Having just completed the first draft of my new book (which I’m still not going to talk about just yet I’m afraid), I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of having a good ending to your story. As a reader, it infuriates me when the end of a book leaves me feeling unsatisfied, and it’s especially frustrating when the rest of the story is so strong, only to be let down by a poorly thought out conclusion. For the most part, an author could have written the best story ever conceived, but if it ends badly, the reader’s entire perception of the book can be tainted, spoiling all that hard work they did on the other 95 percent of the book.
The funny thing is, it’s quite common for a poor ending to go hand in hand with a great plot, as in the pursuit of creating a clever storyline, many writers often end up painting themselves into a creative corner that they simply cannot get out of without “cheating.” What do I mean by this? Well, think of a story where the protagonist might be trapped in an inescapable scenario, or a murder might be committed in seemingly impossible circumstances. As the reader gets drawn more and more into the futility of the hero’s escape, or the hopelessness of solving a crime, they begin to form an aspiration for the ending, which they’ll want to be as impossible for them to anticipate as the scenario appears to be resolvable. They’ll want the hero to escape or the crime to be solved, by they’ll want it to be done in a satisfying way that takes them by surprise.
Let’s take the murder mystery plot. Imagine the scene: you have a classic locked room mystery. A man is seen entering his office on the top floor of a skyscraper. There is only one way in or out of the room, through a door which he locks from the inside on entering – the room is too high up for anyone to escape through an open window, and the floor and ceiling are impenetrable. A gunshot is heard from inside the room. The police are called, and in the time they take to arrive, the door is constantly under surveillance by a number of people. No-one enters or leaves the room in that time. When the police arrive, they break down the door and discover the man has been murdered, a gunshot wound to the head. They search the entire room, but there is no-one else inside, and no murder weapon. Now that’s a good plot, right? As a reader, you’ll want to know how the crime was committed, right?
But now the author now has a problem. Having set up the perfect crime, the reader will be enthralled, but at the same time they will have high expectations for a good solution. And if the author doesn’t deliver that solution and has to resort to wrapping things up with a deux ex machina (i.e. a ghost did it) or changing the parameters of the crime scene at the end to explain how the murder was committed (i.e. there was a secret door leading to a terrorist hideout that nobody discovered in the initial investigation), then the reader will not be happy. A poor ending can ruin an otherwise brilliant book, because if a plot doesn’t resolve itself in a satisfying way, then the whole thing is tainted.
So here are some tips from me to ensure your ending rocks:
1) Never ever resort to using deus ex machinas: If your hero is at gunpoint with no way of escape, they should not be saved because the villain gets struck by lightning, or has a heart attack, or gets eaten by a snake, or gets hit by a meteorite, or spontaneously combusts, or turns into a goose.
2) Think about topping off your ending with another ending: Die Hard is a great example of this. You think it’s all over, but then one of the villains comes back from the dead!
3) Be consistent: If your story is built around set rules (i.e. the parameters of the crime scene we discussed earlier), don’t change them at the end for your own convenience so you can wrap everything up. It will only be satisfying to the reader if the problem is solved within the same rules as it was created.
4) Beware of “that’ll do”: As a writer, sometimes you just want to get the bloody thing done. Don’t succumb to that temptation. Keep working on the perfect ending until you know you would be happy with it as a reader.
5) Don’t force it: Sometimes, it’s best to leave your unfinished book in a drawer, go away for a month, then look at it again with a fresh pair of eyes.
6) Recognise when it’s just not working: Sometimes when you can’t think of a good way to end your book, it’s because there is no good way to end your book. In this instance, you’ll need to go back and tweak something earlier in the story to give you the foundations for that ending. It’s painful, but not as painful as just settling for the weaker ending.
7) Things should happen naturally: With a good plot, sometimes you just get a feel for the direction your story should go in. Don’t be afraid to follow this instinct, even if you don’t know where it’s heading. If your ending surprises you, it will surprise your readers too. And that’s a good thing.
8) Think about your characters: What would they do? Would they act the way they are acting? Sometimes, their behaviour will drive your ending, so just let them do what you think they would do and find out how they shape the end of your story.
9) You don’t need to resolve everything: There’s nothing wrong with leaving some unanswered questions or ambiguities in there. In fact, leaving certain things to the reader’s imagination is often better than resolving everything for them.
10) Don’t end midway through a
So I went to see American Hustle the other day. It was alright. Jennifer Lawrence was excellent in it. Christian Bale was pretty good in it. He put on lots of weight for the role, you know. That was about it. After I saw the film, I went home, made some tea, and felt decidedly indifferent about it, like the way I feel after I’ve bought some new socks or eaten a bag of ready salted crisps. American Hustle was neither brilliant enough leave any significantly positive feelings in my mind, nor was it so terrible as to annoy me in any way. It was perfectly average, and that was it. A good three-star film, if you like star ratings.
