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

12 February 2018

Is That All There Is?

by Steve Liskow

Why did over 100 million people watch the Super Bowl last week? Certainly, many of them were rooting for the Eagles or the Patriots, but many of them just wanted to watch the last football game of the season, featuring two good teams, to see who won.

That's it, isn't it? The final score. As writers and readers, that's what we care about, too. How the story ends.

How often have you heard someone say, "Well, the story was pretty good, but I hated the ending." Mickey Spillane said the first chapter sells the book and the last chapter sells the next book. It's hard to argue with that. If you don't like a book by an author, how likely are you to pick up another one?

The punchline of a joke should make us laugh. If we don't laugh, it's not a good punchline or ending. Simple, huh?

Obviously, if you go to a production of King Lear or Romeo and Juliet expecting lots of pretty girls doing a kick line at the end, you're going to be disappointed, but most people have a clear idea of what to expect. You set up the expectations, so you should meet them.

There are only a few kinds of bad endings.

The first is the Letdown, which I see more often in short stories than novels. The story, usually quasi-literary, doesn't really go anywhere, and it finally stops completely as though the writer has reached the word count he was aiming for. Sometimes, the ending is ambiguous, bit it's usually more indecisive than anything else. "The Lady or The Tiger"

fails because you can support (or NOT support) either choice equally badly. When my students tried this nonsense and I called them out on it, they always told me, "I left it this way because I wanted to make the reader think." I always asked, "What do you want him to think ABOUT, and what do you want him to think ABOUT IT?"

Several excellent writers end their books with something left unsaid, but they give enough information so we can figure out what happens offstage or after the curtain falls. My recent novel Before You Accuse Me ends with Woody Guthrie and Megan Traine discussing the consequences of the crime they've solved. We don't know exactly where the fallout will land, but we can make several solid guesses, none of which involve those pretty girls and kick lines.

Another bad ending involves a deus ex machina, the information that comes out of nowhere at the very end to tie things together (Thomas Hardy and Nathaniel Hawthorne got away with this constantly--or maybe not: we don't know about the after-life yet). In mysteries, this may be the missing piece of information we didn't even know was missing. One Ellery Queen novel has a solution built on our not knowing that the murder victim wasn't really a twin: he was a triplet. That's cheating. If you can't even give the reader a hint, look more carefully at your plotting.

Does anyone remember the TV show Burke's Law? One episode ran long, so they cut another minute to fit in the last commercial...and accidentally deleted the clue Gene Barry cited in the final solution. I understand the TV network's switchboard lit up like a nuclear blast that night.

Another ending is the one built on inductive reasoning instead of deductive reasoning. The detective (Rex Stout used to do this with Nero Wolfe all the time) starts by positing that a particular person is guilty, then looks for information to confirm that theory. It's too much like the police deciding person A did it and overlooking exculpating evidence. At Crime Conn several years ago, a detective who worked cold cases told us, "A cold case always happens because someone made a mistake." More often than not, some piece of evidence was overlooked or misinterpreted. Call it art imitating life if you want, but I disagree.

The opposite, which I see less often is the Perfect ending. The writer gives us intricate subplots and tons of detail, and none of it is extraneous. Every single miniscule thing fits together to create the main denouement. It's impressive and very difficult, and at some point I see the author's hand turning the characters into puzzle pieces instead of people and the thread suspending my disbelief starts to unravel. If it fits together more tightly than a Wagnerian crescendo, it's too much.

OK, so what does an ending need? That's pretty simple.

Your opening should make the reader ask questions about the plot and characters. Your ending answers those questions. It resolves the issues, just like a song should end on the beat and on the tonic chord. It will feel complete.

Remember "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" from the Beatles LP Abbey Road? It repeats the last melodic figure over and over and over, but instead of fading out, it ends suddenly...NOT on the beat or the tonic note or chord. It's a jarring musical joke. You're not the Beatles, though, so you can't get away with it.


If you're writing a mystery, you need a logical solution. If you're writing a romance, the two protagoni should be together at the end, or you need a clear reason why they aren't.
Death works, or jail. Time travel might work, too, but that gets into sci-fi, and that's a different union.

If you write comedy, the reader should laugh. Especially at the end.

Even if you write a series and you're planning the next book, this one should have a definite end to the current issue. Some issues can continue, but win this battle and carry on the war next time. Don't make me buy the next book to figure out how this one ended. I'll be ticked enough not to buy it.

Or maybe by the time that next book comes out, I won't even remember that I cared. That's one of the perks of getting old.

09 January 2018

Rest In Peace, Major Crimes

by Barb Goffman

SPOILER ALERT. If you watch the TV show Major Crimes and haven't seen the episodes that aired on December 19th, stop reading and go watch. Then come back.

