I’ve been thinking recently, how often does the ending of a film, book or TV series exceed your expectations? How many times have you been blown away – either devastated or thrilled – in those closing moments?
(Alert – there are plenty of spoilers in this post, so proceed with caution…)
For me, there tend to be two, linked things that lift a story above and beyond the norm. Sadly, one of them is the death of the main character. As a young boy, I was forever imprinted by watching The Alamo with John Wayne, filled with feelings of horror, loss, admiration, and above all disbelief as Davy Crockett pitched himself into the magazine store with a torch in one last act of defiance. I felt similarly about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Saving Private Ryan (such a horrifyingly impersonal but cinematically astute way to pick off a character we’ve come to cherish), The Green Mile, Million Dollar Baby, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The ending of Night of the Living Dead is horrific, on both an intimate and a broader, social level. (Incidentally, that film was released a month before the US MPAA film rating system came into place, so was first watched by stunned kids and teenagers in a Saturday matinee in Pittsburgh). Everyone remembers the final episode of the First World War series of Blackadder, in which the sharp-as-a-tack Captain Blackadder is sent over the trenches with his hapless brothers-in-arms to certain death.
I think the ultimate story ending can also be linked to death, but doesn’t need to be. It’s more to do with a surprise twist that transforms or reframes all that’s gone before. The Wicker Man is one of these – what, no, it can’t all have been… and what’s going on now… surely he’s going to get out of there… Other films with great twists include The Others, The Usual Suspects, Get Out. But I think the best of all, and thus without doubt my favourite film, is The Sixth Sense. How many stories require you to retrace the whole course of an already gripping narrative right from the start?
I was thinking about all this because I’ve strived for those big twists that turn the whole story around in some of my own books. Particularly The Boy in the Burgundy Hood, The Girl in the Ivory Dress, Black Beacon and, probably most dramatically, The Man in the Woods. Because I love it. And want to do more of it. And most of all, because I want to make sure it works for you, the reader!
Tell me a book, film or TV show that’s made you sit up in your seat or burst out into tears. Endings that were devastating or breathtakingly thrilling, that took you somewhere above and beyond all the rest. I’m looking out for my next watch, and my next read.