“How could the ending go so wrong?” Finales, endings, and ‘The Alienist’

Like 47 million other people, I’ve been glued to my TV for the last several weeks, watching the television adaptation of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. If you’ve somehow had your head in the sand since January – well, let me catch you up. Trump is being sued by a porn star, Linda Brown died this past week, millions marched for safer schools, and The Alienist is a novel set in 1896 New York, about a trio of allies trying to save the city’s most vulnerable children from a predator.

The trio is as follows:

  • Dr. Lazlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) – One of a new breed of psychologists who want to explain crimes by explaining why criminals act as they do – in short, a forensic psychologist.
  • John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans) – well-born, wealthy, and living with his grandmother after his engagement was called off in what we suspect was a very bad manner. Also a newspaper artist.
  • Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) – an intrepid woman intent on making her own way in the world. She’s starting by being the first woman ever hired by the New York City Police Department.

Truthfully – I loved this show. As a historian, I appreciated the reality of it – the grittiness, the dirt, the obvious disconnect between the social classes (there’s a scene in which John gives money to a child prostitute, hoping it will help him escape that life . . . and only later realizes that he could/should have actually taken the child in. But it takes him nearly the entire series to even give him money!), and the sheer reality. History’s not clean. It’s not neat and tidy. It shouldn’t be, anyway, because it wasn’t. And The Alienist never shied away from that.

the alienistI loved the historic reality, which included Theodore Roosevelt as a main character (he was Commissioner of the New York City Police Force during this time anyway; he kind of had to be in there). Now, I haven’t read the book yet – it’s in my to-be-read list – but I suspect a great deal of Roosevelt’s character in the show came from Carr’s novel. If so, my hat’s off to Carr. 🙂 There’s one scene in particular that I love:  at the opera, Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan come face-to-face. In real life, and in the show, the two are enemies; they despise each other completely. And in this scene, the disgust is palpable. Both stare at each other; then Roosevelt, as the social inferior, gives Morgan the barest of nods. “Morgan.” Morgan, in return, gives him a curt, “Roosevelt.” And I’m sitting there in my mind screaming Yeah, in ten  years, you’re going DOWN, Morgan! And Roosevelt’s going to be the one that brings you down! (Yeah, you’ve got to be a historian to get it, I know.)

So for the past several weeks, I’ve been glued to my television at 8pm. Great storytelling, fantastic acting. Luke Evans is my new fantasy crush. You do get the sense that you’re missing things – adaptations from 600+ page novels do need to cut things, I suppose – but overall, it’s been a hell of a ride.

That is . . . until the finale.

And I hate to say it – you’ve no idea how much I hate to say it – but I’ve rarely been more disappointed in a series finale in my life.

Not the acting. No, LOVE the actors! Luke Evans is amazing, Dakota Fanning is amazing, everyone is amazing. No. Sadly . . . it was the writing.

Like most writers, I can only imagine what it would be like to have my novel adapted for either film or television. What most people don’t understand is that the authors may actually have very little input into how that adaptation is made. Look at Outlander, for crying out loud – I don’t think the writers on that show could screw things up more. I imagine that rabid fans of Caleb Carr were equally aghast at changes made to their beloved novel, but I have to say that as a viewer only, I didn’t see them, so they didn’t affect me.

Yeah. Well. Until tonight.

The entire series has been about seeking a murderer – a sick psycho who preys on boy prostitutes, killing them gruesomely on holy days. Many of them have been on their own for ages; they have created a family, but they have also learned to be street-smart and self-reliant. One of these boys, Joseph, is befriended by John Moore – and then kidnapped by the killer and held in a secure location until the next holy day.

That’s not the problem. Raise the stakes. Every good writer knows that. MY problem stemmed from the way these scenes were handled by the writers. Joseph is street-smart and resourceful (he’s lived to the ripe old age of ten or twelve, after all). Yet here he lies on a stone floor, with his hands tied in front of him, left alone for most of the time, and yet he never tries, not once, to escape? This is the point where the entire show just – stopped. And lost all credibility with me. Joseph’s a prostitute, for God’s sake. He’s done and seen just about everything. He knows this man is going to kill him. Yet . . . he does nothing to save himself. Not one freaking thing. It’s as if the writers needed an excuse to get John, Kreizler, and Sarah to the scene of the crime, so they let Joseph be helpless. It was truly disappointing. I don’t know if the ending in the novel is the same way or not, but if so, it’s going to be disappointing, too.

And yes, grittiness is good, but in this same scene, the killer kills a cat in front of Joseph, for no reason. This really bothered on several levels, not the least of which is that I’m a cat lover and I hated this scene. But as a writer, it was – pardon the pun – overkill. Newsflash:  we KNOW the bastard’s evil. We get it. We don’t need more evidence. Show us the villain is evil . . . make us believe it . . . and then get on with things.

