Showing posts with label endings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label endings. Show all posts

15 February 2017

Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing


by Robert Lopresti

I'm not sure this title fits the subject matter, but it's a pretty song.

As you are probably sick of being told, I review a short story every week.  I try to be a fair judge, treating every candidate equally but I admit that sometimes I will find myself rooting for a story to succeed because of a wonderful opening line, beautiful writing, or a great concept.  It's yours to lose.  Don't blow it!

And sometimes they succeed. But sometimes they blow it.

Recently I read a story with a great premise, one I loved so much I read a few key lines out loud to my wife.  I kept rolling along, having a great time, for the first three quarters of the narrative.  Then all four tires slowly deflated.

I'm not going to get specific because I don't say bad things about individual stories.  (There's a reason I review the best story each week.)  But vaguely, here's the plot:

The author establishes the great premise and deals with it, apparently resolving it.  Then a character is murdered.  The hero, call him Sam Sleuth, starts to investigate.  The character closest to him, call him X, is the Most Likely Suspect.

All of which is great.  Still rolling merrily.  But we are at the three-quarter point.

Sleuth begins to suspect that X really is  the killer.  He digs more, and finds evidence pointing in that direction.  He confronts X who more or less admits his guilt, but not in a way that would hold up in court.  And Sleuth vows to find a way to prove it.  The end.

That's no ending, says me.  Not a good  ending, anyway.  Our hero has been treading water for the last quarter.

So here are some suggestions as to how the author might have created a better conclusion, one which might have made my Best of the Week, if I liked the writing, and was in the right mood, and Saturn was on the cusp of Capricorn.

Good for the Soul.  Sleuth could have tricked/guilted X into a confession that would have held up in court.

In the Pudding.  Sleuth discovers proof that X did the killing.

Had it coming. X reveals (this requires a ton of foreshadowing) that the victim was such a horrible person that he deserved what he got.  Sleuth is convinced and tells him to go and sin no more.

Surprise Party.  It wasn't X at all!  Turns out it was Y, that dirty devil!

Reverse Surprise.  If our author really wants to end with Sleuth vowing to catch X, then Sleuth needs to think it is Y until - Boom - the Big Reveal.

Immune to Murder.  Sleuth is sure that X is guilty but he can never be convicted because he is the nephew of the President/Mafia Chief/Billionaire, or is the Ambassador from Barataria.  Much noirish brooding in bourbon follows.

Any of those had a chance to be better than what I got. But on the bright side, I got a blog out of it didn't I?  Now, back to a hunt for the Best.



08 July 2016

I'm Thinking of Endings

By Art Taylor

A few weeks back on his BOLO Books blog, my friend Kristopher Zgorski reviewed Iain Reid's debut novel, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, and I found myself drawn in immediately both by Kristopher's description of the book and by his own enthusiasm for it. As his review noted, the book is highly original, tough to classify cleanly with its mix of genre elements and literariness, and though little seems to happen in terms of how you might summarize the action here—a young couple talking during a car ride, a meet-the-parents family dinner, a visit to a Dairy Queen and then a stop by a local high school on the way out of town—the novel bristles start to finish with tension. As that tension picks up even more momentum, I found myself barreling through the pages, but Kristopher is spot-on too when he says the book deserves to be read more slowly; much of the conversation between that young couple centers on questions about relationships and identity with a mix of sharp insight and provocative questions that shouldn't be rushed past.

I'll admit that part of my continuing interest in the novel, at least while reading the first half of it, became loosely self-referential. Like my own book On the Road with Del & Louisethough with an entirely different tone—I'm Thinking of Ending Things is partly structured around two people on a journey and talking/reflecting about the state of their relationship, their past, their future. This novel had enough small echoes with my own that I enjoyed seeing where some artistic choices resonated, where others went in a different direction, the flexibility of storytelling in terms of style, structure, and more.

