Saturday, April 14, 2007

The difficulties of nailing the dismount

Endings are crucial. Create an emotionally satisfying ending for your story and the audience often forgive any flaws in what comes before. Conversely, fumble your ending and the audience departs your tale with a bad taste in their mouths. I haven't see the new film by director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland, but everyone review I've seen for Sunshine expresses disappointment with the ending. There's a sense that the movie comes apart when it reaches the climax, the big finish.

Life on Mars finished this week and I was happy with the conclusion crafted by writer Matthew Graham. Others have been left dissatisfied, or simply scratching their heads, cheated because the finale didn't match or exceed their expectations. Creating a great ending is that tricky balancing act of coming up with a conclusion that's both surprising and yet, in retrospect, inevitable. You give the audience want its wants, even if they're not sure what that was before it happened. [Mark Lawson has some interesting thoughts about this in a posting on the Guardian's website, though you may need registration to read them.]

Over in America the series Friday Night Lights finished its first season. There's still no definite word on whether the drama will be back for another batch of 22 episodes come the autumn, so the programme makers had to deliver a satisfying ending while also leaving enough loose threads in case they get a chance to continue the story later this year. I liked the final episode and didn't guess what was going to happen, but can't see how the show could easily progress from where it is now in a story sense. All of FNL pivots on a particular character, and if there is a season two, that character will be based miles away from everyone else. Oh well, it's not problem to resolve. I've got my fingers crossed there'll at least be a DVD set of season one released soon.

Nailing the dismount also came up on a DVD I watched this week, when Amazon finally delivered my boxed set of all 10 Star Treks films. I'll probably never bother watching the odd-numbered films, but the whole set was only £40 quid, so I ordered it anyway [back in January, when I still had money, natch]. The special features on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan detail how the film was changed to leave the door open for resurrecting the character of Spock, after the original version played like a funeral in test screenings. A few minor tweaks, a change of voiceover at the end of the movie and a franchise-killing bomb was transformed, resurrecting Trek from the grave. Director Nicholas Meyer seems less than chuffed by the changes, but puts his hand up to the fact they made everybody a lot more money. Welcome to Hollywood.

There are plenty of successful novelists who start writing a new book with no idea of where it's going to end - among them Stephen King. I call this the Journey of Discovery method. Talented, experienced writers who've learned to trust their storytelling instincts will find a way to the ending their story deserves. The danger for people who don't have that level of talent, craft and sharply honed instinct is they'll simply get lost and give up the journey. Or perhaps a story, theme and charactes will emerge along the way, but massive rewriting will be required to hone all of these into a more gripping, punchy narrative.

Experience has shown me I need to know where I'm going or I'll get utterly lost. I have to know my ending, my destination before I start. It's also helpful if I've got a handful of places where I can stop en route, knowing they'll help keep me going in roughly the right direction. I describe this the Road Map method of writing. That doesn't mean I don't take detours, short cuts or side trips - follow your route map [or synopsis] slavishly is liable to crush the spontaneity from your story. If what you're writing is boring you, what effect will it have on your audience?

Film and TV drama requires writers to spend a lot of time upfront, developing their plot, characters and themes. If somebody's going to spend hundreds of thousands or millions of their money turnign your script into a TV show or movie, they'll want to know how it ends before they start! On the DVD commentary for State of Play, Paul Abbott said that project was the first time he'd started writting a series without knowing the ending. He wanted to keep himself guessing, just as he wanted to keep the audience guessing. Of course, Abott's a vastly experienced writer, so that doesn't hurt - and I'm sure there were plenty of rewrites along the way.

The Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman suggests up to sixty per cent of your time in creating a story for the screen should be devoted to thought, research and preparation. Only ten percent of your time is spent writing the first draft, while the other thirty per cent is rewriting, polishing the rough diamond you've unearthed in that first draft. I don't think you should apply those exact percentages to novel writing, but it shows how much time and thought needs to go into any kind of extended storytelling before you write the first line of dialogue.

I write the first draft of a novel as fast as I possibly can, to keep the narrative, characters and themes fresh in my thoughts. I can bash out my first at a 95,000 word novel in five or six weeks. That sounds fast, when other writers will spend an entire day producing 500 words of purple prose. But I'll have spent months thinking about the story, the characters - plotting and planning, deciding what I want to say in the novel. The physical act of writing, often that's the easiest part. Especially if you know you've got a crackerjack ending on which to finish. There's nothing better than typing THE END or FADE OUT, knowing you've nailed the dismount.


Pete Kempshall said...

Interesting that you say Stephen King's from the Make It Up As You Go school of writing.

I've only read a few of his books, largely because I've been so underwhelmed with his endings. I can't bring myself to invest the time in reading something I'm reasonably sure will fall flat in the last 50 pages.

TonyB said...

Good post. I agree with the above about Stephen King.

By and large I think the 'journey of discovery' method is asking for trouble. I know that Paul Abbott got a lot of flak for the underwhelming ending to State of Play.

Personally, even though it was undoubtedly planned, I am distinctly underwhelmed by Life on Mar's conclusion, so much so that it does actually taint the memory of the rest of the series - the power of the mystery has been blown away.

However, I doubt that they would have ended it quite the way they did had LoM remained a self-contained project. The spin off 'Ashes to Ashes' forced their hand somewhat.

Good endings are vital, and never more so than when your project is based on a mystery - if you lead your characters and your reader/ audience on a long, convoluted journey then you'd better make sure you deliver something at the end that justifies their investment in you. If the series is good but the ending is weak then the whole series becomes weak.