Writing Musts: The Premise is a Promise

Grr, Endings!

On the outside looking in, endings seem so simple. We read a book that ends in an unsatisfactory manner, watch a season finale that seems to go nowhere, or finish a game that somehow drives us to making demands of its creators.

We think to ourselves “If only they’d done this!”, and applaud ourselves for coming up with what we read as a better alternative. There’s often things we see that could have made it better but in the end, the end doesn’t sate us.

If we’re lucky, we get some closure. We might even get a satisfied feeling that yep, enough of our questions have been answered and the ending keeps with the theme of what preceded it. There’ll always be someone that doesn’t like the ending of something, but if the majority are alright with it, then that’s okay.

Gets it right
Red Dead Redemption: Gets it right

An ending needn’t be positive or uplifting to be well-received either, though a stark reversal of character traits, a deus ex machina, or anything that feels contrived to the point you wouldn’t have seen it as plausible early on, they’re cheats. That’s how they feel to the audience – as if they’ve been cheated, as if the entire narrative has been one big line of bull so that at the end the writers or creators can say “Ha! Bet you didn’t see THAT coming!

That’s not fair.

Don’t tell me “Well, life isn’t fair. Life doesn’t make sense.” That’s not what draws us to a story. We start at the beginning because we’re told that it’s relevant, or that we have to learn what the characters are like and what the world’s about. The ending shouldn’t turn about and try to force a square peg through a round hole. The ending must carry through, and be reflective of what’s come before.

If the main character dies, that’s fine. That’s actually not an issue, so long as there’s strength in the narrative. If the superspy saves the world, goes home, and slips in the shower and dies? Prepare to be hated, and realise that it’s NOT because they died. I don’t care how many people have died through slipping in the shower, that’s not the story we were promised. If they must die, it should relate to the story. They’ve slowly been poisoned over the past few months, or one of the henchpersons they let go show up and end them, or their boss knocks them off to tidy up loose ends.

On the inside of the creative process, it’s a little different.

Sometimes we don’t have an ending in mind when we begin. We have an interesting premise, and aren’t sure where we’ll go with it. Sometimes we do know exactly how we want it to end, but through the course of telling a story, other avenues present themselves that we may or may not go with. Sometimes we’re so set on what our ending is, that we don’t see the potential other endings that the story could conclude with.

One of the reasons could be the prevalence of the twist. The most obvious example of a movie made by a twist ending would be The Sixth Sense, in that knowing the twist would lessen the impact of the movie, and would turn it into a very different movie. If we knew the twist from the start, but the main character didn’t, what would that movie look like? Pretty fricking sad. One of the other big cinematic twists that comes to mind is Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father. Sorry, the statute of limitations on spoilers for The Empire Strikes Back has passed (and we’re well past the five minutes gap that people on twitter seem to think is reasonable for tweeting about the end of a season finale).

In the case of the Star Wars trilogy, the twist isn’t what makes the story. It’s a surprise, but the rest of the trilogy doesn’t hinge on the surprise having been a surprise – it’s about what the core characters do with that information that changes the relationships present. If you have a bonafide best-ever twist, you need to be sure that knowing it in advance doesn’t break the need for the story to be told.

20 minutes of this is not an ending
20 minutes of this is not an ending

Another is that we’ve mistaken downbeat with realistic, and gone for the everybody dies ending. Have you ever seen the original ending of Little Shop of Horrors? It’s horrible, and it’s not because everyone dies. I like the Twilight Zone aspect of it, but the scene goes on forever and (I can’t believe I’m saying this), adds nothing new. The occurrences that take place could have still done so, but no no no, the execution was terrible. It’s a very anti-climactic ending. By this stage Seymour’s story is over. The theatrical ending was definitely more upbeat, but the close with an Audrey II in the garden, suggesting that this isn’t over? That’s beautiful.

Again, a sad downer of an ending is okay, so long as there’s justification. If the intergalactic heroine is making a sacrifice, be sure that it’s her sacrifice. Don’t have the bad guy stop things midway and say “Well if you do this, sure, I’ll call off my attack.” That robs her of the choice.

