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Thursday Reading FUNdamentals: The End is the Beginning

March 10, 2011

Today’s entry comes from something Ethan Cooper–author of In Control, Smooth in Meetings, and Tom’s Job–said in the comments section of his review of Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs.   (Oh and I’m going to spoil the ending of that book, so consider this your spoiler warning.)

Stopping, as I did on page 265, I would never have guessed that Sarah and Lou adopt, Bobby dies, and Lou strokes. Is it good or bad, I wonder, that this end was not implicit in the start of the book?

As usual I answered so definitively by saying, “It depends.”  Because to me it depends on whether you think such an ending was completely off the wall or not.  In this case I didn’t see that ending coming (though Bobby dying and Lou stroking shouldn’t have been that big of surprises really since they were both 60 and not in the greatest health) but it wasn’t too wacky.  Now if Lou had been beamed up by aliens to be rectal probed (which I would not have minded because Lou was a douche) and Bobby and Sarah started a new career as a folk singing duo that would definitely have been too wacky for me to buy.

Suspension of disbelief and all that.  Of course when it comes to endings, no one makes you suspend more disbelief than M. Night Shamaylan–or however his name is spelled; I’m not going to look it up.  He built his whole career starting with “Sixth Sense” on left field endings.  Bruce Willis is a ghost!  Samuel L. Jackson is an evil mastermind who helps Bruce Willis discover he has superpowers!  Aliens are afraid of water!  (What really needed me to suspend disbelief was that they found this out in the Middle East or in other words, the burning desert with no water!  What, someone threw a bottle of Evian at them?  They cut into a camel’s hump?)  The village is really in modern times!  Plants are attacking people!  The devil is disguised as an old lady in an elevator!

The problem for M. Night is that it’s become his only trick.  So you know if you watch one of his movies–why, God, why would you?–you know he’s going to try to pull the rug out from under you at the end.  Thus does the unpredictable become predictable.

But getting back to the point, what I’m saying is that endings should follow some kind of logic.  Too often, especially in horror, authors try those kind of “Gotcha!” M. Night tactics.  Sometimes it works and other times it just doesn’t make sense.

The old “Scooby Doo” cartoons specialized in “Gotcha!” endings too.  At the end of pretty much every episode they’d pull the rubber mask off the pirate ghost or ghost pirate or whoever and reveal who was causing all the trouble.  Even those followed some logic, though.  My memory might be a bit fuzzy since I haven’t watched an episode in 20 years, but the person involved was usually someone seen or mentioned earlier.  Like it was Old Man Jones who wanted to stir up rumors of a ghost so no one would buy the amusement park; and he would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids!  Now if they pulled off the mask and it was an alien or Zeus or Shaggy’s evil twin then we’re getting beyond the realm of belief.  (Unless it’s a soap opera or comic book, in which case anything goes.  Twins separated at birth!  Time travel!  Clones!  Amnesia!  And so on.)

To spoil another Russo book, near the end of Empire Falls, a creepy loner kid goes on a Columbine-style rampage.  This was surprising, but it wasn’t beyond belief because Russo had established the creepy loner kid character earlier.  It would have been terrible (and probably not won a Pulitzer) if Creepy Loner kid just appears from nowhere and starts firing.

So the point is that when you’re ending a story, it’s fine to want to create some surprise; no one wants a story they can predict from Page 1, or that’s what I like to believe, though the success of Nicholas Sparks makes me question this.  What you have to be careful of is not to try so hard to create a “Gotcha!” moment that you throw out all logic.

And since I brought up M. Night movies, here’s an example from another movie.  Last year I watched “Duplicity” with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts.  It was fine for most of the movie where you had two corporations trying to screw each other and then Owen/Roberts teaming up to double-cross the corporations and make a huge profit from a secret formula to cure baldness.  But then the writer/director goes that one step too far in trying to double-cross the audience.  The formula they steal is really for ordinary shampoo.  So Owen/Roberts and the one corporation headed by Paul Giamatti look like chumps.  This ending had me shaking my head and saying, “Really?  You mean two hotshot spies from MI6 and the CIA didn’t bother actually checking the findings with an independent source?  And they didn’t check their apartments to make sure no one was spying on them?  Really?”  Sure you got your “Gotcha!” moment but it was at the cost of making me think your characters were complete morons.  So, good for you, Mr. Writer/Director.  If that was your goal, then Mission Accomplished.