For nearly thirteen years, I have been invested in the Major Crimes squad of the Los Angeles Police Department--the fictional one, as depicted in two series on TNT: The Closer, which ran from 2005 - 2012, and its spin-off, Major Crimes, which began in 2012 and which will air its final episode tonight. I have loved these two shows because of the writing and the acting, because the audience was allowed to become invested in the characters as well as the cases, and because the people behind the show--until recently--were able to give the audience a good balance of episodes, some serious, other lighthearted. Put simply, these shows made me happy.

But with the final episode just hours away from being aired, I must confess I'm not happy anymore. I'm not happy that the powers behind the cable network apparently put pressure in the last year on the people behind Major Crimes to make the show darker and edgier and to come up with story lines that wouldn't be resolved in a single episode but instead dragged on and on and on. While I'm okay with overarching character issues that continue throughout a series--seeing Sharon and Andy, for instance, grow from friends to husband and wife--and while I'm okay with larger plot issues that reoccur from time to time (such as the ongoing case involving serial killer Philip Stroh), I didn't like that Major Crimes changed its format recently from having a murder that was solved each week to a murder case that would take several weeks to be solved. Those multiple-episode cases became too hard to follow, and they were all so so dark and serious.

I'm also unhappy because Major Crimes killed off the star of the show, Sharon Raydor, a few episodes ago. It was shocking and heartbreaking and completely unnecessary. When a canceled show goes off the air, I like to think that the fictional characters are still out there, doing their jobs, living their lives. I might not get to check in with them anymore, but in my mind, they are riding off happily into the sunset. But when the main character of a TV show is killed off, there is no happily ever after. There is no joy any longer.

I read a Variety article a few weeks ago in which the amazing Mary McDonnell, who played Major Crimes's star, Sharon Raydor, talked about the decision by the show's executive producer and creator, James Duff, to kill off Sharon. The death wasn't done for shock value or as an F.U. to the network. It appears the decision was made thoughtfully and with the audience in mind. Duff wanted to allow the audience to grieve, and he thought this would be a good-send off for the character. Maybe there are viewers out there who enjoyed this closure. But for me and for every person I've talked to about this, it was a kick in the gut--a major miscalculation. I didn't want grief forced on me. I wanted to believe Sharon and Andy would live happily ever after. I wanted Sharon to continue leading her squad. If I had to put up with the show being canceled, I at least should have been given the ability to believe that everything would continue to be well with all my favorite fictional police detectives. That would have left me satisfied.


All of this agita leads to an interesting question. When a series is ending, be it a TV show or a mystery novel series or any other type of series, how much does the author/showrunner owe to the readers/audience? After nearly thirteen years as a viewer of these two TV shows, I feel ownership of the characters and want them to have a happy ending, as I expect most loyal viewers do. But if I put on my author hat, I realize that my reaction is quite presumptuous. I might be a loyal viewer, but these are not my characters, not my story lines, not my shows. I don't own the copyright. I didn't dream up these dramas. I didn't bring the characters to life. As an author, I own the stories I write, and while I keep my readers in mind as I write, I choose the twists and the endings, and I would be aggravated if readers started telling me that I should craft my stories differently. My stories are mine. So from this perspective, I can understand Duff's desire to end the show on his terms. I just wish his terms weren't so different from mine.

Major Crimes certainly isn't the only series (TV or books) to end on a note that readers didn't like. (And I should add that while I'm unhappy with Duff's choice to kill off Sharon, the episodes since then have been wonderful, and I expect the final episode tonight too will be good.) The final episodes of other shows and books have not been so well received either. The last episode of Seinfeld, for instance, was terrible. Viewers wanted to imagine Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer living out their lives in New York, going about their days where nothing happens in an amusing manner. No one wanted to imagine those characters in prison. And when Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, readers were so unhappy, thousands apparently canceled their subscriptions to The Strand magazine, in which the offending story appeared. I read that Conan Doyle wanted to send Holmes off with a bang. But what about what the readers wanted?

It's a hard line for writers to walk, wanting to keep strong to your artistic vision as you wind up a series, yet give your readers/viewers the payoff they want. It must be especially hard when the decisions are made with care, yet they aren't received as expected, at least by some.

So it will be with a heavy heart that I watch the last episode of Major Crimes tonight. I expect that the serial killer Stroh will finally be caught. I expect that justice will prevail. I expect that no other characters in the squad will die. And I expect that no matter what happens in the episode, I will be in mourning as the final credits roll, because these are characters whom I've grown to love, and I'll miss them. And that is something Duff and McDonnell and everyone involved in Major Crimes and The Closer before it can be proud of. It's no small thing to create a world that brings others joy, even if some readers/viewers don't love every aspect of the way the story comes to an end.

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?