I just finished watching Hitchcock on Netflix. It’s a great film if, like me, you love Hitchcock films. I should preface that by saying I like his suspense films, not the horror ones. I hope you won’t think any less of me if I confess that I’ve never seen Psycho. Even today I can’t watch horror films — I am a big scaredy cat.
Anyway, Hitchcock is about the making of Psycho, and all of the resistance that Hitchcock came up against during its making, including the friction in his marriage to Alma (Helen Mirren). Near the end of the film, Hitchcock was having trouble with the ending of Psycho, we don’t exactly know what the problem was, just that it wasn’t working. Alma comes in to save the day; Hitchcock and Alma reconcile and together they finish the movie and as everyone knows, the film was a huge success.
Endings can make or break stories, so setting them up to be satisfying, is critical. Satisfying doesn’t have to mean happy, it just has to mean that it makes sense given the set of circumstances and characters.
There are the classic, excellent, tragic endings, for instance, Casa Blanca orThelma and Louise. Your heart goes out to the characters, but you understand that the conclusions were logical, if heart-breaking.
Les Edgerton writes in one of my favourite books on writing, Hooked: write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go,
…all good story endings and resolutions should involve both an element of a win and an element of a loss. Tidy endings that represent a clear-cut vitory or loss just aren’t very good endings. p. 14
If you think about all the movies or books you love, there are both elements of a win and loss.
One of my favourite endings to a movie is in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (the 1988 remake with Steve Martin and Michael Caine). It worked so well and came out of left field all at the same time and it was absolutely consistent with the characters and the plot.
Another great ending was in Private Benjamin, (1980). The movie is about a woman discovering empowerment after being coddled most of her life, and in the end she learns the lesson well.
I will never forget the ending to Tin Cup where Kevin Costner screws up on the 18th hole the last day and loses the tournament. But as Molly (Renee Russo) points out when Roy (Costner) is wallowing in self-pity after shooting a 12:
It was the greatest 12 of all time. No one’s going to remember the Open 10 years from now, who won…but they’ll remember your 12!” [source]
Costner may not have won the game, but he got his self-respect back and because of that, he got the girl.
There are endings that are so awful, they can take away any goodwill you built up during the time you’ve invested in the story (book or film). In addition to endings that tie things up too neatly, endings that are so open-ended make it look like the writer isn’t even sure what will happen. I finish those stories feeling frustrated — wondering, guessing, trying to figure out what might or might not happen.
Another bad ending style is introducing a new plot point 90% of the way through the story. I read a distinguished, well-known author’s book after it launched to huge fan fare and accolades. It was based on a true historical incident that had never been resolved, so I was curious to see how the author would resolve it. At the last minute, there was a bizzare and unforeseen plot twist that came from nowhere introducing a supernatural element that had never even been foreshadowed. The story lost its credibility in my eyes after that.
Stories, for the most part, involve hope. You are introduced to a problem at the beginning, and the reader or viewer hopes, along with the protagonist, that the issue will be resolved in their favour, or, if not, that another just as satisfying solution, will occur. Stories that open with a dark, forboding end in sight (say, an innocent prisoner on death row), and end in that manner (the prisoner being hanged), after trying every way to conquer it, are nothing but depressing. They suggest that you can’t do anything, so don’t even try, that hope is futile. I find those kind of stories discouraging — particularly in fiction, because there are enough of those examples from real life.
Then there are endings where you realize you’ve just been manipulated throughout the story. I remember reading this one book where the ending made the entire story useless. I was so mad, I wanted my time back. I have never read another one of the author’s stories.
Writing a good ending is hard. You have to follow the boundaries of your story and your characters’ behaviour, and yet even if it is predictable, you want to make sure it’s still interesting and that your readers will stay with you to the end. You also really need to respect your readers’ time and intelligence and know that if you do it right, the ending will wrap up the story well. You want to make sure that your readers (or viewers), feel that the time they’ve invested in your work was worth it.
If you have some favourite stories with memorable (good or bad) endings, let me know in the comments section.