Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“This was the ending that had awaited him all along…”

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"Closing the door behind him..."

Note: This post is the forty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 47. You can read the previous installments here.

One of my favorite storytelling tricks is the false ending, in which the writer fools us into thinking that we’ve reached a satisfying conclusion, only to pause, regroup, and push forward into something even deeper. The great example here is The Usual Suspects. After listening to Verbal spin his convoluted tale for well over an hour, Detective Kujan turns the tables, bombarding Verbal with a version of events—aided by a barrage of flashbacks over a dramatic underscore—in which Dean Keaton was Keyser Soze all along. It’s a convincing performance, and if you went into the film knowing nothing except that it was supposed to have a famous twist, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was it, even if it wasn’t as good as you expected. Yet the sequence flies in the face of one of the few scraps of objective information that the audience has been given: the very first scene in the movie, in which Keaton dies. And if we temporarily forget this, it’s partially because ninety complicated minutes have unspooled in the meantime, but also because Kujan’s closing argument is assembled to look and sound like the end of the movie. It’s a perfectly decent flashback montage, of the sort that is often used to reveal the solution to a mystery, and we have no way of knowing that the movie is about five minutes away from using an even better montage to blow our minds for real. (The unsung hero here, as I never tire of saying, is editor and composer John Ottman, whose contributions elevate the movie beyond what was there in McQuarrie’s script and Singer’s direction.)

Which, when you think about it, is a surprisingly subtle point. It isn’t the logical consistency of the fake ending that fools us, but the way in which it mimics the visual, rhythmic, and aural conventions of the real endings to which we’re accustomed. We’re subconsciously attuned to how a movie feels as it draws toward its conclusion, and for a fake ending to work, it has to give us the full package, which is more important than whether or not it makes sense. And the absence of such cues can tip us off to the trick prematurely. Zootopia, for instance, has what would otherwise seem like an ingenious fake ending, but the movie rushes past it a little too quickly: if it were the real climax, we’d be savoring it, and the fact that the script treats it in an almost perfunctory way is a clue that we shouldn’t take it seriously. If a movie really wants to trick us, it has to edit that fake ending as if it were the real thing, and in particular, it has to pay close attention to the music, which often tells us what to feel. The score at the end of a movie usually swells to carry us out of the theater, and if many fake endings fail to convince, it’s because they’re too quiet. (I’m surprised at how rarely movies use our knowledge of scoring conventions against us. Movie music often prompts us to feel relieved—as when the score softly creeps in again after a long stretch of silence in which the heroine is exploring the deserted house—and I’d love it if a film gave us a few bars to release the tension, and then the jump scare.)

"This was the ending that had awaited him all along..."

The fact that movies almost never exploit a fake ending to its logical extent is hard to explain, especially because the medium lends itself so naturally to such a mislead. We know exactly how many pages remain in a book, and we generally have a pretty good idea of how long an episode of a television series will last. With a movie, unless we’re watching it at home and have carefully scrutinized the back of the video box beforehand, we don’t really know how much longer it has to go, and even if we can guess that it’s about two hours, twenty minutes in either direction gives it plenty of room to play with our expectations. (Douglas Hofstadter once jokingly proposed padding out novels with fake pages toward the end, to create the same kind of effect, and I sometimes experience this when a book ends, without my knowledge, with a preview of the next installment in the series.) But if the movies seem reluctant to push that kind of fakeout as far as it can go, it might be because the benefits are canceled out by unanticipated side effects. A really convincing fake ending would have the audience putting on its coats and preparing to exit the theater, only to be yanked back into the story, and that sort of manipulation can easily turn viewers against it. Fooling us into the physiological response created by a real ending might make it impossible for us to respond in that way when the movie actually ends. This might explain why the handful of movies that really sell a fake ending, like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or James Mangold’s Identity, time it so that it occurs only a few minutes, or seconds, before the real thing, compressing the two into one.

Chapter 47 of Eternal Empire occurs long before the ending of the book, but it includes a narrative fakeout that required me to take many of these issues into account. It’s the culmination of the subplot in which Ilya has been forced to assassinate Tarkovsky, and at the end of the chapter, he appears to do exactly that, shooting Tarkovsky in cold blood in the oligarch’s stateroom. Or at least that’s how it looks. Needless to say, there’s something else going on, and within the next couple of scenes, we’ll be let into the secret plan that has been unfolding in plain sight. When a valued reader gave me notes on the first draft, however, he said that he didn’t buy the scene as written—he knew, somehow, that Tarkovsky was still alive. When I went back to reread the relevant section, I saw my mistake: I had written it as if I knew what was coming. If Ilya had shot Tarkovsky for real, this would have been the tragic endpoint of the entire trilogy: the instant in which his true nature as a killer overtook his attempts to become something more, swept up by circumstances beyond his control. I would have lingered on this moment, which would have been one of the major climaxes of the whole series, and the existing version didn’t give it the attention that it deserved. In the revision, then, I slowed it down, putting in the equivalent of a dramatic orchestral sting to play over Tarkovsky’s apparent death, and I dwelled on it as if the entire book had been building to this passage. Which, in a sense, it had. (The rewrite also gave me my single favorite line in the novel, the description of the yacht as “a masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”) Does it work? I can’t say. But at least it has a chance…

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