Thursday, August 18, 2011

Act III, or, This Had Better Be Worth My Time

So... endings... yeah. Great hooks and well developed characters still need to get somewhere by the last page. And this seems like something of a problem trend in the storytelling industry.

I'm going to use movies as an example, not because I don't see this in books, but just to be nice to the authors. (sorry movies, I know you have writers too, but there are so many more cooks stirring those pots, it seems like less of a personal attack to make an example of you)

For your consideration, Case File One - War of the Worlds (the newer one with Cruisypants) Fantastic opening. Stunning camera work. Compelling visuals and characters I liked right from frame one. The first act of this one is rock solid. But once the Farriers leave the city and get out into the countryside, it all kind of goes to poo. By the time Tim Robbins shows up, things have gone completely crazypants, and when we get to the end, it's just one big WTF up on the screen. Like, everyone involved knew the first 1/3 of the movie was so good, they didn't need to bother making the ending as strong. The peeps were already in the seats, after all.

Case File Two - Winter's Bone
This one was somehow considered a super gutsy entry, maybe because it was helmed by a lady, and that's just not done, unless she's going to make a movie about war and all. (apologies to Mr. Cate. Kathy Bigelow is his favorite director and all, but she can't stop pretending to be a guy. There's a middle ground between Michael Bay and Nora Ephron, after all.)
So we have the very compelling story of Ree, who is courageous and noble and willing to fight her way out of a desperate situation. Again, the visuals and editing and tone of the first 2/3 are perfection. And then at the end *mild spoiler* Ree doesn't really solve her own problem at all. The people around her finally, and inexplicably, after all we've been told, decide to come to her aid and present her with a solution. At least the acting was worth it. That was a seriously spectacular cast.

Case File Three - Everything Danny Boyle's Ever Done.
With the exception of 127 hours, which is getting better.
Otherwise, there are a lot of limp endings there, to stories that are gritty and wicked and honest - right up until that last couple of minutes. But the rest of the films are so entertaining to watch, it seems like he gets a pass on the last ten minutes or so. I really like Boyle's films, in general, which makes it all the more disappointing when the end doesn't shine as bright as the rest. But he might have figured this little chestnut out. I eagerly await his next picture.

Some good examples?

For another Cuisypants example, let's go all the way back to Risky Business. After all the wild and mildly dangerous adventuring, Joel doesn't get what he thinks he wanted all along - but he's developed as a character, and has a greater understanding of himself, and his direction in the world. As simple as it may be, this character had a real story arc, and matured through the storyline.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
One of my favorite films in general, an one that takes a fantasy story and makes it even more compelling by layering the fantastic over the mundane. Joel and Clementine, while viewed mostly in a completely imaginary world, are still real and complex people with depth and authenticity. By the end they too have learned something from their adventure, understand more about themselves, and the film itself comes around full circle to resolve on the melancholy note that love is not of the mind, it is of the heart, you can love someone before you really know who they are (which can lead to heartbreak, but what does the heart care? It acts on impulse, not intellect) and you can't forget feelings the way you can forget memories.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, equally.

Again, I love these films. Both are so simple, telling the story of a pair of people who have an undeniable connection to each other, but are too wary to believe what they feel could be real. In the first one, Sunrise, boy and girl meet on a train, spend the night talking, and can't really believe how strongly they feel for each other after so short a time. In the second, Sunset, the same couple meets up again a second time, many years later, and still slightly in awe of the few hours they spent together and how they didn't simply forget about it they way they would have expected.
These are the films that end on that "well, what do you suppose happened??" note that I usually hate, but for these films, it works. The story ends before we know the entire outcome, and that's as it should be. Each time, the curtain closes just before we get to see what decisions the central characters have made, and somehow, that seems right for the story. Sunset and Sunrise are love stories, after all, and the narrative has established that these two characters are genuinely in love. That's all we need to know, as the audience. The rest is up to Jesse and Celine.

And I write this post about endings today because that is what I am struggling with as a writer at the moment. Characters I can do. I can invent people all day. And send them off on adventures. But getting to that clear, satisfying resolution is my major hurtle as a storyteller. I think I'm getting better. I'm paying attention to the endings I like, the ones that really made the story worth the telling. So much writing advice involves strong hooks, great openings, compelling action, and that's very important. But the ending is even more important, I feel. It needs to be the payoff for all that effort, on the part of the MC, the audience, the book or film as a whole. A bad ending will ruin a fantastic premise for me every time.

Start strong, finish stronger. No matter what.


jonyangorg said...

I love you because you love Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Not to mention Eternal Sunshine. And hey, you figured out how to use Google Fonts! I so did not, tragically.

Lily Cate said...

Three of my favorite movies of all time. And of course, everything Wes Anderson has ever made.

The fonts I found in the customizing area of the "design" tab in plain ol' blogger. Sometimes I can get the computer to do what I want it to do, without a complete understanding of "how" :D