Then I hear that it’s up for every award ever. I see reviews about how it’s one of the greatest confidence-trickster movies ever. I read that everything about it is simply awesome and that it must be in with a chance of winning every award that isn’t going to be won by 12 Years a Slave (which I haven’t seen) and Gravity (which I have seen and absolutely adored.)
Now American Hustle has my attention. Was it really one of the greatest confidence-trickster movies ever made? I guess it must have been if it could trick the critics into having that sort of reaction. I mean, what is it about this film that is so amazing exactly? Did I miss something? Well, according to the glittering praise being showered on it from most people – yes. Yes, I did miss something. I missed how stunning the performances were. I missed how hilarious it was. I missed how clever the plot was. I missed how perfectly it captured the essence of the era in which it was set.
I’ll say this again – American Hustle is in no way a bad film. It was funny, it was entertaining, and as I said, I thought Jennifer Lawrence was brilliant as Christian Bale’s wife, managing to somehow come across as both bonkers and smart; manipulative yet endearing. You loved her even though she was reckless, a danger to her son, and completely mad. She was hilarious, she delivered a great performance, and the film stepped up several gears whenever she was on screen. At one point when Bale is trying to stop her from going out with him that evening, Mayor Polito (played by Jeremy Renner) says “she’s got to come! She’s the life and soul of the party!” And yes, she really was. But other than that, was this film great? If by ‘great’ we mean a film that people will still be talking about for years to come, then no. It wasn’t great. But it wasn’t bad either.
If I’m honest, there are only three criticisms I have for this film, and none of them are particularly major – the first is the same problem some people will probably have with this review: it was a bit too long. Weighing in at two hours and twenty minutes, it felt slow in places and could easily have had its running time cut down by about half an hour. There were a few ‘arty’ shots clearly favoured by the director that dragged things out (Christian Bale standing in his launderette whilst shirts whizzed around him didn’t add much for me to be honest), and some scenes were over-dialogued and outstayed their welcome.
My second criticism is that I felt the film’s tone was a bit off balance, and I think this had a lot to do with the humour. Now, as I said, I thought this film was funny, but at the same time, the humour needle was swinging all over the place, never knowing if it wanted to settle on goofball shouting, slapstick, sophistication, or visual gags about Renner’s / Bale’s / Cooper’s hair. At the same time, there were some very poignant and touching moments in American Hustle, and many scenes had a quiet sophistication to them. At one point, two characters start to reflect with regret on how they ended up where they are in life. Bale often cuts a tragic figure. But then a joke would appear out of nowhere about hair curlers. It almost felt as though an early draft of this film might have been more serious, but then another writer was brought in to overlay some gags to give the story an extra dimension. I’m not saying a film isn’t allowed to cover a broad emotional range, but in this instance something wasn’t right. Watching American Hustle felt as though I was being asked to eat a plate of chips, jelly beans and crispy aromatic duck at once: individually I love those things, but if were ever to eat them together I think I’d feel a bit weird.
My final point of criticism is tricky to describe – I felt unsatisfied with the film in some way, but I can’t put my finger on what it was. I think the script was perhaps a little loose, not capitalising on its twist as well as it could have, and overall there was just something missing – that extra depth that would have helped me have more of an emotional engagement with the story. It was fine, but not a film I would ever feel compelled to watch again. Indifferent.
And this is what bothers me. For a film so average, why the hell is it getting all this praise from everyone else? Well, I’ve had a bit of a think about this, and there are two possibilities:
1) I’m wrong about American Hustle, and it is actually brilliant. This is perfectly possible. I’m wrong about a lot of things, like that time I thought it would be a good idea to buy Paul Blart: Mall Cop on DVD.
2) I’m right. American Hustle looks great on paper with its heavyweight cast, retro setting and acclaimed director, and critics are too intimidated by their own expectations to turn in an honest review.
So there we go. I know I’m in the minority with this one, but American Hustle just didn’t do it for me. I didn’t find it offensively awful like The Hobbit, but nor did it blow my mind afterwards. It was fine. It was okay. It did a job. And it will win some awards.
But will we be talking about it in five years time? Only time will tell.
If there’s one thing that’s really beginning to annoy me at the moment, it’s the recent trend of awful films getting excellent reviews from the critics, and then going on to do amazingly well at the box office. And it’s not as though people feel conned after paying to go and see these movies. They don’t walk out of the cinema thinking “why on Earth did that film get five stars in the paper?” No, these films seem to be able to convince audiences and critics alike that they are modern-day masterpieces, when in fact they are just poorly written, overly-expensive blockbusters. It’s as though the standards of what should we should expect from a five star film are being lowered.
