Story Endings: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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.

Good Endings

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.

Bad Endings

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.

Ugly Endings

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.

 

 

The Ultimate Deadline

St. Andrew's by the Sea, New Brunswick, (Marriott Hotel)

St. Andrew’s by the Sea, New Brunswick, (Marriott Hotel)

I was horribly shy growing up. I hated meeting new people as I was terrible at starting conversations. I worried about what I would say, whether I looked “normal,” etc. By normal, I mean, Did I blend in? Standing out is something I was never interested in. My motto was: “Don’t make waves, just stay in the background.” I have always been comfortable with that — sure there are no accolades, but there is also no criticism. All of that is fine unless you want to do something with your life, like write, for instance. Anything except for journaling needs an audience, and that means putting yourself out there — your work will be criticized (which means YOU will be criticized), but hopefully your work will also be liked by your target audience. Art as self-expression is a double-edged sword. Until you are confident enough to accept that what you do won’t ever be liked by everyone, you should probably be happy keeping it to yourself or your family.

As I approached the golden age of 50 not too long ago, I figured I was fine with the whole ‘getting older’ thing. My husband had had a particularly hard time with it –but  I believed I went through my “mourning lost youth” period when I turned 39. On the morning of my 39th birthday, I balled my eyes out.

About a month before my 50th birthday, however, my perspective changed. I couldn’t believe I was turning 50. Where had my 40s gone? What had I accomplished on a personal level? Yes, raising three kids is important and I treasure all the time I spent with them — (a lot of it in hockey arenas cheering them on) — but if I want to get stuff done, I’d better start now. I have a few measly decades to accomplish things and when I turn 60, I don’t want to look back at my 50s with regret wondering where the time went.  So, what does a mother do when she has a ton of things she wants to do and doesn’t know where to start? She makes a list of course!

Not only did I make a list, but I also broke it down by year so I knew who was — in theory — doing what, when and what kind of free time that would leave me.

A lot of my list revolves around traveling, and that involves both money and time — two things I’m still short on. I anticipated that problem for the first few years of my 50s, so I put smaller travel goals in there (ie., go to New Brunswick for a holiday — check! St. Andrew’s by the Sea, 2014. Beautiful, I might add). There are non-travel things I want to accomplish too: write three novels before I’m 60.

So, here’s the thing: I have been dicking around for years with my fiction writing, not paying any attention to time. But I always thought that “someday” I would publish something. But when the looming deadline of death rears its head, you realize you haven’t got all the time in the world and it’s time to stop caring about what other people think, and start caring about what YOU want to get out of life.

This new look on life has been absolutely freeing. Not that I plan on deliberately making a fool out of myself so practice and continuous improvement are a part of this plan, but I no longer worry about how I will react if someone doesn’t like something I’ve written. I have a mission, and fulfilling it to the best ability I can, is the most important part of it.

I am almost three years into this new plan. For the past two years, just before my birthday I pull out my To Do list and review it, wondering if I have been able to tick off a few goals and take a look at what I have planned for the coming year. So far, I have accomplished most of the goals I laid out for myself for the first two years. There are some that were on the list that no longer interest me, so they got crossed off. There are others I’ve added as new interests develop.

The key to this list is having a “deadline.” It has helped me accomplish things that I have been pushing aside due to fear of (negative) judgment or sticking out. Artists already know this and they must have a gene that helps them launch forward in the face of possible public criticism. But for the rest of us with hidden artistry beneath, we have to realize that it’s more about rising to a personal challenge than pleasing everyone. With that attitude, you can develop the confidence to try things you never thought you could.

Reading eBooks for Free

In this day and age of technology developments, publishing a first novel isn’t as difficult or as involved a process as was pre-internet. In fact, I remember this one time, I was walking through a shopping mall and a new author was standing beside a stack of books approaching people as they walked past, asking if they liked mystery or suspense novels and then pitching them on his.  I remembered thinking that if that was the way I would have to sell a self-published book I would probably sell one copy to each of my family members (maybe), and that would be it. I’m a terrible salesperson, and talking to each person individually, trying to convince them to buy your book, in a small town, well, it would take a very, very long time for you to spread the word about your book. In the old, pre-internet, days, using traditional publishers was the only way to go.

The internet age has changed the self-publishing field. I self-published without even bothering to send my book out to professional publishers or agents for a few reasons — the primary one being that I’m no spring chicken and I wanted to see it in the hands of readers before I go senile.

However, being self-published means you are responsible for getting your book out there and into the hands of people who might appreciate it. So, I’ve done a ton of research into book marketing in the last few months and what I have happily discovered is that there are plenty of sites where you can offer your book for free and where you can read other people’s high quality published work for free or heavily discounted prices as well. The only caveate to this is that I am only talking about e-books.  While my own preference is for a hard copy of a book, I have become used to downloading works onto my phone — perfect for my 50 minute subway and bus ride to work — and lighter than a book in print!

So, here are a few of my favourite sites where you can find free or discounted ebooks.

Story Cartel: I often use this site to make my own book available to readers. In exchange for a free copy, readers are asked to review it on any site they please. As a writer, I appreciate having a platform for people outside my own personal sphere to be able to find and read my book. As a reader, I have downloaded many wonderful books (and some that are not quite my cup of tea), that I have happily read and reviewed.

Noise Trade: I’ve uploaded my book to this site, which anyone can access for free. There is lots of great content on this site for book AND music lovers. It is a great way to discover indie authors and bands. In exchange for the download, there is a suggested tip tray. Personally, I would rather get reviews than tips, but I get the feeling the site is more geared towards music than books.

Reader’s Favorite: A great site for finding tens of thousands of new books from new and established writers. Writers can submit their book to get one free review from one of their reviewers. Reviewers receive the book for free and you will most likely see your review attached to editorial reviews for an author’s book on Amazon. They also have monthly book giveaway contests that you can enter to win the book of your choice.

