Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Building Up, Paying Off

As writers, we all want to craft a great story.  I don't think there's a single writer who hasn't said that he or she would like to create a piece of work that transcends the ages and is quoted by others as part of the societal narrative.  Part of that is ego, and part of that is the little kid in each of us looking for approval.  It's what lends itself to our toiling to make stories that are larger than life.

Unfortunately, while many of us can build a terrific story, we struggle with an ending that is worthy of what we just wrote.  Johnny Carson once said something along the lines of how the longer a joke, the funnier the payoff has to be, and the same applies to books - the greater the buildup, the better the payoff has to be.

We've seen plenty of this failing to come to pass in modern entertainment.  Twin Peaks was notorious for building up tension and never providing resolution until the very end.  Star Wars had great hype for its new movie, only to have it seem kind of blasé when it finally arrived.  These things built up expectations so high in the minds of the audience that almost nothing could've satisfied the rabidity with which they were greeted.

It's a trap we need to be careful of as writers.  I tend to think that stories are easy but endings are hard.  We spend so much time building the perfect narrative that the ending rarely matches.  No, I'm not telling you to not build a great story - I'm telling you to spend at least as much, if not more, time on crafting the ending so the audience doesn't walk away deflated.

This also comes down to knowing your audience.  If your audience is the kind that likes shocks and turns where the good guy doesn't always win, then find a way to surprise them with an ending that'll keep them thinking.  For me, I Am Legend by Richard Matherson did this.  We were all expecting Neville to be the good guy, but it turned out he was the monster and the vampires were creating a new society that I certainly didn't see coming.  However, if your audience is lighter and looking for happy endings, doing something like this would piss them off(imagine if JRR Tolkien had Sauron take the ring and rule Middle Earth at the end of the novels).  Or if in The Shining, Stephen King had the family just walk out of The Overlook and traipse merrily down the mountain rather than the boiler blowing up and Jack Torrence saving his son.  The story itself would've been meaningless.

Be aware of the buildup you've created and spend that kind of time on your ending.  Make sure it's worthy of your story.  Otherwise, you risk pissing off your audience, and pissed off audience members rarely return to get pissed off again.

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