(There may be a little bit of spoilers in this. I’ll try to behave. But you can’t really write about endings and why they don’t work if you don’t talk about the endings.)
Let me tell you about a movie I just watched. Movies are good bit-sized stories to pick apart and learn from, even if you are focused on writing narrative fiction. And I watch a lot more movies than I should when snowed in and trapped in the house, while all my to-read books are in boxes awaiting the move.
Movies also have a lot lower threshold to hop over for enjoyability for me. I like to read a good book, but won’t finish a bad one. A movie? Most of the time I’ll hang in there to the end no matter how bad. In this case, however, this movie was very good right up until the end–then it fell apart completely.
Why? Because it didn’t fulfill its promises.
I’d never head of this one before, but it had Maggie Smith and Jennifer Gardner in it, and was on hulu.com for free. So I figured I’d give it a shot. The basic premise is based (and as far as I can tell, close to) a Victorian-era novel. A young woman in 1800’s New York falls in love with a man her father finds unsuitable. Her widowed aunt meddles, her relatives gossip, and off we go.
Now one can forgive what happens afterwards in a book from the era, in that time moves along and threads of plot appear and disappear at will. But when making a movie, even when you want to keep true to a book, you can’t ignore the promises you have made to your viewer/reader. In W.S., we deal with several items of plot:
- The girl’s relationship with her father. This is heightened by the first scene being of his reaction to his beloved wife dying in childbirth, leaving him with a daughter he can only blame.
- Her romance with her young man.
All of the rest of the story is built upon these two elements. Will she and her father reconcile their conflict? Will she live happily ever after with the man she loves?
The middle of any story hinges upon raising the stakes of the primary points. In this case, her father’s distaste for his daughter becomes more and more apparent (he thinks she’s dimwitted) and her devotion to her beau grows deeper despite her father’s assumptions that the man wants her only for her money.
I’m with the story throughout all of this despite some Fun Games With Time. (Yes, let’s jump ahead a year without making it clear to the viewer!) and other more minor foibles. Because I want to see how it ends. I want to know how these two questions get answered.
And they do…sort of. At the end we know how both turned out. Yet it this not-so-gentle viewer was left wondering, feeling incomplete. Because the promise a writer makes isn’t just that these questions get answered but that they are Inevitable and Surprising. Only one or the other leaves things unsatisfying.
The Inevitable and Surprising endings have both a sense that this is what the story was building to as well as doing so in a way that we don’t expect. I think most readers will forgive a story easier if the ending isn’t Surprising, but it must always be inevitable.
With this particular story, the endings were Surprising, but hardly Inevitable from a story standpoint. (What happens is fairly believable from a “this is what probably would have happened to the poor girl if she really lived during that time.”). Yet all the scenes that set up the tension between her and her father seem to say “Yes, it’s getting worse between them, but they’ll deal with that.” Then they don’t. They get worse, but it becomes an established status quo rather than coming to a head.
Sure, it could happen that way. Sure, it is a possible ending. But why all the focus and build-up if nothing changes? At the end, she’s resolved to his nastiness but I don’t think it actually changes her–the situation will never change and she isn’t happy and that’s the way it will always be. I suppose you could argue her resignation is the turning point, but that comes toward the end of Act II, rather than a climactic bit at the end.
The second, as to what the young beau was up to, is also left feeling unresolved for somewhat different reasons. Except for her father’s dislike of him, the young man is never once shown to be a ne’er-do-well only after the girl’s inevitable fortune. Sure, he’s poor, with little prospects. Yet he does work to improve himself throughout. We only see him when he’s devoted to her, and so the promise is made that this will end Happily Ever After.
Promised, but not delivered.
Turns out, he was exactly as her father said. And while in the end, she declares she’s happy without him, it feels like they had the “Boy meets Girl. Boy loses Girl.” part without ever even attempting the last “Boy Gets Girl Again” part. He admits he was after her money (after she berates him), and that’s it. Done.
I’ll leave off the conundrum that if her father was right about the guy, then are we supposed to think he was right about the girl? Okay, she’s not plucky, she’s socially awkward to the extreme, but she has a good heart and we follow the story from her point of view. We like her, and are promised that by following her story, we’ll at least feel like we’ve had the journey with her. Instead, we’re left wondering if she was so dumb after all, and us too, because we believed in her.
So hopefully this illustrates a little clearer about the dangers of making promises you can’t or won’t keep.