Thursday, April 24, 2008

Don't Tell Me the Ending

Last night I saw a trailer for Will Smith’s upcoming summer vehicle, Hancock. Instead of being a teaser, it felt a lot more like a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the movie. Like too many movie trailers these days, major plot points and resolutions were exposed. I’ve been too busy over the past few years to pay attention to previews, and as a result I enjoy movies much more than I used to. I take a story more at face value, instead of trying to connect the dots with what I remember from the trailer.

The movie studios are well aware they are giving too much away. The argument is that the public wants to know what they’re getting, even if that means blowing the ending. I’m not sure I buy that answer—especially from an industry that is also convinced that the only movies the public wants to see involve comic book heroes, sequels, or remakes of television shows from the seventies.

Grumbling aside, the Hancock trailer got me to thinking about the predictability of endings in fiction. Does knowing the ending in advance spoil our enjoyment? Unless it’s a mystery, probably not. Most stories have either a happy or at least a satisfactory ending for the protagonist, so we already know that it will usually end pretty well. What we don’t know—and what keeps us interested—is how the protagonist is going to get himself untangled from the mess he’s in. The reader, or viewer, is entertained by assessing the difficulty of the situation and imagining how he would handle it. The protagonist is usually smarter than we are, and we enjoy watching his cleverness as he navigates the conflict.

This is not to say that we should settle for predictability in our endings. A good story should reach its own natural ending, with no surprises from left field. At the same time, it should be constructed so artfully that you don’t see it coming from a mile away. The best ending seem surprising the first time around, but upon re-reading is so carefully supported by the story that it’s the only logical conclusion.

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