While I’m in the middling stage of waiting until I’m ready to look at For More Than Earthly Ends again, I’m working on a revised plan for a fantasy series I started in NaNoWriMo in 2012. I don’t remember most of what I had planned at the time, which means I’ve got a very interesting premise, and a very loose idea of one thing that happens at the end, but there’s a big gap of time where I don’t have anything planned. That’s supposed to be why I’m planning, but the middle-to-end-and-then-end doesn’t feel right at the moment. It’s not yet at the same level as FMTEE which is why I also won’t be finishing its draft before I get back to the next dose of the former,  but I do want to get some clarity around it.

I thought the ending of FMTEE was okay, but some of the feedback so far is that it needs work. It isn’t that the closing scenes don’t wrap things up, but that time jumps forward to arbitrary events while some characters that were big parts of the story early on are there, seemingly doing nothing.

Maybe the characters collected too many chronotons?
Maybe the characters collected too many chronotons?

There’s a way forward (which I was talking about somewhat in an earlier post, Writing Musts: Use Your Characters). That works in this instance, but on the whole it won’t. Sometimes the endings we envisage to begin with no longer make sense, or we no longer want to go in that direction. Way back in one of my anti-“Write What You Know” posts, I mentioned that at one point in time, I didn’t like westerns. Didn’t see their value. I was creating a western-ish machinima movie based partly on a dream that gave me an idea for a story about a ghost, with the intent to subvert the entire setting in a second part.

Didn’t happen.

This beast was the first part. It’s not where it was originally hosted, which is where I received a comment likening it to a machinima take on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Having never seen it at the time, I went out and bought it based on the comment.

It’s now my all-time favourite movie.

After this I completely turned about on westerns, and felt to do what I was originally intending, to have the evil businessman be a demon, and for the self-sacrificing bartender to hang around as a ghost, well… couldn’t do it. It would’ve twisted things, but it would have come out of nowhere, and it would have been a cheat. I don’t know if I’d have arrived at the same conclusion if I hadn’t watched TGTBTU, but it would have been wrong. Yes, it has problems. (mine, not the other), but the reality is I’d gone too far into the territory of a proper western to pull a bait-and-switch. The original ending would not have done it service.

You have to stop treating the premise as merely a way to set things up, and think of it as something — (ed: This is the point where I go back and change the original title of the post to what it is now) — it’s a promise. You’re telling the reader, or the audience, or the player “This is what the story is about. Trust me, I will take you through it.”

You can’t turn around at the end (or even midway) and shout “TOUGH LUCK SUCKAH, THAT AIN’T THE STORY FOOL”

Yes, suddenly you’re Mr T.


Storytelling is for telling a story, not to prove how clever you are. Trying to do so is the equivalent of printing a full page repeating “HAHA I TRICKED YOU!” throughout. I want my readers to not see things coming, but I also want them to work it out. I want them to see where it’s going before the characters do, and get a little buzz from working something out that may not have been obvious to begin with. Lay the breadcrumbs to the conclusion and let them follow or not, whichever they decide.

Misdirect, downplay, allude, lie, but don’t pull it out of your arse. Oh, the nameless character on the street that the protagonist bumped into in the first chapter is the bad guy who has been causing shit all along? Please, please… never write again. The loyal sidekick who has been treated fairly and never been suspicious suddenly turns into a bloodthirsty maniac? Do you hate your readers??

It makes a lot more sense when you start seeing the premise as a promise, an implied contract between the storyteller and the audience, that there is a reason for it being told. An ending should be the fulfilment of the promise and recognising when it’s not, unfortunately that itself can be harder than writing the end.

5 thoughts on “Writing Musts: The Premise is a Promise

  1. You’re spot on. I’ve seen cheated endings and it does indeed leave a reader feeling cheated. An ending might be a surprise, but it’s got to be realistic, fit in with the characters and make sense. Totally agree.

    1. Yup – it can’t be an attempt to fool the reader. You want them to appreciate how it turns out, whether it’s a upbeat or not. You can’t tack on an arbitrary ending and say “Well, turns out they were a robot the whole time. Nope, never actually mentioned or alluded, but yep. Aren’t you stupid, you cared about a robot.”

      Never do that.

  2. Congruity to narrative strength is indeed key. While I realise this was galvanised by your work on FMTEE, I’m also thinking it might’ve been because of a different, recently disappointing ending.

    1. Oh, it’s definitely a case of both. I slightly fumbled the ball with FMTEE (the elements are there, but I don’t think they’re explored enough), but yes, that one. It made the whole point of the everything trite.

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