Or at least that’s what Johnny Depp’s character keeps saying in the movie Secret Window as he slowly loses his mind. Funny how I keep quoting movies where the main character is a writer who loses his mind…I wonder why that is? (twitch)
Anywho, while Johnny Depp’s character may have been exaggerating a bit in the movie the words still hold true in principle. While a story can survive a mediocre ending, or even a slightly bad ending, even the best crafted story will be rendered meaningless if it has a horrible ending. That will put the final stake through the heart of any story, I don’t care if it was the most beautifully written story since man first put pen to paper, if it ends with the main character riding a giant flying crocodile to the magical kingdom of Disneyland and riding Space Mountain…you know scratch that, that would be awesome!
However, let’s use a real life example of this in play. Take the movie Signs, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mel Gibson, and written by M Night Shyalaman. It has a great little story, a bit predictable but thanks to excellent direction, has an excellent lead up with to the alien invasion. When I first saw it I thought it might be one of the best Sci-Fi movies I’d seen, it was subtle and creepy. Then the ending comes, which really seems to be M. Night Shyalaman’s biggest issue. The aliens end up being defeated by a half-rotted wooden door. Oh, and water. Yeah, aliens come to a planet that is not only 70% water, but where water periodically falls from the sky. And after crossing thousands of lightyears, which would require amazingly advanced technology, are defeated by a door that looks like its made of more mold than wood?
See that’s what we call a really bad ending. It follows no logic, and completely destroys the credibility of the rest of the story and renders the entire thing a horrific mistake. You see, you can’t build up the antagonist as cunning and highly intelligent, and then in the end have them show such amazing stupidity. To show such an amazing lack of foresight that the villain came to a planet that was made of 70% of the stuff that was lethal to them and then failed to research our cunning use of doors as a defense, makes the villain something you’d see on an episode of Scooby Doo. I half-expected Mel Gibson to pull the alien’s mask off at the end. See how it completely destroys the credibility of the rest of the movie? It makes everything that happened before the ending have this goofy undertone to it. What were the aliens doing up in their spaceships the entire movie? Rubbing their hands together and cackling like Dr. Claw? They didn’t once notice that they were surrounded by toxins and didn’t once notice our use of doors in our buildings? I mean even Dr. Claw knew Inspector Gadget had…well, gadgets, coming out of every orifice…and Dr. Claw was usually defeated by some stroke of dumb luck, but that still puts Dr. Claw above the Aliens from Signs in terms of the intelligence factor. Yes, intergalactic space aliens were outdone by a disembodied metal hand from a children’s TV show. How sad is that?
And this isn’t just a problem today, either. Throughout the ages there have been many stories that met a brutal and vicious fate at the hands of a bad ending, even my idol Mark Twain made this mistake with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court when the protagonist wakes up back in his own time without any explanation. Granted, there was never any explanation as to how he arrived either, and the Quantum Mechanics involved with time travel wouldn’t have exactly been well known then, but the ending just leaves the reader unsatisfied. The “it was all a dream” ending is probably the worst ending of all, and though I’ve seen it used to great effect as well but only when the dream part only a section of the story, rather than the entire story being one massive dream. Endings at odds with the beginning are almost as bad, however, especially when there is a terrific beginning and middle. For instance, at the end The Da Vinci Code, it had a good hook and a pretty good middle all centered upon unraveling the mysteries of Jesus’ reproductive organs and whether or not they were…ahem, utilized…A enigmatic and potentially dangerous Vatican, a deranged Albino priest/assassin, and a two thousand year old mystery. What’s not to love? Well, since you asked, (of course you should already know the answer by now,) the ending. After multiple bodies hitting multiple floors, after several near death experiences, after unraveling a mystery millennium in the making….he keeps his mouth shut? WHY!? Throughout the book the protagonist is built up as this amazing scholar that teaches his students the truth about different historical symbols, and has written several books on the subject. But when faced with the truth, the same truth he’d been chasing for nearly 300 pages, of arguably the world’s most well known and important symbol he doesn’t say anything? I would be holding press conferences, booking myself on Oprah and lavishing in the glory of having escaped death AND unveiled the most important historical discovery in centuries. I could write a whole blog post on the Da Vinci Code, but suffice to say the ending makes no sense in context with the rest of the book.
We all want that brilliant ending, the one that leaves the reader completely speechless and left in wonder for days afterward, but more than that we don’t want to screw up the ending so colossally that the rest of our words are rendered meaningless. That’s why I, and many writers, usually have at least the beginning and the ending in our minds before they begin writing. That way the ending makes sense in context with at least the beginning if nothing else, which is why the beginning is also important but I’ll cover that next time. It’s important that a story have, at the least, have an ending that makes sense. It doesn’t have to be a spectacular ending, or even particularly good if the story was good, but if the ending is bad the story will die faster than my last goldfish when I forgot to put him in the water. The story ends up gasping a last shuddering attempt at breath before finally succumbing to the crushing vacuum of its bad ending and dying a terrible death, destined to end up in the used book store at best or recycled to be used as toilet paper at worst.
(That was just for dramatic effect, no goldfish were harmed in the making of this post).