Up until recently, the major offender in this category for me was the last James Bond film, Skyfall. Now don’t get me wrong – I love a bit of James Bond. I’ve got all the films on DVD, and whilst the series has had its ups and downs (Quantum of Solace, anyone?), I’ve always enjoyed watching them. I know they’re stupid, I know they’re cheesy, and I know that many of them have a lot to answer for in terms of their representation of women, but somehow they’ve always been a guilty pleasure for me. Especially the Roger Moore ones.
So let’s just get one thing straight here – I’m not just saying Skyfall isn’t a great film, I’m saying it’s a terrible film.
I simply cannot understand why the critics loved it so much. Even by the storytelling standards of the series (which were never that high, let’s be honest,) the plot of this film made no sense whatsoever. For those of you who haven’t wasted two hours of your life seeing it, let me summarise (and spoil) what happens for you: Bond gets shot and falls off a bridge. MI6 presume he is dead. Then he sees a news story about MI6 being bombed and comes back. Later, Javier Bardem pretends to try to and stop Bond from finding his hideout on a remote island, so he can allow himself to be captured by MI6 without them realising he wants to be captured so he can escape again and then come back later to try to kill M, even though he had about twenty opportunities to just kill her anyway. He does this because he is weird and wants to toy with her. So Bond takes M to his family estate in Scotland where they fill light bulbs with gunpowder, set some booby traps and re-enact the finale from Home Alone. And Bond falls in a lake.
I know a film should be judged on more than just its plot, but as plots go, this one was total, total, total, total arse. If Skyfall hadn’t taken itself so seriously I might have forgiven it, but there was not one nod to the camera about how ridiculous this all was – the audience was just supposed to sit there and marvel in this faux-genius web of twists and turns, when in fact what they were actually watching was some characters behaving in ways completely contrived so the story could move on to the next set-piece. “Mr Bond! I knew months ago that when I escaped from my prison cell you would chase me down this tunnel, so now I am going to warn you that I am going to set off a bomb to make an empty tube train crash through a wall and completely miss you!”
So you might have worked out by now that I’m not a fan of Skyfall, and that the DVD was not on my Christmas list. However, whatever my feelings are for Skyfall, that film looks like Goldfinger when compared to The Desolation of Smaug, the second film in the trilogy of Hobbit movies based on the sole, single, solitary, one-off book called The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
This film was absolutely terrible. In fact it was so bad, as I left the cinema I felt as though I’d just lost a piece of my soul. And yet, as with Skyfall, the critics were raving about how amazing this film was.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no!
The Hobbit was the first ‘grown up’ book I ever read when I was seven, so I’ll admit I am a little protective of it. Of course, I understand that changes sometimes need to be made when translating a book to the silver screen, but when the translation is so obviously motivated by the desire to leverage the caché of Lord of the Rings (when was Saruman ever in the original story?) and stretch the narrative out to breaking point in order to squeeze three films out of one novel, I get a little miffed.
There is a reason The Hobbit is regarded as a classic novel, and that is because it gets a lot of things right. Here are five of those things:
1) It is the right length.
2) Bilbo’s character arc is well crafted, in that he does not discover his bravery a third of the way through the book, then become a coward again, then discover his bravery again, then become a coward again, then discover his bravery again.
3) There are no interwoven love stories between elves and dwarves getting in the way of the central plot.
4) The character of Smaug is fantastic because he is unexpectedly clever, and does not allow himself to get outwitted and baited by some dwarves splitting off in different directions, swinging around on chains and making a giant gold statue of a dwarf king to mesmerise him for 3 seconds. The fact that he is smart makes him a formidable foe.
5) It’s great how we don’t find out what Gandalf was up to when he left the dwarves for a large chunk of the story, as this allows our imagination to take over and create a mystique around his quest that could not be achieved otherwise.
There are many other qualities I haven’t touched on, but you get the idea – the book is great.
Peter Jackson obviously thought he could do better than Tolkien with the story, so the things I listed above were changed a little (or indeed, reversed). Also, we got to see that scene we always wanted where Orlando Bloom fires some arrows.
Honestly – for an encore, why not make a film of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, but throw in a few car chases during the slow bits? More than that, why not make all the characters find out that Perdita is really royalty after the first act, then make them forget again, then make them remember again? And why not insert a love scene between the bear that pursues Antigonus off stage and another bear we don’t find out about in the original?
Okay, that’s enough ranting. Until next time!
Right – I am very pleased to say that I have now completed the first draft of my latest book, which means I now have a bit of free time to start writing a few more blog posts. Thank you for your patience over these last couple of months, but hopefully you understand how important it was for me to prioritise finishing it!
