Thursday, March 20, 2014

All’s Well That Ends Well?

by Peter Wood

This is by no means an exhaustive or scientific study of endings. A botched finish can ruin a story. Some of my stories have sat for years while I struggled for the right ending. Here are some thoughts.

Unexpected and Logical Endings Work Best

A pedestrian story where a character moves in a straight line from point A to point B isn’t enough. A good story will surprise the reader by building on the realistic actions of the characters and the rules of the premise. Good writers neither change the rules nor the characters without a really good reason.

Isaac Asimov’s The Ugly Little Boy concluding paragraphs will knock your socks off. Scientists transport a Neanderthal child into the present. Believable characters and a great premise lead to a conclusion that logically flows as the story progresses. You probably didn’t see it coming and you won’t forget it.

Check out A Clean Escape by John Kessel. A psychiatrist interviews a man with a memory disorder, but things are not what they seem. The story unfolds in a straightforward way until the last couple of pages. Interesting characters and gripping world building on a small scale make for a rewarding read.

Walter Miller’s A Canticle For Lebowitz is a classic. Monasteries spring up across what was once the United States after a nuclear war. The premise is compelling, the characters sympathetic and there is an underlying question that keeps you reading. Will this new world survive?

Why do these stories work? Great characters help, but the stories explore journeys that are not obvious. The endings are satisfying and do not cheat the reader by switching horses at the last minute. Characters move the narrative forward. The plot doesn’t manipulate the characters.

Twist Endings

I hate most of them. Pulling the rug out from the reader and changing everything at the last moment- often to get an unhappy ending- is flat out unfair. A good twist ending makes the reader look back and examine the story again. The clues and foreshadowing should be there.

Second Variety, Phillip Dick’s novella of war in a nuclear wasteland, is an exercise in paranoia. Then, the ending, which makes perfect sense, will make you rethink the entire story.

A twist ending doesn’t have to change everything. Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus tells of the first manned expedition to Mars. The book could have ended with the penultimate chapter and been a pretty good adventure story. The last chapter re-frames everything and makes the novel great.

One of my favorite twists is the last scene of the original Planet of the Apes movie. The Earth astronaut, Taylor, SPOILER ALERT stumbles across the Statue of Liberty and realizes he crash-landed on a nightmarish future Earth. Rod Serling, the father of modern twist endings, wrote the script. The motivations and actions of the characters take on a different dimension after the ending.

The final twist in Tim Burton’s remake is just insulting to the viewer. The Earth astronaut escapes from the primitive simian-ruled planet. He returns to modern Earth and discovers it ruled by apes and apparently the evil general from the Ape planet has taken over. There is no reason for this ending. We last saw the evil general disgraced and cowering in fear. He lived in a world without electricity, much less space travel. The ending undermined everything.

When endings don’t Matter

Sometimes stories don’t have great endings. They just end. That’s okay, if the setting and characters save the day.

I love Anne Tyler. Her characters are so richly textured that I don’t care if there isn’t an amazing ending. Breathing Lessons, which won her the Pulitzer, shows a day in the life of a middle-aged couple. Period. But, those characters are so compelling that I didn’t mind the small-scale resolution.

Similarly the world building of Margaret Atwood is so complete and the characters so deep that her sometimes less than overwhelming finishes are beside the point. Cats eye and The Handmaid’s Tale don’t exactly have big Hollywood finishes, but you won’t forget the characters.

Back to Planet of the Apes. The original had great characters. Taylor evolves from a man of words- complaining about everything- to a man of action. The apes are multi-faceted too, not just foils. Each has distinct motivates. Even Dr. Zaius, the closest thing to a villain, has believable reasons for what he does.

I couldn’t tell you anything about the characters in the Burton remake except that the megalomaniacal general had all the depth and motivations of a Scooby Doo villain. Don’t even get me started on the astronaut who sleepwalks through the film and has zero growth.

Phillip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle won him a well-deserved Hugo. This novel of an alternative world where the U.S. lost W.W.II doesn’t exactly have a edge-of-your-seat plot. It just stops. But, the premise is so intriguing and the characters so rich, that I don’t care. Contrast this with Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee where the South has won the Civil War. Lackluster writing and cardboard characters sink this work.

My favorite novel ever may be Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Not much happens, I suppose, but the characters are so real in this story of disillusioned Americans wandering around post WWI Europe, that I didn’t mind.

This is not to say that I want to read a novelization of My Dinner with Andre. There needs to be some plot, some progression of characters.

Lastly, let me point out that one of the most disappointing endings for me ever was the last episode of Lost. After six years of the greatest television story-telling ever, the show ended with a whimper. But, that’s fine. Lost’s science was complete bull, but the characters sucked me in every week as well as the labyrinthine narrative. I would recommend the series to anyone as one of the finest television has ever produced.

A wonderful story doesn’t necessarily need a great ending. That would be like judging an around-the-world trip by the cab ride home from the airport. Sometimes it’s not about the finish line. It’s about the journey.

Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina where he lives with his forgiving wife and surly cat. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, Stupefying Stories, Daily Science Fiction and the Grantville Gazette. The first ending that really resonated with him was to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when he was eight.


Vonnie said...

Peter: a very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. You've boiled the pot down to the essence of effective endings. Agree with you re the Planet of the Apes original ending and of course, the Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe!

Pete Wood said...

Thanks! It really shook me up at the end of TLTWATW when the kids- now adults and royalty to boot- were out hunting and went back through the wardrobe and became kids again. Man, that would really stink.

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