And for things out of character . . . Kreizler. OMG.

For the entire season, Kreizler has described the killer – rightfully so – as a ‘monster.’ He wants to understand him in order to stop him. That’s it. He doesn’t want to feel pity for him. He doesn’t want to feel sympathy for him. He wants to stop him. End of discussion. But at the end, when the killer is shot and runs away, Kreizler first tries to stop the shooting, and then runs after the killer and cradles his head as he dies. He calls him a ‘damaged child.’

I can’t even. Seriously. It was SO disappointing to see this sudden about-face. The thing murdered innocent children and cats, for God’s sake! I just can’t see Kreizler suddenly changing his mind and feeling sympathy for him. I just can’t. Again, I don’t know if Kreizler does this in the book or not – I hope not, or at least, if he does, I hope the reasons for it are better explained than they were in the show – but for me, it was a slap in the face.

So a great show, a great season, kind of ruined by the writers. Sure, there have been other disappointing series finales. The X-Files comes to mind. But that came at the end of three years that really never should have been. There was never any hope for that finale. But this one? I feel like the writers let me down. Big time. It might have helped if Joseph had been tied up correctly (hands behind the back, chained to a pipe in the wall, ANYTHING) – at least, in some manner that he couldn’t escape on his own. It might have helped if they had made it more clear why Kreizler had his sudden change of heart (and no, the fact that his father was borderline abusive doesn’t cut it with me; Kreizler turned out fine, after all).

In a show that go so much right . . . how could the ending have gone so wrong?

 

 

 

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Endings are Hard, part 2

Endings are hard. 

True dat!

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the struggles I’m having with the ending to my work in progress, and hinted at a few of the reasons why I think it’s not working. Since then, I’ve made some progress, but it’s basically like having a pipe full of frozen molasses – you can grab a knife or screwdriver and pick away at it, you can thaw it a bit at a time, or you can just . . . walk away.

Yeah, well, I’ve come too far to walk away.

The ending to my second book is good. I mean, really good. So good, in fact, that it’s hard for me to remember that it took me about two years and 40 drafts to get it that good. Not only did it change location, but the roster of characters also changed. So did the motivations (which, yes, meant rewrites to the rest of the novel – which were what allowed the ending to be written). I keep thinking I have to get this one right, right out the gate. 100% there. No problems, no issues, no rewrites.

HAH! To paraphrase Shakespeare, what fools these writers be. It’s up to me to give myself the freedom to screw up. And I have, and I will again.

Endings need to accomplish certain things, like I said before. The basics of a good ending are that they:

1.) Answer all the questions – or the main ones, anyway. If you’re writing a series, then you may have plot lines that continue across several books, not being resolved until the end of the series, or at least, in a later book. To do this, you have to think about why you started this novel. What were the things your characters, especially your MC, were struggling with? This usually includes both their external and internal conflicts. If they’re afraid of snakes, put them in a pit of snakes before they can save the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis. 🙂

2.) Wrap up all the loose ends. Raymond Chandler once famously forgot about a character – the chauffeur who gets killed and stuffed in a trunk in The Big Sleep. Don’t do that. Readers are still griping about that chauffeur. They’ll gripe about your loose ends, too. I promise.

3.) Are a result of the actions of your characters, especially your MC. Every choice they’ve made, every action they’ve taken – including the mistakes! – have to lead to this moment. This goes for both your antagonist and protagonist. Remember, your protagonist and antagonist are in opposition to each other. One of them wants to blow up the White House? Then you’d better have the other one risking everything to stop that.

One other thing bothers me about the ending I’m trying to write, as I realized late last night:  My MC, Erin, isn’t able to do much in the ending.  And that frustrates the hell out of her and me both! It’s something we’re both going to have to think about, because the ending really belongs to another character, Rebecca. She wants revenge, and she’ll have it – and Erin can’t stop her. Truthfully, Erin isn’t even sure she wants to stop her. Erin’s job – her goal – is to bring the truth of Rebecca’s death to light, and then let Rebecca cross over. (Erin sees ghosts. She hates that I’m telling you that, by the way.) But Rebecca’s goal is revenge. Once Erin tells her how she died, and why, Rebecca has no intention of crossing over peacefully while her murderers are still out and about.

4.) Satisfy the promise you made in the beginning. In Chapter 1, you made a promise to your readers as to what this book would be about. If it’s a romance, you promised there would be a happily ever after. If it’s a murder mystery, you promised to bring the killer to justice. Renege on that, and your readers will throw your book across the room – and then, onto a bonfire.

