Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Trickiness of Endings

Last week I at long last read a Stephen King story that I'd wanted to read for years; The Mist. I saw the film for the first time in 2008 and despite loving it I didn't seek out the King original story it was based on at the time. Now, with the wonder that is the Kindle, I got the collected short story volume The Skeleton Crew and settled down to read it through. But having watched the interview between director Frank Darabont and Mr. King I knew the ending was different to the film. And not necessarily for the better. This got me thinking about my own troubles with endings and why there's hope for us mere mortals if even the writing gods like Stephen King can get it wrong sometimes.

*Here Be Festooned With Spoilers - Fairly Warned, You Be*

Opinion on the film of The Mist is pretty divided in my experience. Many say it's too bleak and hate the ending of the film. Then you find people like me, who think it's the most daring and, dare I say, perfect ending for such a taut, high tension story. The moment when David Drayton steps out of that car, screaming for one of the "monsters" to kill him, only for the army to roll on by... I get chills just thinking about it. Even those that wanted a happy ending will never be able to forget that ending. I found the conclusion of the original story is no where near as effective. Rather than a punch in the guts, we're given an indefinite answer, where the fate of the last four survivors is ultimately unknown. All we do know is that they plan on continuing their journey to find the end of the mist, and hopefully reach safety. Even King seems a bit unsure about it, with the main character referencing how much his dad hated "Hitchcock" endings, the ones that left it to your imagination. The conversation between him and Darabont, in the DVD's special features, only seems to confirm this, as they discuss the difficulties they had in coming up with the ending for the film version, and King's assertion that he wished he'd had the guts to end the short story the same way.

Tragic endings are almost always divisive; some see them as a contrived betrayal, others as daring and original. I've always felt that the ending depends on the tone of the story that preceded it. Some stories need a happy ending - that's been the impression through the story arc, and anything else will end up feeling like you've been lied to. But sometimes, when the mood of a story is dark and the tension ramps up constantly, a darker, unexpected ending is called for. And if it's missing... at best you get a story that ends with the sound of a balloon fart, at worse a story the reader will never want to read again. I experienced this with Alex Garland's The Beach. The tension was great throughout, the characters were interesting (if a little unlikable), and all was set for a truly explosive ending. But it didn't happen. Instead it felt like Garland had chickened out, that he couldn't bring himself to do the necessary (kill a main character, scar them for life, that sort of thing), and so the book just... ended. I also couldn't see how a slight brush with some drug cartel, when no one was seriously hurt and all were just allowed to leave, could possibly change the nature of the main character enough that he becomes Mr. Ordinary in the last few lines. It didn't fit the tone of the story, and it didn't fit the character.

Thomas Jane just finished reading The Beach...
Sometimes shocking can come off as trite, or just too convenient, but at least you tend to remember the story after you close that book/turn off your kindle. It weedles your way into your sub-conscious and won't be shifted, like a leech forever planted in your skull. The films and books I remember best tend to have the most satisfying or surprising ending. Getting the balance of both is the tricky part, as it's all too easy to be shocking but not satisfying, or trying for satisfying and just coming up with "meh".

One of the things I've found hardest in my quest to write stories is how to end them. The tone for me plays a big part in the final decision I make, but I sometimes wonder if that means I edge to bleak more often than I should. One thing I have learnt though; ultimately you have to write the ending you think fits best, not the one you think the audience will want. Hollywood has often gone too far into that territory, such as using screen tests to gauge viewers reactions, and changing the ending based on the feedback. This happened to the US release of The Descent, which in its original form has an incredibly dark but satisfying ending. The 'happy' ending just doesn't have the same impact and definitely doesn't seem as true to the mood of the whole film. So if this newbie writer can advise anything for others struggling with endings it's this; don't play it safe, and end it the way you want; the reaction of the audience will be what it will be. If they don't like it, then they don't. Learn and move on. But maybe, just maybe, that terribly dark and screwed up ending of yours will be exactly what some of the readers wanted.

1 comment:

  1. My two favourite / memorable book endings would be in 'Use of Weapons' by Iain M Banks (unforgettable and bleak); and 'The Magic Toyshop' by Angela Carter ... for its complete transcendental anticipation.