ending 3 as the audience is left unsure.  But for me it fails, because I’m too unsure.  Ending 3 should leave the audience able to believe the characters are capable of more adventures, but it should finish this one.  Horror fans may enjoy this unsettling feeling, but most people’s first reaction to a cliffhanger is to look for the rest of the ending (it must have got lost) and that can’t be the intended reaction.  It ends with a jolt of, “Oh…  Was that it?” which is a bad way to leave the audience.  Sometimes it is intended to get the audience to think, but with a sudden ending, the audience isn’t inclined to think, in fact, they’re more likely to forget it.  So this is either not an ending at all, or a very failed attempt at Ending 3.

My conclusion?  Ending 1 is brave, but a let-down.  Ending 2 is romantic, but hollow.  Any story can end either of those ways, and it’ll never truly satisfy.  The test of an ending is, can you imagine these characters waking up tomorrow?  Ending 3 always has potential.  Even if it’s not the ending the audience wanted, it isn’t final like Endings 1 and 2, so there is always a chance, always hope.  Of course it needs to be handled skilfully, but so long as those characters go on existing after the fiction has ended, that’s the sunset and it’ll never disappoint.



So does that help me with my writing?


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