Readers at The Rabbit Room have been discussing the movie Super 8 the last few days, and the subject of botched third acts came up. In the comments, Russ Ramsey observed,

Many, MANY potentially great films fail by misfiring in the last act. It’s like there’s loads of great build-up, making space for a good storyteller to take us to some profound places. But then they just end up blowing things to smithereens instead. (I’m looking at you, Matrix 2 and 3.)

I’m interested in why that is so. It really is amazing how often a movie (or, to a lesser extent, a book) fizzles after a very promising start–or, as Russ said, resorts to explosions instead of an ending. (Russ again: “Incidentally, only very rarely does a story require catastrophic explosions to resolve the end. At least, this is what my life and the lives of most of my friends would suggest.”) I won’t be able to spin a whole theory of failed endings here–pressing matters prevent me–but I do have a couple of thoughts that might stir up some conversation amongst and between you.

My friend Pete Peterson once said something about writing that I have thought a lot about. When he wrote his fantastic Fin Button books (The Fiddler’s Gun and Fiddler’s Green), he said he imagined a brilliant ending, then set about the work of earning that ending. That’s a hard thing to do. Thinking up a great ending is relatively easy compared to earning a great ending. And an ending can only be great if it has an organic connection to the beginning and middle.

It is possible that we’re not even talking about bad endings here so much as endings that don’t really connect to what went before. I used to have a teacher who would never say that a student’s answer was wrong in a class discussion. She would say, “That’s that right answer…to a different question.” Some of these “failed endings,” I suspect, are the right ending…to a different story.

This is an era of focus groups and script-doctoring. Culture makers know what their audiences want, but in their zeal to give it to them, they miss the point. I like crab bisque, but I don’t want it in an IV, even if that would be a more efficient means of getting it into my system. Imagine what would happen if somebody tried to put together a joke book based on focus groups: The guy with the clipboard asks, “What do you like best about a joke?” Everybody says, “The punch line, of course.” Next thing you know, bookstore shelves are sagging with joke books with only punchlines, no setups. “All the boring parts cut out!” the back cover copy reads.

Bonus digression:

I suspect something similar to the joke book focus group happened to country music. Somebody with a clipboard started asking people, “What do you love about Hank Williams and George Jones and Loretta Lynn?” And the people said, “They’re just so–I don’t know–countrified. We like the way their rural sensibilities shine through in their music.” And so, for the last twenty years or more, half the songs you hear on country radio fall into what I call the “I’m so country I can’t stand myself” category. “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” “That’s Country.” “Country Boy Can Survive.” No longer does a countrified sensibility shine through: it is the very subject of the song. Think about how often the word “country” appears in country song titles and in the lyrics.

Want to guess how many Hank Williams Sr. songs have the word “Country” in the title? He had one called “The Old Country Church,” but that was it.

  • livingoakheart
    1:07 PM, 13 June 2011

    I think quite often (in the realm of fantasy (which is what I watch most)) the authors get stuck trying to figure out how to end it, so they steal a scene from Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. That’s my personal opinion, anyway.Also, the worst ending ever is when the writer decides it can’t be resolved and either uses a deus ex machina with no warning (which JK Rowling does, on occasion) or says the whole thing is a dream. (David Eddings’ Dreamer series)

    • Canaan Bound
      2:52 PM, 13 June 2011

      Gah!  Hugely dislike the dream thing!!!

    • Jonathan Rogers
      2:58 PM, 13 June 2011

      An author who uses the “it was all a dream” ploy is failing to hold up his or her end of the bargain. The exception, of course, is the sitcom in which the dream thing makes it possible to see our favorite characters in, say, a Revolutionary War setting.

    • Loren Warnemuende
      1:06 AM, 15 June 2011

      My husband and I just watched Inception, so that “it was all a dream” (or was it?) motif has taken on a whole new mind-warping meaning for me!

      • Jonathan Rogers
        7:26 PM, 15 June 2011

        I’ll give Inception a pass, since the whole movie is about dreams. It was a little too mind-bendy for my tastes, but it seemed honest in a way that the “It was only a dream” thing usually doesn’t seem honest.

        • Loren Warnemuende
          12:46 AM, 16 June 2011

          It was definitely mind-bendy, but really well done once you got the hang of the concept. The end sort of left one hanging (or not) depending on how much one wanted to leave one’s brain in limbo! I’m glad we saw it on our small tv screen; I don’t think I could have handled the cinematography otherwise. Books are so much better that way!

  • livingoakheart
    1:25 PM, 13 June 2011

    Also, I would be a very bad movie-person. When things explode, I run away faster than a turtle from a feechie.(why do my metaphors always seem off?)

    • Patrick J. Moore
      9:27 PM, 13 June 2011

      Trying to imagine a turtle outrunning a feechie, and for some reason I’m seeing a big poison-tongued jumping tortoise and wondering how that story is going to end. Definitely not with a bang.

