The End of the Story

Readers at The Rabbit Room have been discussing the movie Super 8 the last few days, and the subject of botched third acts came up. In the comments, Russ Ramsey observed,

Many, MANY potentially great films fail by misfiring in the last act. It’s like there’s loads of great build-up, making space for a good storyteller to take us to some profound places. But then they just end up blowing things to smithereens instead. (I’m looking at you, Matrix 2 and 3.)

I'm interested in why that is so. It really is amazing how often a movie (or, to a lesser extent, a book) fizzles after a very promising start--or, as Russ said, resorts to explosions instead of an ending. (Russ again: "Incidentally, only very rarely does a story require catastrophic explosions to resolve the end. At least, this is what my life and the lives of most of my friends would suggest.") I won't be able to spin a whole theory of failed endings here--pressing matters prevent me--but I do have a couple of thoughts that might stir up some conversation amongst and between you.

My friend Pete Peterson once said something about writing that I have thought a lot about. When he wrote his fantastic Fin Button books (The Fiddler's Gun and Fiddler's Green), he said he imagined a brilliant ending, then set about the work of earning that ending. That's a hard thing to do. Thinking up a great ending is relatively easy compared to earning a great ending. And an ending can only be great if it has an organic connection to the beginning and middle.

It is possible that we're not even talking about bad endings here so much as endings that don't really connect to what went before. I used to have a teacher who would never say that a student's answer was wrong in a class discussion. She would say, "That's that right answer...to a different question." Some of these "failed endings," I suspect, are the right ending...to a different story.

This is an era of focus groups and script-doctoring. Culture makers know what their audiences want, but in their zeal to give it to them, they miss the point. I like crab bisque, but I don't want it in an IV, even if that would be a more efficient means of getting it into my system. Imagine what would happen if somebody tried to put together a joke book based on focus groups: The guy with the clipboard asks, "What do you like best about a joke?" Everybody says, "The punch line, of course." Next thing you know, bookstore shelves are sagging with joke books with only punchlines, no setups. "All the boring parts cut out!" the back cover copy reads.

Bonus digression:

I suspect something similar to the joke book focus group happened to country music. Somebody with a clipboard started asking people, "What do you love about Hank Williams and George Jones and Loretta Lynn?" And the people said, "They're just so--I don't know--countrified. We like the way their rural sensibilities shine through in their music." And so, for the last twenty years or more, half the songs you hear on country radio fall into what I call the "I'm so country I can't stand myself" category. "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy." "That's Country." "Country Boy Can Survive." No longer does a countrified sensibility shine through: it is the very subject of the song. Think about how often the word "country" appears in country song titles and in the lyrics.

Want to guess how many Hank Williams Sr. songs have the word "Country" in the title? He had one called "The Old Country Church," but that was it.