One of my biggest pet peeves with films the last few years is the inability for the filmmaker to end it well. Now, I don’t mean tack on a happy ending. Rather, I mean, a good ending that fits with the film as a whole. I saw a movie yesterday with my family and was really enjoying it. That is until we got to the end. The writers had painted themselves into a corner and I suspect didn’t know what to do with that. It was disappointing, especially since I really liked the first 75% of the movie.
Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon in films today? The director who so clearly represents this trend in my eyes is Tim Burton. I have a few Burton films that I really enjoy (Edward Scissor Hands, Nightmare Before Christmas, Big Fish), but I have seen way too many films that have started with really fun concepts, but fizzled out in the end. It’s gotten so bad, that I almost as a rule will not see Burton films anymore, no matter how trippy and quirky it appears to be.
Is this trend a result of laziness on the part of Hollywood? Do they focus all their energy on the basic plot points, making them interesting enough to hook people into the theaters, and then just abandon the story’s end? “Who cares how it ends – we have their money.” This frustrates and angers me. I think a story’s ending is the most important aspect, because this is the ultimate point that a storyteller is trying to make. The hero’s journey is ending at a significant moment and there should be something worth saying at that point in the story.
I’ve been fascinated by narrative this year (I may have mentioned that once or twice or multiple times on the blog). I attended a story workshop at a conference last April and fell even deeper into the rabbit’s hole. I learned there that story structure is what gives clarity and structure to a story. It is what enables us to communicate a story so that others can receive it. At the end of the story there’s supposed to be a payoff for our emotional investment. So, when an ending is done poorly, it is extremely frustrating (especially when the story was engaging enough to make you care about its main players).
The instructor at my workshop spoke about the dynamics that help create a good ending. One of the main devices used is a bait and switch, where circumstances seem either perfect or absolutely disastrous, but suddenly switch to the opposite. So, in a tragedy, it would seem as though the hero will succeed only to be struck at the last minute with utter loss and devastation (think Hamlet). In a comedy, it seems as though all hope is lost but then there is surprising success (think Return of the King). It’s amazing how this aspect can add so much tension and shock to an ending. (Note: I’m using the terms “tragedy” and “comedy” in the classical sense, meaning either a sad ending or a happy ending, a sad ending typically involving death and a happy ending typically involving a marriage).
Story structure can be seen as a formula, but I like to see it rather as scaffolding, which allows for a story to be clearly communicated. The scaffolding leaves plenty of space for creativity and uniqueness, but each part of the scaffolding is important. A film’s ending is vital to good storytelling. I mean, what’s the point if we sacrifice our ending?