Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Happy or Sad ... Choosing the Right Ending

Robert Ellis
I'm often asked why I ended THE DEAD ROOM the way I did. It's not exactly a clean ending. It's not happy or sad, really. If I were to describe it without spoiling the novel, I'd call it a surprise ending with the feel of extreme danger and an even greater darkness.

The reason I mention it is because a writer has a lot of choices in the way he or she chooses to end a story. In my mind, the most complete and definitive ending is the so-called "happy ending." Most stories, no matter what the medium, end this way. Every story question has been answered, every loose end, tied up. The hero has won, and the opponent dealt with to the satisfaction of everyone involved. Order has been restored to the world.

Noah Cross and Jake Gittes in CHINATOWN
But maybe as an artist you don't want your story to really end. Maybe you'd like your work to linger for a while longer in the hearts and minds of your audience. If you have a theme, and most movies and novels written these days don't, if you have a theme and your story is about more than circumstance, maybe you'd like to underline your message and make everything stand out.

A Masterpiece, CHINATOWN
Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON ends with his private detective, Sam Spade, still wrestling with the big question. The woman he's fallen in love with murdered his partner out of greed. Was it worth it? Why does it seem so pointless? The story might be resolved, but it ends in shadows and darkness, even despair. It's a novel, and a movie, with an unusually strong theme. Hammett is writing the book, not just to entertain his readers for a few hours, but because he has something he wants to say.

If you haven't seen or read THE MALTESE FALCON in a while, then think CHINATOWN, which ends in an even greater darkness. The two stories share exactly the same theme as they peel away the layers of a human being's desire for power and greed. Like Hammett, CHINATOWN's Robert Towne and Roman Polanski, the writer and director, had something they wanted to say. There's no way that a happy ending would do.

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