Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Telling All, or Telling Nothing?

Comments on the post The Curse of Flashback suggest several books or films that give the ending away right at the very beginning, and how it affects our reading/viewing in a negative way.

Here's the opposite - the book or film where you're left going 'What happened?  Did they abc or xyz?'  You flick back through the pages to try to work it out, but it doesn't seem clear.  Two examples immediately came to my mind - Love Act by ME Austen, which ends just before the main character makes a crucial decision and The Great Indoors by Sabine Durrant, where I couldn't decide what had actually happened.  (They're both quite old, so if you can think of some more recent examples, please let me know.)

Now, I know some people like the unresolved ending but I'm not a fan.  That doesn't mean I want every single loose end tied up, but there needs to be a clear indication of where we're going.  After I'd sold my first novel, Adultery for Beginners, my editor asked for a few changes.  One of them was the ending.  She said that all we needed to know was that Isabel was going start dating again and generally be OK, we didn't have to know whether Adam was going to be her soul mate.  I changed the ending.  

It's like the ending of The Italian Job and Michael Caine saying 'I have an idea...' That works because we know that somehow he's going to find his way out of this impossible predicament.  Anthony Mingella changed the ending of the film version of The Talented Mr Ripley, but although different in feel, both the book and the film endings work because we know how Tom Ripley is going to carry on with his life - even though we don't know exactly what he's going to do. That's satisfying.  Confusion isn't.  


Jim Murdoch said...

Unless a book ends with the death of the protagonist there is always going to be the potential for more and even then there are the lives of the minor characters that invite exploration which is where the need for fan fiction arises. A book needs to continue until it has made its point; once it’s said enough it can stop. Beckett could have written a third act to Waiting for Godot but by the end of the second we’ve got the point. Actually I need to correct myself because my second novel is a sequel and I did kill off my protagonist at the end of the first book so there. I don’t mind open-ended stories myself – my preference is for slice-of-life where we jump into a life on the go and have to hit the ground running and then once we see where things are heading we get to jump off before the inevitable – and although I can appreciate the skill it takes to write a good plot I always feel they’re constructs, a little too neat for me. But it takes all sorts.

Sarah Duncan said...

It's perverse, but I think plots where every loose end gets tied up are less satisfying. I think it's part of the process of involving the reader and making them do some of the work - you let them know the direction they're going in and they do the rest themselves. But I don't like being confused or really left hanging. It would be a sad old world if we all liked exactly the same things.