Downer Endings

Every once in a while you have that conversation with someone where you got into a book or a film you really enjoyed. One of the most significant parts of any story is the ending, as the third act is where the action of any story comes to a head. You will often find that story with the dreaded ‘downer’, one that doesn’t provide any sense of relief or satisfaction when the story is done, and just leaves you feeling on edge or depressed. As much as we dislike these endings, sometimes they are necessary.

In the endings discussed below, I’ll try to keep things spoiler free while still explaining how and why they work.

Some genres work well with the so called ‘downer ending.’Tragedies such as Romeo &  Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth and so forth have incredibly bleak endings where the heroes are denied their happy endings, in spite of the stories constantly, sometimes cruelly, teasing us with the promise of them riding off into the sunset. It is this unattainability of the happy ending that makes these stories so frustrating, but at the same time so endearing. They would not have had their long lasting power had they contained more upbeat endings. Other genres such as horror and thrillers often set their characters up for less than sunny conclusions, as per the conventions of the genre. Sometimes a bleak ending is just appropriate for a story, and having your heroes escape it can betray what the narrative is all about.

Dystopian stories for example are about being stuck in a cruel oppressive world and the despair such a world can bring. 1984, Brave New World, The Giver and Harrison Bergeron have notoriously dark endings, but one must think of just how the protagonists could have gotten out of the scrapes they were in. Each having the happy revolutionary ending would have quickly turned the genre stale and repetitive. Like tragedies, having a happy ending in such stories would have done more harm than good, because it would have negated the purpose of the narrative. The purpose of dystopian fiction is about the dangers of losing individuality and freedom. The most effective way to convey that message is to not to show an individual the audience cares about rise up and save the day, but show them being destroyed.

There can be a compromise to this type of ending in dystopian fiction. Escape From New York is a good example, where the hero still triumphs and delivers one final insult to the system that used him. When all is said and done though, the oppressive system is still in power, ready to use someone who won’t be as resilient as our hero. Though our hero is safe at the end, the rest of the world is not.

Horror is another example of a genre that can require a downer ending. Looking at classic horror stories like The Wolf Man, Halloween, Frankenstein, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and others, they have some very bleak, but also satisfying endings. This is because the primary focus of horror stories is to frighten their audience. Sometimes the most effective horror is that which continues after the story is finished, leaving the audience with that one final sentence or image that stays with them after the final page is turned or the end credits roll. You go to bed at night, find yourself unable to turn off the lights, and find yourself jumping at shadows. There’s something enjoyable about being scared in this way, and it’s something very hard to do if the story ends with the evil vanquished.

There are examples of successful horror stories that have happy endings. Jaws and Poltergeist are a few. In those cases though, it seems tonally appropriate for the stories to end on the notes they do. By contrast, take a look at a movie like The Thing. This story tells of a twelve man crew in Antarctica battling a shape shifting alien able to mimic any life form it touches perfectly, right down to their memories. An atmosphere of paranoia and dread permeates the entire film as the ever dwindling crew tries to find out who among them is the imposter. The film’s ending offers no guarantee the villain has been vanquished, leaving the audience with the same uncertainty the characters have. Anything else would have been a cheat.

Even a crowd pleaser story can have a somewhat bleak ending. Raiders of the Lost Ark for example is one of the best films ever made, as well as one of the most guaranteed good times anyone can ever have at the movies. In the end, our hero does triumph over evil, throwing many Nazis under trucks and in plane propellers in the process. But the Ark of the Covenant, the artifact he sought to keep it out of the wrong hands, is taken away from him by members of the government. As Indiana Jones leaves with Marion Ravenwood, he wonders whether he has done the right thing, or if the Ark should have been left buried. The Ark is wheeled away into a warehouse, perhaps set to be misused all over again. Even with a bleak ending like this, people still left the theater satisfied.

A dark ending can sometimes be necessary note on which a story can end, but sometimes not. As a happy ending can be forced, so can a ‘downer.’ I may stir the pot when saying this, but I didn’t much like the ending of Easy Rider because it seemed to go too dark. Prior to the ending, there’s a scene between Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper where Fonda laments that they may have all the money they will ever need, but their trip was a spiritual failure. That would have been a perfect ending for the movie. It was bleak, but also thought provoking, and showed how the characters had grown. Then it continues on, ending on a note that seemed to speak of the hardships the counterculture was facing at the time. I argue the movie already made that point before, so to me, the ending was overkill. I understand many will disagree as this is a beloved film, and rightfully so. Just remember that if you want to end your story on a downer, only do it if the story calls for it.

One of the primary purposes of fiction is to allow us an escape from mundanity and grant us a little excitement for a few hours. However, fiction does have another purpose, and that’s to examine the real world, the good and the bad of it. It is a sad fact that in the real world, not every life has a happy ending, so putting the dreaded ‘downer’ in a story may make it easier on someone when something doesn’t work out for real. Lets face it, you can’t cheat your way out of a sad ending in life. Also, these bleak endings can serve as warnings for us in the real world. They usually come from the characters in the story making mistakes. If we see those mistakes, and learn from them, maybe those sad endings don’t have to be ours.

Working with Writing Editors: Why and How

Getting an editor for your writing can seem like a waste of money. Such editors often go for around two to four thousand dollars if they have been working in the field for a number of years. Also, why should someone need an editor? What do you need to worry about other than typos?

The answer is a lot. A lot can go wrong when writing a book or a script, and if you find the right editor, you have an opportunity to fix those mistakes. I have been working with my editor for roughly a month now and can say that her input in my project has been most insightful. Working with an editor can help expose your shortcomings as an artist, and this can be a gut punch. But instead of taking it that way, you can accept those weaknesses and take it as a challenge to make your writing better.