5.) Let your MC uses all his skills and knowledge – including any he’s acquired since the book started. In Angels and Demons, Robert Langdon learns, in an early chapter, how to create resistance to air flow. It sees superfluous at the time, but it saves his life when he’s tossed out of an airplane at the end of the novel. (No, I don’t know if it’s accurate, and I don’t really care, either.)

6.) Don’t let the characters act out of character! I think this may be the most important thing, because remember, your ending has to be a natural outgrowth of the rest of the novel. If your meek, quiet, pacifist heroine suddenly pops up with a broadsword, screaming like a banshee, and kills a dozen bystanders, you’re going to get hate mail – unless you’ve somehow foreshadowed this. Is it a spell? Trauma? This rule goes for ALL of your characters – secondary, main, and antagonists.

7.) Allow at least one character – which had better be your MC – to acquire what they wanted. What motivates your MC? Are they after a treasure? Knowledge? Revenge? Love? There are books I absolutely despise and would cheerfully burn every copy of because the MC’s motives change at the end. One of these is a horrendously awful YA book called Sky, about a spoiled teenage girl who wants a horse, finally gets the horse, then sells the horse to the meat truck guy when the horse breaks her leg. The author who wrote this hideous goat shite should be beaten. Repeatedly. I volunteer.

Now, I will say this:  sometimes, it’s the antagonist who gets what they want instead. Are you ready for that?!

7.) Satisfy the reader. You can’t satisfy all readers.  I get that. No one can. But you need to satisfy most of them, or your novel isn’t going to get that word-of-mouth buzz that can make or break best sellers. How do you satisfy them? See 1-7 above.

So as I review these rules, I remind myself that endings are hard. For me especially. One early story stumped me for nearly a year before one day, in a flash of insight, I realized how it had to end. I had three main characters. One had fallen by the wayside. He chose to make a comeback and take responsibility for his actions, in order to save the other two. It fit perfectly with his sense of honor, and no one acted out of character.

The other thing I have to keep reminding myself is that it’s a draft. Only a draft. The more I get down on paper, the better I can alter the structure later. I may throw away huge entire chunks of it. That’s what rewrites are all about. But I may find little nuggets of dialogue, or insight, that I can keep and build on. My setting’s not there yet. It feels more like dialogue exchanges right now. But it’ll get there. I have to keep reminding myself of that. It’ll get there. That’s what rewrites are for.

In fact, I’m finding that nearly everything with this novel is about rewrites. I don’t know why I think the ending should be any different. I’ve had to revise for character motivation, and focus. Holes I thought I’d patched have sprung leaks again, and new holes have been discovered since I’ve struggled with this ending. Character motives maybe aren’t as clear as I’d once thought.

But I’ll get there. Endings are hard, after all. But they’re worth it.

 

“Endings are impossible.” Can we make them possible?

“Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible. You try to tie up every loose end, but you never can. The fans are always gonna bitch. There’s always gonna be holes. And since it’s the ending, it’s all supposed to add up to something. I’m telling you, they’re a raging pain in the ass.

No doubt – endings are hard. But then again… nothing ever really ends, does it?”

These are the immortal – yes, I said immortal – words of the prophet Chuck, from Supernatural. “Swan Song” is probably my second-favorite episode of that show, in part because of Chuck’s narration (Chuck is a prophet – well, a bit more than that, really – and chronicles the Winchesters’ lives in a series of tawdry books).

I was reminded of these words tonight as I struggle with the ending of my current work in progress.

Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible. You know a writer wrote that! And it’s so true. Beginnings are easy. You’ve got your characters. They’ve got problems. You chronicle the problems. You watch as your characters solve one thing, only to have two more issues pop up. Characters come onstage. Characters die. They get ever-closer to what they want.

But endings are impossible.

Endings should be natural. We hear that so often. They should be the organic outcomes of every decision your characters have made. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, that’s exactly how it goes. You’ve written the novel so well that there can be only one ending, and it flows right out of your keyboard like water from a bottle. Maybe you tweak a word here or there, but then – you’re done. You’ve tied up the loose ends, answered all the questions, given the characters their happy-ever after (or their just desserts, whichever).

If this ever happens to you, please let me know which alternate universe you’re living in, so I can come visit. Because this is NOT where I am!

I’m working on rewrites to a novel I drafted a couple of years ago. The rewrites keep going well, but now it’s time to draft the ending. My beta readers had issues with the ending. They believed that it was weak, that it didn’t solve anything or answer any questions. I had to agree. I never liked the ending, to be honest. I didn’t mind that some loose ends weren’t tied up – but it was weak, and I hated it.