That’s an example of trying just a little too hard.  Be careful with that or you’ll lose the respect of the audience.  Know when to say when.

And now that we’re at the end I’ll reveal that Rogue Mutt really is a super-intelligent bulldog bred by the CIA to spy on foreign nations who escaped and traveled into the past to anonymously post bad writing tips to the Internet as part of a fiendish alien plot to destroy human literacy.  Aha!  Gotcha!  Suck it, M. Night!

OK, on Sunday I’ll show you one of my twist endings…


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  1. LOL! Predicatbly unpredictable, eh?

    I suppose any pattern, no matter how exciting and wonderful the first time, gets old after a while. 😉

  2. As a Haley Joel Osment fanboy, I felt compelled to respond … :0)

    Seriously, it’s a good point about reader expectation. M.N.S. (not spelling it either) has created the expectation of a WTF ending, so now audiences spend the entire movie trying to guess what it might be. Consequently, I think he’s gone from really unique and interesting twists to reaching for any kind of silly turn of hand.

    I think that’s the biggest key to pulling it off, the audience cannot see or expect it in the slightest. In fact, the entire story needs to appear to be about something else up to the point of the twist. Incredibly hard to do.

    In 6th Sense, we thought the movie was about a boy who could see dead people, but it was actually about Bruce Willis finding peace/closure. In Unbreakable, we thought the movie was about a cop, his struggling marriage, and perhaps his budding super powers. It was really about a man who let his disabilities drive him to madness.

    • M. Night just needs to stop thinking he’s Rod Serling because he’s just not that good. If I ever went to YouTube I’d see if I could find the “Robot Chicken” skit spoofing M. Night’s twistiness.

  3. Great post, Rogue! You make really excellent points throughout. The predictably unpredictable ending drives me nuts at times.

    Oh, and I’m feeling so glad I didn’t see Duplicity now 😛

  4. M. Night’s Avatar was laughably terribad. I think his career is pretty much over. Unbreakable I think was my favorite movie of his and he showed a lot of promise. You’re absolutely right though, he has only one trick. The people that compared him to Steven Spielberg early in his career were obviously completely out of touch with reality.

  5. I saw the time travel/CIA ending coming a mile away. It was so obvious from your intro.

    On a minor note, I was INCREDIBLY disappointed that the Village didn’t actually have real monsters; at this point, M. Night’s best twist would be no twist. I never wanted to see “Haunted Elevator” or whatever that movie was.

    I think the predictability, or lack of same, in a book is jarring only if the tone hasn’t set it up. Many endings to Grisham books are relatively predictable, but enjoyable because you’re seeing the route they took to get there. The ending to “Room” was not predictable, but in a nontwisty way. The ending to “Kraken” was predictable, but not entirely so. So it’s not whether it’s a twist or not, it’s whether the story and writing are good enough to maintain it. M. Night’s don’t work anymore because we’re all WAITING for the twist, and he’s trying hard to top it.

    I thought, btw, that the “twist” in Signs was not that the aliens were harmed by water but that there turned out to be a God after all; Mel Gibson’s character had decided that everything is pure chance and there’s no point having faith, but as it worked out the entire world was like a clockwork toy that led up to the moment when his son lived because God had given him asthma.

    • I’d have to take your word for the twist in “Signs;” my sisters and I got so bored we started watching the movie in fast forward. The movie in the elevator is “Devil” which isn’t directed by M. Night but based on his concept. Supposedly that was going to be the first of several movies M. Night conceives for minions to direct, but given that “Devil” wasn’t much of a hit, I’m not sure if more will be produced–or they might just go straight to DVD.

      I thought for sure his career was over after “The Happening” bombed but then came “Last Airbender” so he might not be done yet.

  6. Ethan Cooper permalink

    An excellent and amusing entry and I have nothing to add.

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