Often, climactic scenes can be predictable… but is this really a problem?
I recently finished a popular science fiction novel in which all the heroes’ hopes were dashed, they lost their spacecraft, thousands of sleeping humans were dumped into high orbit in vast cells presumably until the batteries of their cryo-tubes ran out and the galaxy was eaten by robots. I think some of the main characters survived, after a fashion.
It was brilliant.
It was also devastating. Having become emotionally involved in the narrative, and having invested a reasonable amount of time following the team’s misadventures, to see it all unravel at the last minute made me feel a little cheated. No matter how much I told myself that the author had no responsibility to make me feel good by page 400, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he had somehow sidestepped me and shivved me in the kidney. Backstab, critical hit.
We expect happy endings, don’t we? This is why so many writers choose to give us miserable ones. They play with our expectations and raise our hopes only to drop them from a great height. Sometimes, there’s a point to this; we’re reminded that in real life, things often don’t work out the way we wish they would, and in order to achieve a sense of authenticity, the writer has opted to go out with a whimper instead of a bang. Or just with the wrong sort of bang (the good guy’s spaceship going bang instead of the bad guy’s, for example).
Other times, the rug is pulled out from under our feet for reasons that seem cheap. I remember watching a very good film called Tzameti about a poor kid who plays a suicide game with other desperate people in order to make money. It hit home with some clever points about capitalism and competition, and the price of human life. However, at the end (spoiler alert), while he tries to process the devastation he’s feeling, the kid is killed by a robber on the train. So the whole thing ends up feeling completely futile and pointless.
Experiences like this make me think about what I want from stories, be they in book or movie form. Do I want the rug to be pulled out from under me at the last moment, or do I want to enjoy a straightforward arc that ends in satisfactory fashion? And what do I mean by satisfactory?
Not the ending(s) I wanted. But an amazing ride nonetheless.
Well, I’m a big fan of American Horror Story, but in order to enjoy it without reservation I had to come to terms with the fact that the narrative would take ninety-degree turns without warning and the narratives that ran through each series would probably not end in the way I was expecting, or the way I wanted. In the end, I enjoyed the show more for its performances and sheer bravado than its capability at telling a good tale. Because it did some things so well, I could ignore the curious lack of satisfaction I felt when it was all over.
Do I want my work in progress to feel like that? Well, no. I want to surprise the readers, sure, and I want their opinions to change towards the characters as they discover more about them, but above all I want the ending to land like an atom bomb and for every reader to feel that sense of exhilaration and relief that comes after every cathartic moment. I want those last 30 pages to be an ordeal, in the same way that the last season of Breaking Bad was an ordeal, or Steven Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates. But I want the residual feeling to be one of satisfaction; things must end in a way that feels right (and in those two examples, this is precisely what happened).
I made it. Phew!
I don’t know if I got that right with my first book, Healer’s Ruin. The ending felt right to me, at least. In fact, the ending was the first image I had in my head, before I’d even written a word of it, and the original title of the book was going to be Army of Ghosts. But even as I worked on the book, I couldn’t imagine it ending any differently. With my current WIP, it’s different. There are many ways it could end, because it’s a bigger book, and there are more protagonists and threads, and I can afford some happy endings and some miserable ones. I can even afford to have one thread end in the most bizarre way possible (I probably won’t do this… but you never know).
The challenge is predictability. We can’t afford just to let things run through the most obvious of motions.
Or can we?
I remember watching The Force Awakens in the cinema (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it). My favourite moment was when Kylo Ren, bristling with arrogance, reaches for the discarded lightsaber. It shudders, moves incrementally slowly, and then suddenly bursts out and flies towards his outstretched hand… only to whistle past him and land in Rey’s grasp. I loved this whole sequence. It sent a thrill down my spine. It was a pitch-perfect ‘Star Wars’ moment.
But a lot of people moaned about it, calling the scene ‘predictable’. Strangely, I agreed, but when I watched the film a second time, I still loved that moment. Predictable isn’t always a bad thing if it feels right. How contrived would it have felt if something completely left-field had happened? We’d be saying, ‘way to drop the ball!’ or ‘they only did that to be clever.’ We’d feel cheated.
So I suppose what I’m getting at is that there’s a real challenge to writing the end of a novel. As avid readers, writers usually have a good sense of what the reader is going to expect, especially in genre fiction where straight stories in clear prose are very popular indeed. We know the tropes and the clichés. We know how to play with the reader a little, tease them with one possiblity and then deliver something wholly unexpected. But the ending is a very delicate time (to steal a phrase from Dune); you can’t afford to fuck it up. It has to deliver something to make the act of reading the book worthwhile.
Perhaps this is my conclusion, then. The ending must satisfy and it should also surprise. But the surprise element is not as important as we think it is. Readers (and we know this because we’re all readers, aren’t we?) want to feel clever enough to have spotted the foreshadowing; they want to see the characters they hate get some sort of punishment and those they love get some sort of reward. They want to see a balance restored or a revolution succeed. But they also want something unexpected to occur in the midst of all the feel-good.
If we writers are as clever as we think we are, we can give them all of this in essence, just with an edge of verisimilitude. The heroes can achieve their goals, but feel hollow when they discover the true cost of their victory. The villain can fail, but in that last moment reveal the truth behind his malice, a truth that produces a pang of compassion in the readers – just as they get their wish and see him skewered (make those puritanical readers feel guilty!). The monster hunt can end with the beast killing the hunter, as we see that the hunter was the real monster. In essence, we’re being predictable. Evil is failing, Good is winning, Prey is turning on Predator, Rebellion is overturning Empire, and so on. But we are redefining what these terms mean in order to deliver something new along the way.
In short, the formula stays the same, but we define the elements that make it.
So what are your thoughts on predicable endings, and how to tie a story up in a satisfactory way? Do you want a straight story with an ending you can see from space, or do you want to be sucker-punched? Let me know your opinions, people!
Keep writing, stay amazing,