I’m trying to perfect the ending to my novel right now, and honestly, I’m almost paralyzed. I’ve never been this slow at writing, so easily distracted, so critical of every word and plot turn. It is driving me crazy.
But I know exactly why I’m feeling apprehensive about writing my ending. To me endings are so important. They can make or break the entire book. I’ve kept reading stories despite my interest lagging a bit only to reach the end and found it brilliant, making the whole entire book, even the slow middle, amazing. Conversely, I’ve been turning pages in a fury to reach the end only to be disappointed and left feeling hollow about the whole book. Getting the ending right is crucial.
I blogged a while back about re-watching the series Lost, and I have finally made it to the end. Please don’t calculate how quickly I burned through the six seasons. Part of my speed was me trying to avoid writing my ending, but part of it was that even the second time around, the show is riveting. But having reached the end, I’m reminded of how polarized the critics and fans were. Some loved it, praised it as the best series of all time, well-done, and emotionally cathartic. Some were disappointed, calling the writing lazy and saying it undermined the entire series. Really, the whole internet was abuzz with people blogging about why they loved it or hated it. On a side note, recently Damon Lindelof, co-created and executive producer of Lost discusses the ending and how he feels about the criticism, which I found very interesting.
For the record, I loved the ending. I thought it was perfect, and I might blog next week about why it worked so well for me (for those of you who care), but today, I want to discuss why the ending for Lost was so satisfying for some and so dissatisfying for others.
Endings are tied to readers’ expectations from the beginning. Every genre has certain conventions for beginnings that hint about what type of story to expect. A horror story doesn’t start the same way as a romance unless one of the lucky couple bites it in the end of the chapter, and even then, there is a different tone and sense of foreboding that foreshadows the event. Likewise, a love story with a tragic ending shouldn’t begin as a light hearted chick lit. The reader needs to know what kind of story he/she is reading, and what to expect from the ending. Now I’m not saying the ending shouldn’t be unexpected. I like unexpected endings. I’m a big fan of the big twist when it is done right, but there is a difference from a twist and an ending that completely jumps the shark, an ending that comes out of nowhere. Those endings are neither clever nor satisfying.
So to figure out why people were so dissatisfied with the finale of Lost, we need to look at the beginning. From reading a lot of the complaints and praises for the finale, I feel like there two camps of viewer. The ones who were intrigued by the mysteries of the island were dissatisfied with the finale, and the ones who were focused more on the characters’ journeys were very satisfied with the ending. I’m sure I’m over-simplifying this a bit, but that is the general feeling I got from reading the many, many blogs and reviews on the Lost finale. So looking back at the beginning of Lost, what kind of story was promised? The mystery of the island or a journey of the survivors? It just so happens that I watched the pilot episode not too long ago. :)
The pilot episode was very much about the characters, especially Jack. Yes, there was a plane crash, and people were reacting to that, but how they were reacting was already establishing who they were. Jack taking charge and running around helping everyone, which of course he should since he’s a doctor, but then he’s the one to go out into the jungle in search of the cockpit and goes back to help Charlie when the smoke monster is chasing them. This nicely establishes his need to save everyone. Kate tagging along with Jack to get the receiver and her comment about running while she stitched Jack up hinted of how she could never stay in one place for very long, and Sawyer not really helping much and smart mouthing off showed how he only looks out for himself. Things were happening, but the focus was very much on the characters.
Later episodes with the flashbacks, further illustrated this character focus, showing that all the characters were lost long before they got on the island. The natural end for the show would be for those characters to find themselves, which is how the series did end. They found themselves in the sideways world (the afterlife) when they remembered the island and remembered each other. They found themselves through each other. If that was your expectations of the series Lost, then the finale was perfect. It resolved the original promise of lost souls finding their way.
But that wasn’t the only promise in the pilot episode. The island itself became a character. The black smoke monster was introduced as well, showing that the island was far from ordinary. And in part two of the pilot, there was a polar bear and the French woman’s transmitting message. The mystery of the island was also presented with Charlie’s famous line, “Guys, where are we?”
Every week the mystery of the island deepened with the others and the hatch and the darma initiative, and while many things were explained, many weren’t. If you found the mystery of the island more intriguing than the emotional journey of the characters, I’m not surprised you were dissatisfied with the ending. Because the sideways world detracted from that promise, and in some ways, may have undermined it.
So I believe the take home message from Lost is to be careful to fulfill the promises made to the reader. Make sure you are delivering the type of story that the audience expects. The beginning should reflect the ending, and if there is a problem with the ending, maybe you need to revisit the beginning.
Now I got to get back to working on my ending. :)