I just finished reading a trilogy co-written by a legendary sci-fi author. I’m betting it was more like “casually glanced at by,” but I guess we’ll never know. The series started out amazing, but got weaker and weaker as it went on. The final chapter randomly introduced a character who’d been mentioned once or twice and never seen. To be honest, it introduced the future/ adult version of this character. It also introduced a new setting, a new terminology, and an entire war that kind of came out of nowhere.
March 25, 2011
Confused? Yeah, so was I. That was the end of the last book. The final line was “Cymbal crash.” I think it might be a reference to Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but I’m not 100% sure on that. Needless to say, it didn’t leave me with a good feeling about the series.
Likewise, a few weeks back I saw a low-budget film loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories. It had some real structure problems and the tone was all over the place. But it had a solid ending and the final scene knocked it out of the park, so I’ve recommended it to a few people.
An ending can make or break a story. They are the dessert after a feast of words. You can have the best filet mignon in the world with an exquisite wine, but if the cheesecake is slimy and bitter… well, you’re going to be walking out with a bad taste in your mouth. A so-so film with a phenomenal ending will usually get favorable reviews. A strong manuscript that spirals downward at the end will, more often than not, be tossed in the large pile on the left.
Now, while some folks are content to say “well, that sucked” and leave it at that, a storyteller has to know why something doesn’t work. Bad endings don’t all have the same root problem. Sometimes the writer had a phenomenal way to start a character arc, but wasn’t sure how to wrap it up. Or it can happen when people have a really cool idea for a story, but don’t know where to go with it past that initial idea. Sometimes an ending just doesn’t work with the rest of the story. Some endings almost never work, no matter what the rest of the story is.
Note that I said almost never. As I go over this list of failed endings, you’ll probably be able to name some books or films that use them very successfully. These endings are exceptionally difficult to pull off, though, and should be approached with extreme caution…
Nothing Changes—Let’s start with the basics. If the first fifteen pages and the last fifteen pages of a manuscript show characters in the same place, doing the same things, with the same people, and they’re not any wiser for the experience… Well, that wasn’t much of an experience, was it? For them and probably not for the readers. I’m not saying characters need to have some big emotional breakthrough or spiritual growth. There has to be something notably different, though, or this was just more wasted time.
One type of story that does this a lot is the “slice of life” tale. Just two or three average days in the life of two or three average people. Now, yes, most of our lives don’t change radically in any given moment. I’ve spent most of today here at my desk writing, just like I did yesterday and probably like I’ll be doing tomorrow. So it would be a truthful ending if a slice of life story about me had me back here at my desk.
The question you need to ask yourself is… why would anyone want to read about that? I know I sure wouldn’t. I go through a slice of life every day where nothing changes. I want to be entertained!
…And They Write a Book/ Screenplay About the Experience—I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that this is pretty much the worst ending you can have for a screenplay. It isn’t much better in a book. This is almost always a tacked on ending to assure the reader that the protagonist didn’t just survive this story—they benefited from it. Immensely. Yeah, you would think kicking drugs, reconnecting with the family, and getting the girl/boy would be enough for most folks to consider it a good week, but noooooooo… according to some writers they need acclaim and wealth and celebrity, too.
In my experience, writers tend to fall back on this ending for one of three reasons (sometimes more than one of them). One is that it falls into that silly “write what you know” tip we’ve all heard for years and years. Two is a desire to add that patina of reality to the story, thus making it more valid… somehow. Three is that it’s sort of a wish-fulfillment validation. My character writes a book about how she used to be a crack whore and it becomes an acclaimed bestseller. So, logically, my story about a character writing a story about how she used to be a crack whore should also become an acclaimed bestseller.
That there’s crazy-person logic is what that is…
Everybody Dies and the Antagonist Wins—One of the biggest problems with wrapping things up this way is it gives the reader a sense that the story was pointless. They’ve just invested a few hours (or perhaps days) of their time into this tale only to see it come to an unpleasant ending. This can be especially frustrating if the reader comes to realize the character never had a chance at accomplishing their goals. It’s even more frustrating if the characters made some foolish decisions somewhere along the way. After all, it’s bad enough when you have to watch the fifth person in a row walk through the archway marked Painful Death, but when that’s the point the writer chooses to end the story on…?