First things first, don’t have someone you know be the editor unless you’re sure they can view it objectively. You can have such a person sweep for typos, but if they know you will it is hard for them to take a step back and provide an honest opinion. They know who you are, can pick up on little in jokes that a general audience probably won’t, and will often do their best to be encouraging. You won’t get an honest critical evaluation from your own mother. Think of your writing like a pool. Those you know have already waded in and are comfortable with it, but most people are going to be jumping in cold. If it’s uncomfortable, they’ll just leave and move on to warmer waters.

The best editors are ones you don’t have extensive connections to, because they can come into the story cold from the point of view of your audience, as someone who doesn’t know you, is meeting your characters for the first time, and just getting ready to explore the world you have made. This brings us to the problem of objectivity, not just for them, but for the writer.

Objectivity is a big one for writers, myself included. When delving into your story, you often feel a flood of emotions and are aware at any given moment what your characters’ innermost thoughts and secrets are. Nobody knows the story better than you. That is a big risk since you know the story so well, you may not communicate what you feel because you already know it.

Unless your audience is also aware of those things, a character’s actions will probably not have the same impact for them. Editors, like your audience, offer an objective point of view. If they are unable to get the ideas you are trying to put across, chances are your audience will be the same way.

Take me for example. I’m not terribly fond of depressed or angsty characters. I just have a difficult time connecting with someone who complains about the meaningless of life on a regular basis. While editing my book, my editor made the comment that my protagonist seemed angsty at times. When she revealed this to me, I was somewhat distressed. I was going for more a gruff and angry kind of character who complained, but did it in an intimidating or even funny fashion. Since my editor didn’t quite get that, it doesn’t mean she didn’t ‘get’ the story. It just means I didn’t communicate my character properly.

So my editor and I arranged a meeting where she addressed her feelings, and I told her what I was going for.

Her response was something to the effect of “Ah, yes. I can see that now.”

Then I said “Okay. So how can I communicate that better?”

The tips and examples she offered me after that meeting were most helpful, and helped me improve my manuscript greatly. Lines of dialogue and certain actions now stuck out as being against everything I wanted my character to be, so a few strokes of the keys and they were fixed. That’s what you should do. If something doesn’t work for your editor, talk to them, tell them what your goal is, and ask for tips on how to help that come across.

This brings us to another advantage of having an editor. They can be a good partner to work with, and even make the editing process very fun. A good editor will talk to you, try to understand who your characters are and ask you what you want your story to be. Once they know that, an editor can be a lot like a coach or personal trainer. They’ll be over your shoulder and offering input and criticism, but it’s all to help you build those writing muscles. Eventually, you will work those common mistakes out of your system, and you’ll be a better artist for it.

This doesn’t mean you should listen to everything an editor says. Sometimes you’ll have a strong idea in a story that means a lot to you and you want to keep. My editor has suggested the deletion of passages or lines that I find it difficult to part with. Sometimes they’ll suggest deleting something, only to go through the manuscript and see you were trying to set something up before, then tell you to go ahead and leave it in.

If something means a lot to you and not to the editor though, you can take that as another sign that it doesn’t quite work. That doesn’t mean you have to get rid of it. It just means that element needs some fixing.

Now, not every writer needs to work with an editor. Sometimes it is a more comfortably process to work on something alone to keep any distractions from clouding your thinking. Sometimes every word just means so much to you, it is impossible to part with any of them. If however you are insecure with your work or want to go through a test run with it, I would suggest seeking an editor out. I can say for my first time working with an editor, this has been an enjoyable experience that has helped my manuscript get re-energized. There are not many joys greater than seeing a manuscript you already love come to life as your ideas leave your head and become words on the page. You work with a good editor, that joy can be yours as well.

The Perks of Hearing Criticism

Since the hiring of a professional editor for my first book, the project has been moving in very interesting directions. I have always said on this blog that receiving criticism is one of the most important parts of the writing process, and that has certainly applied here.

Chapter 4 of my book is a brief vignette where the characters swing by a city in order to establish it. The city in question serves as the location for the climax of the story, so it seemed appropriate to set it up as well as several of the characters in it beforehand. As it was written, it served as a brief action scene where my main character, a dragon, intimidates the residents of the town.

Writing the scene, I couldn’t help but feel it was very tedious. True there was some colorful description, but the scene of fire and mayhem lasted two pages without a line of dialogue to break the action.

Upon completing her edit of Chapter 4, my editor and I held a meeting on Skype. We talked about some of our issues with the manuscript, with me talking about my concerns and ideas I wanted to get across. While discussing chapter 4, she made a very interesting point.

“I really enjoyed this city you set up, but was disappointed we didn’t get to explore it.”she said.

Hearing that small phrase created a flood of questions and ideas. Why does this have to be an action scene? Why can’t it be more based on exploration and dialogue? How does the action help establish the characters? And so forth.

The flood of creativity that came next was like a dam breaking. After applying her suggested edits to my work, I went back over the chapter, deleted the entire action scene out of the chapter and replaced it instead with a scene of quiet intimidation. There is much more to enjoy this this newer version, a fair bit of humor, seeing more of the town and its culture, and focusing more on character as opposed to spectacle.

It was longer, more detailed, and a lot more fun to write as well as read.

I honestly don’t know how I got an editor as good as this for as cheap as I got her, but she has been amazing, and her input on this project has been nothing but beneficial.