Life on Mars with My Father-in-law

on Dec 16, 11 in Blog by with No Comments

A fellow-writer once told me that the ending of a story should be “surprising yet inevitable,” meaning unexpected, but not outside the realm of possibility. I’ve found in my own writing that the easy part is to come up with a good start or interesting concept but wrapping it up takes much more than a few hours, or days, or even months.

I was reminded just how important a clean ending is over the last two months or so. Every Sunday my father-in-law made me, my wife, and my mother-in-law watch a show called Life on Mars. It started as an alternative to watching him watch NASCAR but quickly moved to a ritual we looked forward to. Since the whole series only has 17 episodes, we moved through it fairly quickly.

The show centers on a New York City detective in 2008 who, while in the line of duty, is struck by a vehicle. When he wakes up its 1973 and David Bowie’s song “Life on Mars” plays for almost the entire first episode. The rest of the series depicts him trying to figure out why he traveled back in time, while solving crimes in 1973. Long story short, it’s a good show with a neat premise (again, this is typically the easy part).

 When a story carries such a unique premise it HAS to deliver with a unique ending. Period. Anything less is wholeheartedly disastrous. But how do you wrap such a unique premise so everything makes sense and the audience walks away amazed and not totally lost?  Apparently the team responsible for this show never got that far. For time’s sake, I’ll paraphrase the ending (SPOILERS AHEAD): the detective in the story is not really a detective, he’s an astronaut and the entire 17 episodes have been basically a hallucination while he and other characters are in induced comas for the duration of their trip to the planet Mars. The last shot is of the group of astronauts (the same group of people the audience previously thought were cops in 1973) looking out across the red planet’s surface.

Yeah. Just like that the show flushed 8 weeks of my life away. All the tension was undone and any mystery was dispatched like an old dish towel while the creative team laughed in my face and yelled “GOTCHA!” (at least in my head that’s what they did.)

Every story, from Winnie the Pooh to Anna Karenina, follows the same basic formula: A story must start somewhere, create tension that leads to a climactic moment, then tie up with a suitable ending (there are exceptions, but they only apply to people with the last name Faulkner). Sometimes it’s difficult to realize just how important that last part (Climax to Denouement) is until a story completely loses its way, breaks down, and bursts into flames, leaving the reader completely lost.

I say all this because one of the most crucial parts to the storytelling craft is delivering a suitable ending for a piece of fiction. If a story starts with a killer concept, it had better deliver a killer ending. The stories that deliver up front but fail to follow through are, for me as a reader, the most disheartening. My advice is to take your time and really get to know the story as a whole. I’ve found that understanding the story (all the moving pieces and parts and how they interact with each other) helps me to consider the characters and what they might be capable of that would provide that “Aha” moment in the ending.

For reference purposes, read “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Hemingway or “How Far She Went” by Mary Hood. I won’t spoil those stories here (one spoil is enough for me, typically) but both of these stories manage to create a visceral and memorable ending without falling into the realm of the absurd.

So just take the time to really flesh out the ending and make it worthy of that great concept you’ve got. And remember to think big with your ending. If an ending seems too easy, it probably is, and you can do better! Hemingway once said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

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