I know. It’s hard to believe that after centuries of storytelling this is still considered an unsatisfying ending.
Your protagonist doesn’t need to come through unscarred, mind you. Heck, you can even get away with killing your lead. But they need to win on some level.
The Left Fielder—Called such because it’s the ending that comes out of nowhere. The business-obsessed dad gives up his career to care for his senile mother, but then she falls in the pool and drowns. The wallflower finally gets her act together, aces her exams, gets the quarterback, is voted prom queen, and then gets hit by a bus on the last day of school. Or, as I once experienced, a ninety minute sketch comedy show which climaxes with a bleak monologue about racial inequality and prejudice.
No, seriously. I worked on a play like that once. The director rewrote the end and honestly couldn’t figure out why no one liked it.
In my experience, the vast majority of writers who use this kind of ending are trying to achieve ART. It’s an attempt to show how perfectly this story mimics a random and sometimes meaningless real world by having a random and meaningless ending. It doesn’t relate to anything that happened because it’s too real. And tragic. And artistic.
Besides suffering from all the same frustration issues as the previous ending, the left fielder just isn’t that special anymore. It’s become one of the most common conclusions in indie films and “literature.” So besides exasperating an audience, it’s an ending they’re probably going to see coming for the simple reason it wouldn’t be what they’d expect.
There is nothing wrong or pedestrian about putting the right ending on a story. As I’ve mentioned before, nobody got hit by a train at the end of Slumdog Millionaire and it was still a good film.
The Y’see Timmy—I use this phrase here a lot, and it’s a bit of an homage to the film that I got the term from. This ending gets its name from the old Lassie television show. Little Timmy would encounter some problems, work his way out of them, and at the end Mom would sit him down and explain what happened and why. “Y’see, Timmy, sometimes people get hurt inside and it never heals…” Timmy and the audience learn a little something about life and we all go home as better, happy people.
Alas, in inexperienced hands the Y’see Timmy quickly becomes “beating your audience over the head.” If you’ve ever made your way through Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, you probably remember the 98 page monologue at the end which recaps every one of the subtle lessons that were shown in the first 800 pages of the book. You also probably ended up skimming the monologue, just like everyone else did.
If the moral of the story is clear, do you need to explain it to your audience again? If it isn’t that clear, then the problem isn’t your ending, is it?
If you’ve never seen it, go watch Speechless (written by Robert King) and you’ll see Michael Keaton do a fantastic job explaining this idea to Geena Davis. It’s how I found the term. Plus it’s just a fun movie.
The Wedding—There are a few reasons weddings can make folks yawn at the end of a story. First, it’s ridiculously common. Much like the artsy Left Fielder, so many writers end their romances or rom-coms with a wedding it’s become the default, which means it’s far too common to use in any other genre. A wedding also draws attention to the timeline in a story, which is not always a good thing. It can either emphasize that these folks are getting married less than a month after meeting each other, or it can point out that the narrative just skipped seven or eight months between pages, which means it’s just tacked-on to give the ending a bit more uumphh (as they say).
It Was All a Dream—Probably the worst offender here. All too often the amazing tale of adventure ends with one of the heroes waking up on the couch or in a hospital bed. No, none of the story the audience has just invested their time and attention in really happened, not even in the world of the story. We all just put ourselves into a story about a person who was putting themselves into a story.
Now, there was a time when this ending was fresh and bold and caught people off guard. That time was 1890 when Ambrose Bierce first sold his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
In the 121 years since then, this ending’s been used once or thrice in literature and about a billion times since the creation of the sitcom. Heck, there are old Shadow radio plays that use this device. As I mentioned above with Everyone Dies, this just tells the reader they made an investment for no reason. Was there anyone who went to see Click who didn’t immediately say “it’s all going to be a dream!!” the moment Adam Sandler stretched out on that Bed Bath & Beyond display? Think about it—this is such a common ending it’s easy to spot the moment the dream begins.
So, there they are, a few endings that were overused years before Edgar Rice Burroughs or Ray Bradbury decided there might be something really cool up on Mars. Like many of the tips I toss out, I’m not saying it’s impossible to do one of these. It is very, very difficult, though, and you may want to think twice before tackling one of them.
Next time may be a bit late because I’ve got a deadline I need to hit. But when we do get together next, we’re going to go for a little drive.
Until then, go write.