Friday, October 2, 2009

Can you "Sense" an ending?

On Wednesday, Debbie asked, "How important is it to know the ending of a story before putting it on paper?" But I wonder, as readers, once you've gotten a few pages or a chapter into a novel, do you formulate an idea of what you think the ending will be? If so, how important is it that your expectations are met? If the ending is not what you envisioned, does that negatively affect your opinion of the story?
We often hear about "surprise endings" in movies and books. For me, in order for a surprise ending to work, it can't come out of nowhere. The possibility has to exist, even if it's so subtle I miss the signs. But I need to be able to go back and say, "Ah, it was there; I just didn't see it."
The quintessential model for that in the movie world is M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense. I remember how stunned I was with the ending the first time I saw it, how I sat unable to move or speak for the longest time as I took it all in. Yet I didn't feel sucker punched, just utterly surprised. After I caught my breath I watched the "Special Features" part of the DVD, which I rarely do, so Mr. Shyamalan could take me by the hand and lead me through the minefield of clues I had failed to trip along the way. My fault, not his. Entirely. Then I watched the movie over again, losing track of all the aha! moments as they came and went, and loving the movie even more for its incredible inventiveness.
I can't think of very many novels that have left me with that kind of speechless amazement. But one that gave me a surprise ending I thoroughly enjoyed was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. It's by far my favorite Bronte book. I can, however, think of lots of novels that have left me disappointed with the ending. I'm a John Grisham fan, but honestly, when I read the last page of The Brethren I said out loud, "What?! Did you run out of paper?!" It was a terrible ending. And if that had been the first Grisham book I'd ever read, it probably would have been the last. But he'd already proven to me in his other novels he could do a much better job. So I've stayed with him.
Just this week I received a hand-written letter from a woman who recently read Lying on Sunday. She began the letter by saying, "What a joy it has been to 'discover' you!" (Believe me, I'm just as enthused about being discovered!) "I was deeply involved from the first page," she wrote. And as nice as the letter was, I really loved that she closed it with these words: "(P.S.) The ending was perfect!"
What a compliment. There's nothing like being satisfied at the end of a movie or book, even if the ending is completely unexpected. What books have you read lately that gave you that kind of satisfied -- but unexpected -- ending?


Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Great post, Sharon. I remember reading an Agatha Christie book that I have completely forgotten the name of because of the ending. It turned out that the killer they were looking for was the character who was narrating the story. I felt hoodwinked. I agree with you about 'The Sixth Sense.' It was masterfully done.

Kathleen Popa said...

Like you, Sharon, it's usually films that surprise me, not novels. Probably it's because the stories that aim to surprise are often mysteries, and I read few of those, though I watch the movies when they come out.

One excellent novel that had a little surprise at the end is The History of Love.

I've become a die-hard Shyamalan fan. I will watch any movie he makes (though I haven't seen The Happening yet), no matter what the critics say. I just like the way he thinks, his willingness to take risks, and his sense of the mysterious, especially the mysterious within the ordinary.

Unknown said...

One of my favorite endings was Water for Elephants. The closing lines left me feeling satisfied yet pleased with their cleverness. I'd put them here, but I'd hate to spoil a perfect ending for others...

Nicole said...

The Sixth Sense worked perfectly. Amazing. (And, Katy, you really don't want to see The Happening. Well, maybe you do, but, no.)

I absolutely loved Chris Fabry's Dogwood. Loved. It. But not the ending. Nope. Not the ending. I still recommend the novel.

Talk about an ending I didn't appreciate is in Tim Downs' latest Ends of the Earth. Not fair. At all.

Latayne C Scott said...

I guess because I grew up reading mysteries (first Nancy Drew, then everything Agatha Christie ever wrote), I love the little "thrill" of a surprise at the end of both a book and a movie. (Debbie, I'm not sure which Christie book to which you refer, but I undoubtedly loved it!)

In an upcoming post I'll tell about how totally blah were the result of my efforts at writing short stories. And one of the problems was always the endings. Same thing with the two radio plays I've written and that were professionally produced. The editor/producer in each case came to me and said, "Letting things hang in the air is not an ending."

Even when writing Latter-day Cipher, I had to rewrite the ending twice for the editor.

Endings are hard! I hope I can do better in the future.

Latayne C Scott

Karen Schravemade said...

When I was about fourteen, I read 'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier. It was the first time I can remember reading a book where the ending surprised and shocked me, yet made perfect sense at the same time. It turned the whole story on its head. Such was the power of that reading experience that 'Rebecca' remains one of my all-time favourite books to this day.

Another I read recently was 'The Blind Assassin' by Margaret Atwood. Another surprise ending, but one set up so beautifully by Atwood's impeccable characterisation that the reader is left shaking her head and saying, 'of course.'

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Karen, have you read 'My Cousin Rachel' by DuMaurier? I read it when I was young and the ending left me thinking about it for a long time.

Karen Schravemade said...

Debbie, thanks for the recommendation!