But I was also fascinated by other craft questions too—specifically one that Kristopher zeroed in on himself in his review:

When readers begin I’m Thinking of Ending Things it only take a few pages before a feeling of unease settles over the proceedings. Crime fiction fans are used to this, but typically it is possible to point to the reason for the disquieting feeling. With I’m Thinking of Ending Things, readers will have a harder time pinpointing the reason they feel that danger looms, but the impression is real and unstoppable. This sense of menace only increases as the pages are turned.

Late in the book, Reid himself inserts a bit of commentary about this very topic. The narrator—the unnamed girlfriend traveling with her new boyfriend Jake—occasionally offers small glimpses into her life before meeting Jake, and at one point she relates "the scariest thing that ever happened to me." I won't give away what that thing is—it's surprising in about equal measure to any conventional scariness—but I do want to quote the narrator's preface to the story:

Most people I tell don't find this story scary. They seem bored, almost disappointed when I get to the end. My story is not like a movie, I'll say. It's not heart-stopping or intense of blood-curdling or graphic or violent. No jump scares. To me these qualities aren't usually scary. Something that disorients, the unsettles what's taken for granted, something that disturbs and disrupts reality—that's scary.

This passage begins to describe what makes I'm Thinking of Ending Things so effective in creating unease and discomfort. While many of the reflections and conversations along the couple's road trip might seem perfectly normal—assessments about the state of the relationship, questions about meeting the parents ahead—abrupt deviations from what's expected, those disturbances or disruptions of reality, ripple with a sense of menace. (In many ways, I'm reminded here of some of the cocktail conversation in the early sections of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Under Water, where sudden sharp turns in the conversation, ominous turns, are met so calmly by others—an underwhelmed response that ratchets up the sense that everything has suddenly shifted off-center here, everything is perilously close to toppling over completely, everyone is in danger.)

The beauty of I'm Thinking of Ending Things lies in that brilliant balance of the mundane and the menacing—and then by the questions that are raised every step of the way: What is really going on here? What are we glimpsing right there beneath the surface and when is it all going to come fully into focus? And then as the oddities begin to mount: Is the author really going to be able to pull this together? pull it off? Can he explain what seems increasingly inexplicable?

Reid seems aware of this too in that quote above, comments that resonate on the larger story being told: "Most people...seem bored, almost disappointed when I get to the end." (And maybe there's something prescient in that comment? There are nearly as many 1-star reviews as 5-star reviews for the book on Amazon, with the detractors almost uniformly focusing on the novel's payoff—or lack thereof.)

Endings are difficult, of course—as both readers and writers know. Several times lately, my wife has found herself engrossed in and amazed by books and then utterly let-down by the ending: Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, Marisha Pessl's Night Film, Christopher J. Yates' Black Chalk. Some responsibility for that may rest on faults in the author's performance, but I think there's also something about the interplay between anticipation and resolution that gives priority to the former; maybe all endings, explaining things, closing things down, inherently risk greater disappointment. (At a fireworks display earlier in the week, our four-year-old son was nearly giddy asking about the "grand finale" we'd mentioned, that final bursting bursting bursting of so many fireworks at the end of the performance, but when it actually happened, his response was like, "That's it?")

I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending of I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Half of me immediately dismissed it as gimmicky—OK, more than half—especially with the author's own not-so-subtle nudge that we readers go back and reread the book again. And yet sitting here writing this, I find myself revisiting some of those earlier scenes with the knowledge of the trick here—and admiring anew those scenes through the lens of that knowledge.

Suffice it to say that the novel is 75% terrific in my estimation—heck, maybe 90%—with the balance let's-talk-about-it-when-you're-done-reading-it.

Even there, however, the fact that there's so much to talk about may provide testament to another aspect of the book's success.

I'm passing my copy along to my wife now—nudging her ahead, looking forward to her response.