As I’ve said in some previous posts, I’m not going to announce anything about the new book yet, since various people need to see it before I can say anything. I’ve got a title in mind, but the publisher (if indeed the publisher is interested) may want to change it, they might want me to re-write certain parts, so until I know it’s definitely coming out, I’m going to keep quiet. But do watch this space – hopefully I’ll be able to say more soon…
So I’m now in that strange come-down period after having finished a novel. It’s a very weird feeling (which I’ve only experience twice before, admittedly), since writing a book is a massive part of your life, and when it’s done you feel a mixture of satisfaction, excitement at what others will think (I haven’t showed it to anyone yet), and in a strange way, emptiness. You are still consumed with thoughts about what you have written , but it isn’t the same – you’re not thinking about how the story should progress, you’re thinking of little tweaks you might want to make here and there, whether a description should be improved, if the dialogue sounds right in that scene you’re not sure about – your thoughts become more fragmented, as less concerned with the whole. Basically, asides from some tweaks here and there, that story has left my brain, and been committed to paper. Or computer screen, if you’re being pedantic.
Yesterday was odd – I spent the entire day writing the final 7,500 words, with my wife saying she felt like she should be mopping my brow in-between chapters as you would do to a boxer in-between rounds. In the end there was no brow-mopping required, although she did bring me about ten cups over the course of the day, which helped enormously. Anyway, so I spent the day wrapping up the final set-pieces and completing the closing chapters. I didn’t finish all this until about three in the morning, and after that I was so excited that it was finished I couldn’t sleep! When you finish a book, you don’t just wipe your hands and go “done!” – you keep thinking about tweaks, and thinking about tweaks, and thinking about tweaks. You then think about tweaks some more.
But it does feel good to have book number three under my belt, even if it is just a first draft for now. Given I have a full-time job, writing a book in my spare time is bloody hard work, so it makes me very excited when I actually complete one.
I hope you’re all excited too when you see what it is…
I just wanted to take a moment to wish you all a very merry Christmas, and a happy new year.
I’m sorry I haven’t been writing much on the site lately, but as I’ve said in previous posts, this is so I can spend more time working on my new book. I’m pleased to report that unlike my last two books (which took about five years each to complete), I’m getting much faster at writing now, and hope to have first draft ready by January / February 2014.
Whether or not the thing gets published is another matter entirely (I don’t count my chickens before they are hatched, regardless of my previous successes), but hopefully the powers that be will like what I’ve written, and the book will be available for people to read at some point next year.
But what is the new story about? You’ll just have to wait to find out!
Until next time…
I just thought I’d let you know that Time Rep is 50% off today as part of the 50% off fifty books promotion by the lovely people at Diversion Books. However, as I was writing this, I figured most of you probably already own a copy of Time Rep, so instead of going there to confirm that my book is indeed being sold for half price and then not buying it, why not check out some of the other great books available? Here’s the link: http://www.diversionbooks.com/ebooks/featured
Apparently this promotion is something to do with Cyber Monday, which we don’t have over here in England. What is Cyber Monday anyway? A day when all the robots stop working for a day so everyone appreciates the value they add to the community? Who thinks up this stuff?
In addition to Cyber Monday, I think we should also have the following days:
Electric Tuesday: A day in which everything powered by electricity will only work if connected to an exercise bike. With you pedalling it.
Wednesday Wednesday: A day in which the grammar checker in Microsoft Word stops working so you can’t tell when you’ve written a word twice by mistake.
Turbo Thursday: Adayinwhichpeoplespeakreallyfasttoseeifitmakesthemmoreproductive.
Black Friday: A day in which you feel compelled to beat the hell out of other customers whilst shopping to make sure you get the last discount television. Oh wait – that one already exists, doesn’t it?
Silicon Saturday: A day in which you struggle to think of something funny to do with silicon but keep the name anyway because you like the alliteration.
Sumday Sunday: A day in which all calculators will only allow you to add numbers together.
Right, that’e enough of that. If you don’t yet own a copy of Time Rep (or have downloaded it by narferious means because you couldn’t be bothered to shell out $3.99 for a legitate copy), now is your chance to redeem yourself!
So the results are in, and it turns out Time Rep wasn’t the winner of the Leserpreis 2013. It did manage to come in at 14th out of the 35 finalists though, which I’m pretty pleased about considering it’s only been out in Germany since October 15th. Plus it was up against books by Terry Pratchett and George R. R. R. R. R. R. Martin, so vistory was never really a possibility in my mind! Anyway, I just wanted to thank everyone who voted for me, particularly since the site was one of the most complicated things to navigate if you wanted to cast a vote. Even I didn’t vote for my own book because I got bored of trying to work out how to do it, so that really be saying something…
Anyway, I’m going to stop there because I’m right in the middle of the new book, and I’m sure you’d all rather that was completed as quickly as possible rather than me spending too much time churning out entertaining blog posts! As I said in an earlier post, I will keep the site updated with some amusing ramblings now and again, but it might be a little less frequent as I work on getting the new book over the finish line.
See you soon, and thanks again for all your support!