So what are the elements of a good ending? Think about an ending to a novel that  you’ve never been able to get out of your head. What makes it so strong? J.K. Rowling writes fantastic endings. Take any of the Harry Potter books. Read them through. Mark all the questions you have as you read. Then, ask yourself how many questions are left at the end. She’ll always leave something up in the air – it has to lead into the next novel, after all – but all the Big Ticket Questions are answered.

But more importantly, nothing is left to chance. Rowling lays the clues down one by one, so subtly and thoroughly that you always smack yourself in the head for not seeing the ending coming, even as you’re on the edge of your seat, begging Harry to win. Think about Goblet of Fire. We knew all about Portkeys, and wand duels, and of course, we loved Cedric. (cry!) So when the Goblet turns out to be a Portkey, we’re shocked – but we know what it is and we know what’s about to happen. And where did we first encounter Portkeys? Oh, that’s right – in Chapter 1, where they’re an integral part of the plot, a means to get everyone to the Quidditch World Cup. See how neatly she did that? (I highly suspect this was the result of rewriting, but – you know what? It works.)

Setting your readers up for the ending is a challenge, and one I’m facing right now. I’ve been trying for a week to figure out precisely why the old ending was so weak, and what I have to do with the new one to make it work. The ending has to be a natural outcome of the previous events. Let me say that again:

soapbox

 

The ending has to be a natural outcome of the previous events. 

 

 

Here’s some problems I’ve seen with book endings:

1.) They’re too long and boring. Wuthering Heights comes to mind. Who gives a flying monkey’s butt about Heathcliff and Cathy’s children? I sure didn’t. Although come to think on it, I didn’t care about Heathcliff and Cathy, either.

2.) The promise of the book isn’t delivered. The Lovely Bones. I literally threw this book across the room because of the ending. Susie remained as a ghost to see if her killer would ever be brought to justice, and nothing happened! The killer isn’t even brought to justice by Susie, her family, or anyone else; his death is a random event. Hated this book because of the ending.

3.) Something is tossed in at the last second to save the day. Either the cavalry comes riding in (which denies your hero his moment), or some random knowledge/ gun/sword/superpower is suddenly discovered that gives the hero the edge. You think Harry ever had that? Nope! When he pulled the Gryffindor sword from the Sorting Hat, that was foreshadowed. Whatever your hero needs to defeat the enemy or accomplish his goal, you have to foreshadow it. Otherwise, the reader will be cheated. Not feel cheated – be cheated.

4.) There’s no logic to the ending. Again, the ending is a product of the rest of the book. Every choice your characters make, every scene, every bit of dialogue, are leading to this. Your MC can’t act out of character, either.

5.) The MC or hero isn’t the catalyst for the ending. The ending has to be because of your hero’s decisions. It also need to be affected by your secondary characters, especially your antagonist, but the MC has to be driving it. Again – when Harry calls out Voldemort at the end of Book 7, it’s his choice. He knows there’s like a 99.9% chance he’ll die. But he’s going to do his best to take Voldemort out with him. If your MC has made mistakes, or wrong choices – those have to bring about your ending. In one of my early stories, my MC’s hubris led to the death of someone he was supposed to be protecting – and, in turn, led to his imprisonment. Your characters aren’t perfect. They’ll make mistakes. Use those to create a tension-filled conclusion.

6.) And oh, yeah – there’s no tension. If you’re writing a suspense novel, there’d better be real questions about whether your MC will make it out alive or not. A romance novel better have a real question about whether your happily-ever-after will happen or not. Your characters have to face some kind of risk of death – which can be a lot of things. Death of a career, a dream, a love – or their lives. It’s life and death. Make your readers believe that. How? By emphasizing – in the rest of your novel – how important this is to your MC. Again, the ending has to be the logical, organic outcome of the rest of the book.

And ultimately, I think that’s where my problems lie – although my manuscript is a lot better, it’s not perfect, and I’ve still got a few holes that weren’t apparent until I started trying to draft the ending. That’s when all my characters took a step back, raised an eyebrow, and said, “You want us to do WHAT?!”

I tried! I tried to write it. And the first part is good. It’s everything that comes after that isn’t coming. My characters are acting like puppies put in a collar and leash for the first time – throwing themselves on the ground, growling, whining, jerking backwards. Resisting. Because I didn’t do my job completely, they can’t do theirs. So now, my job is to go back through the manuscript and revise specifically for the ending. It’s a bit odd, I admit – and in the end, I still may not have a workable thing. But I feel, for now, that this is the best way forward for me.

“No doubt – endings are hard.” Yes, Chuck, they are! But maybe I’ve got a bit better handle on mine, now.

 

Here’s some links to articles and stories about endings (and how to write better ones):

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/on-bad-endings

http://www.foremostpress.com/authors/articles/endings.html

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-structure-a-killer-novel-ending

https://www.ravishly.com/2015/01/14/happily-ever-after-romance-novels