17 January 2013

The Last Five Minutes

by Eve Fisher

One of the great new trends (imho) in movies these days is indie movies that take semi sci-fi/fantasy concepts and run with them, using minimal (if any) special effects and lots of really good writing.  I include in this category the haunting "Another Earth", and the two comedies "Safety Not Guaranteed", and "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World".   (I recommend all of these, even though I thought Keira Knightly's narcolepsy in the last was a bit much.)

The latest one I watched was "Ruby Sparks," about a young, genius writer with severe writer's block, who manages to write his dream girl into life.  And it's great, really great, taking the whole concept and going balls to the wall with it - until the last five minutes.  At which point, a happy ending was tacked on, a happy ending of such unbelievable proportions (to me) that I was screaming at the TV set. (NOTE:  I do this a lot; my husband has learned to live with it.  In this case, he agreed with me.  And I will not give any more away except to say that any good working psychiatrist would not be using phrases like "beautiful" and praising the hero for his behavior, but would be recommending something intense, like in-patient treatment...  I also think that the estate of David Foster Wallace could sue the writers, but that's another rant.)  Anyway, I still recommend the movie, but only for the first hour and 40 minutes. 

But don't you hate when that happens?  When someone takes a great idea, and does it so well that you are absolutely hanging on, breathless, can't wait to see what happens next...  and then the balloon just doesn't even pop, it deflates and you're sitting there wondering what the hell happened.  I felt that way about Woody Allen's "Love and Death" and "Sleeper", both of which I still think are genius - until the whole plot line of "let's kill the leader" takes over.  (These days, I just fast forward to the little gems at the end.)

Great endings don't have to be happy; they don't have to be tragic; they don't have to be funny (although what would "Some Like It Hot" be without Joe E. Brown's magic line?).  But they do have to fit what's happened before.  They have to match the characters.  My husband and I watched "The Third Man" again the other night, and the ending, with that last long shot, always deeply satisfies me, because there's no way after all that has gone before that Anna Schmidt would ever go for Holly Martin. 


I think this beats the heck out of "Great Expectations", where Dickens made the mistake of listening to Bulwer-Lytton - the original author of "it was a dark and stormy night" - and rewrote his ending to put Pip and Estella together.  But to be fair, Hollywood pairs people up come hell or high water all the time.  What was House doing with a girlfriend?  Why do the modern turns on Sherlock Holmes feel the need to make Irene Adler a romantic interest?  (And, now that Watson's female in "Elementary", how long until she and Sherlock hook up?)  Why did the Geraldine McEwan version of Miss Marple have to give her a heartbreaking romance?

But back to endings.  A lot of endings are, as we all know, entirely different from the book.  James Thurbur once wrote that if Hollywood were to do "Antony and Cleopatra", they'd have Antony saying, "I am mending, Egypt, mending." But to be fair, in the 18th and early 19th century, most Shakespeare tragedies were given happy endings.  Romeo and Juliet live; Ophelia is saved from drowning; Cordelia wakes up; etc.  Dickens skewered this in "Nicholas Nickleby."   And sometimes the changes work, as in "The Big Sleep."  In the novel, Marlowe falls for Mona Mars - "silver-wig" - and ends up with nobody.  In the Bogie/Bacall movie, he falls for Vivian Sternwood and goes off with her.  I think both work, for different reasons, and that's fine with me. On the other hand, I hate the movie "The Natural," because of course when you have Robert Redford playing the hero, he has to save the day, even though that ruins the whole spirit of the piece.  I prefer the novel, where Hobbs is indeed Everyman, a sinner, a failure - a human being, not a hero... 

But now, of course, I'm faced with ending this blog entry.  All I can say is that if I really like a book or a movie, I invest in the characters, in the story, in the concept.  And I want all of those, whenever possible, to stay true to their promise. I know.  It's hard to pull off.  Sometimes it will break your heart.  But if it's right, you have a classic.  Here's perhaps the ultimate example:  would we remember "Casablanca" if Ilsa had stayed with Rick?