The Fussy Librarian: A great site that only suggests free and low-priced eBooks that have received an average of 3.5-5 stars. The review ranges become more forgiving as books have an increased number of reviews. Subscribe to their daily email and get targeted suggestions based on the criteria you fill out in the subscription form.

Riffle: A good site for both discussions and discounted ebooks. You can get all kinds of books for your e-reader or phone. Subscribe to their newsletter to get books to get notified of  free and discounted book deals on your preferred platform (Amazon, Google Play, iBooks, etc.).

BookBub: Another site with tons of high-quality books available at discounted prices. Subscribe based on personal preferences for suggestions sent to your inbox every day.

One final discovery — at first, I was limited to the selection of books I was receiving because I have an iPhone and many of the books that I was interested in reading were only available on Amazon. It took me awhile, but I finally realized that there was probably an app for Kindle on iPhone. Lo and behold there is! So now I have the choice of books for Kindle or iPhone.

These are just a few of the many sites out there with low-priced and free ebooks available.

If you have a favourite site, please suggest it in the comments section.

 

The Real Farm Shop

Chatsworth

Chatsworth

 

In A Vintage Year, Laura Walters yearns for running her own gourmet general store filled with local produce, meats, jams, jellies, preserves and nuts. She knows exactly what it will look like and where it will be positioned on the property, what they will sell and how wonderful it would be. Alas, her dreams are dashed about a quarter of the way the book, and she is truly crushed. While not quite as obsessed as Laura, I too had a dream for running a small, pretty little farm shop that carried local produce, etc.

Over the Christmas break, 1998-99, my husband and I were invited to a wedding outside of Sheffield, England. We took advantage of the kindness of friends and family, farmed out our two kids (the third not even a glimmer in our eyes at that point), and went on a much needed holiday to mid-England. We had a travel agent extraordinaire at the time – in the days when people used travel agents — who booked us into this lovely little B&B outside of Bakewell, close to where the wedding would be.

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On the property of Chatsworth, rear view of the Farm Shop?

When not attending the festivities or visiting with the bride and groom, we hiked through the Darbyshire Dales, enjoying the walks and the weather. On one of our walks, we discovered Chatsworth. While I had seen Pride and Prejudice on A&E a few years earlier, I didn’t know that Pemberly was actually Chatsworth — that is until we saw it. I recognized it immediately. We walked the grounds as I explained to my husband exactly what had transpired in the novel at Pemberly/Chatsworth….I think he might have tuned me out.

After the grounds, we drove around the vast estate and came upon the Chatsworth Farm Shop. I fell in love. I am an architecture buff at heart and this little farm shop was the cutest place I had ever seen. I wanted to live in the area just so I could visit it and buy my food from it every day. It stayed with me. I described it in the book the way I remember it, but memories change as did the Farm Shop. Old stone walls, blue door and shutters, waist-height windows flanking the entrance. From the website, it looks like it’s expanded somewhat.

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The grounds at Chatsworth

The Chatsworth Farm Shop stayed with me in my head and heart. I thought of opening my own in a small town outside the city…but I needed capital; oh and I’d have to uproot my family when my husband was the number one bread earner; oh, and I had no experience (but I do like to cook). So that didn’t happen.  Occasionally I’d pull out the old photo album and take a look at it and dream. And then I saw a way to finally use the place — I’d put it in a novel. In a way, I knew what Laura’s yearning for it was like, since I too, had yearned for it. My yearning, however, was not realistic and better belonged on paper.

If you ever get a chance to visit the Darbyshire Dales, Chatsworth is well worth a stop if you’re a history or architecture buff. The countryside is stunning, and the farm shop is wonderful.

 

Perfection is Boring: Harris Tucker 2.0

I admit I have been living with Harris Tucker, the main character of A Vintage Year for more than twenty years. Over the years, he has morphed into a far more realistic and interesting person. When I first created Harris he was a pro-golfer, not a pro-tennis player (because I played more golf than tennis in those days) and he was in a completely different story — an eco-thriller (Laura was there with him too). He had only one flaw — no sense of direction. He was kind, thoughtful and had done a business degree while playing on the golf team at Stanford. He spoke fluent Spanish and was respectful of everyone and every thing. He came from a loving family and had one sister. His family was a bunch of academics — his sister had a Ph.D. and his parents were professors at Carnegie-Mellon University. He was considered the black sheep of the family — the hugely successful and absolutely perfect black sheep. And, he was boring. Well, I don’t mean completely boring, but from a writer’s perspective he was.

Flawed characters are so much more fun to write. They get into all kinds of trouble. They create interesting circumstances on their own, and they show that they are human — just like the rest of us. When I first began writing Harris, I wanted him to be perfect because I thought that if he wasn’t, we couldn’t like him as a character. As I grew older (and more mature) I realized that the people I liked to read about, whether biographies or fiction, were flawed in various ways. And then I realized that I still liked them — or hated them or found them interesting. Once you accept that really flawed characters give you, the author, the broadest range of choice, you begin to see that the perfect “Knight in Shining Armour” character is like cardboard. They are predictable, there is no challenge they can’t overcome and they don’t reflect reality. Sometimes that’s okay, but I’m at a stage in my life where I don’t read or enjoy fairy tales anymore.  I need real (ish).

In my mind, Harris Tucker becomes a reluctant Mr. Darcy — perhaps the most perfect (slightly flawed) character of all time. It isn’t by choice that Harris does what he does. He has grown up and learned what it is like to accept responsibility and see it through. He is still relatively selfish and still has an ego, but along with it, he has drive and direction and loves others while being loved and accepted despite his flaws, and that is so much more satisfying than perfection.