Archive for August 5th, 2011
In popular fiction, the ending is everything. An audience is often surprisingly tolerant of poor storytelling, at least after they’ve been engaged by the plot—either by having been hooked by a good beginning or, more prosaically, by having paid eleven dollars for the privilege of watching it—but a bad ending is something they won’t forgive. Conversely, a great ending, especially one that takes the audience by surprise, can send a story’s prospects into the stratosphere: Inception, for instance, where I was impressed by the movie but unsure of my reaction until the startling final shot. Similarly, I love the ending of The Departed, which replaces the morally ambiguous conclusion of Infernal Affairs with a simple severing of the knot. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”
Much worse, of course, is the protracted or endless ending. We’ve all experienced books or movies that drag out the story long after a natural climax has been reached, like The Return of the King, a great movie, or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a not-so-great book. With a book, at least you have a vague sense of how many more pages remain, but at the movies, I’ve often found myself hoping for a cut to black after a particularly cathartic moment, only to find that the story still had another ten minutes or more to run. Far more unusual is a movie that ends before we were expecting, but at what, in retrospect, was just the right time—which always inspires what I can only describe as surprised relief in the audience. And fiction abides by the same rules. In his valuable, if somewhat dated, Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz lays down the law:
Do not resolve the main plot problem on page 200 and continue to page 220 before typing “The End.” When the reader knows what happened, he doesn’t want to read on while the characters gab about how awful it was. If your plot contains an element of mystery, the explanations should be given throughout the climactic scene and not as an afterthought when all the action strings have been tied and cut. On the other hand, try to leave a couple of pages after the climax to let the reader settle down from that peak of emotion—a thousand words, no more.
This is good advice, although the limit of a thousand words is probably too restrictive. The two novels I’ve written have fairly similar structures: an intense climax, a short concluding chapter to tie off a few loose ends, and then a separate epilogue to set the stage for the next installment. Needless to say, I do my best to make sure that the material after the climax is as quick and concise as possible. More than one chapter of denouement, for instance, is almost certainly too much—a flaw that I’d argue applies even to that greatest of all thrillers, The Silence of the Lambs. (Thomas Harris uses a similarly long denouement for a sensational fakeout at the end of Red Dragon, which is why it’s surprising to see him play it straight in the sequel.)
As far as pushing the climax to the end is concerned, the quintessential example among thrillers is probably The Day of the Jackal. Frederick Forsyth’s debut is still the best international suspense novel ever written, thanks largely to its tight, almost mathematical pacing. The book’s three sections grow progressively compressed in length and scope: the second section is half as long as the first and covers about half as much time, while the third is even shorter, giving a sense of continuous acceleration. The main plot resolves itself on the next-to-last page, and Forsyth even saves a small surprise for the very end. It looks easy, but it isn’t: Forsyth’s subsequent novels, although some are very good, never quite manage to sustain the suspense so beautifully. And if it were easy, after all, it wouldn’t be so rare.