      • livingoakheart
        9:55 PM, 13 June 2011

        Hrm… now that’s a story idea…*Making a note of it*

  • Canaan Bound
    2:55 PM, 13 June 2011

    Best movie ending EVER…Return to Paradise.  And whatever you think of when you hear the title is NOT what the movie is about.  So…this is my official recommendation that you go and rent it.  Now.

  • Drew
    7:34 PM, 13 June 2011

    So this might be a good place to ask about the ending of “The Charlatan’s Boy.”
    When I think of books with truly joyful endings that are also deeply satisfying endings, only a handful come to mind. The Charlatan’s Boy is one of them. JR, did you have the ending in mind when you wrote the beginning, or did you let the ending find you along the way?

    (Also, with such a satisfying ending, how is a sequel possible?!)

    (My wife is encouraging me to work on a long-idle novel. I already know the ending. I know the beginning. I know particular scenes along the way. My goal, then, is to connect these, but I half-expect that in the connecting, my story may actually end up somewhere else.)

    I agree that the Focus Group has ruined many a good ending. One of weaker entries in the Star Trek series of films (bear with my Trekkie-ness, please) is “Insurrection,” which originally featured a completely different ending, but which was focus-grouped to give us the Big Explosion Ending instead. I think the original ending appears on the Special Edition DVD. Likewise, I don’t know whose idea it was to finish off the fantastic Deep Space Nine with a Lord-of-the-Rings-style fight on the edge of a fiery abyss for possession of an ancient artifact that will doom or save the universe(!). Until that point, it was turning out to be a solid and satisfying ending. And then . . . ugh.

    (Continue to bear with my Trekkie-ness, please) The Next Generation ended with an “it was all a dream” finale — in this case, the entire two hour story being nothing more than a set-up by super-being Q.

    The only time that “it was all a dream” ever worked was Newhart.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      8:32 PM, 13 June 2011

      Drew, I’m glad to hear you found the ending of The Charlatan’s Boy deeply satisfying. I did know that ending from the very beginning, though there were a couple of details that came to me very late, which I then retro-fitted. There’s a limit to how much I want to say about it, since I wouldn’t want to spoil the end for anybody who hasn’t read it yet, but I will say that the detail that Grady should have one blue eye and one green didn’t occur to me until a few hours before I sent the manuscript in to the publisher. Going back and planting that idea–the two different eye-colors–was the last significant change I made to the story.
      As for the Wilderking stories, I knew in very general terms how the whole trilogy was going to end. I knew how Book 1 was going to end from the very start. I was halfway through with Book 2 before I really know how it was going to end. I had something in mind (now I don’t remember what) that I was mostly satisfied with, but halfway through I came up with what I thought was a much better ending. Same with Book 3. I started out with a good ending in mind, but changed it to what I thought was a much better ending.

      I hope you slog through and finish that novel, Drew.

      • Patrick J. Moore
        5:31 PM, 14 June 2011

        Two different eye colors! Grady is a Graceling! I wonder what he is graced with… friendship? compassion? Wisdom beyond his years?

  • Patrick J. Moore
    9:52 PM, 13 June 2011

    I’ll try not to give any spoilers for anyone interested in reading it, but I think one of the strangest story ending experiences I’ve had was reading Graceling. I found myself flying through this story because I enjoyed it so much, but as I got closer and closer to the end of the book I found my self wondering “How could this story possibly wrap up in the few pages I have left?” Due to the way the story began I was half expecting the mass destruction ending that does seem popular in movies, and I may have even been satisfied if that was the ending Cashore would have delivered… but the unexpected dramatic ending she so very neatly twisted together was so much better than I was expecting.
    Most ending are satisfying to me though. I guess I’m not too picky about how the ride ends if I found it a very enjoyable ride. If I can’t get into a story I don’t read it long enough to find out how it ends.

    There is one story that the ending left me frustrated: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As a previous Audience Participation Friday demonstrated there is an adventure that never would have taken place if they would have had cell phones. And it should have ended when Tom showed up at his Aunt & Uncle’s place even without cell phones- but it seems it only continued because Tom knew there wouldn’t be any fun in that.

  • livingoakheart
    9:57 PM, 13 June 2011

    On the dream note, how did you feel about the ending of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Or, for that matter, the entire play?Strangely enough, with all the Shakespeare out there, it’s probably my least favorite work of his.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      10:27 PM, 13 June 2011

      It’s been a while, livingoak, but isn’t Midsummer’s Night Dream sort of the opposite of the “It was a dream” ending? Don’t they look back on their shenanigans in the forest and think it’s a dream, when in fact it really happened? 
      I’m going to have to disagree with you. I like Midsummer Night’s Dream a lot. 

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