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On Book and Film Endings: The Neat Bow and the Ellipsis

By Patsy Trench May 30, 2023 Lifestyle

Endings are fiendish things.

In the old days, fictional endings were clearly defined, wrapped up, tied with ribbon and fastened in a neat bow. Shakespeare’s endings were unambiguous: tragedies ended in mass death, comedies ended in mass marriage and reconciliation. Even more modern, ‘edgy’ and less easy-to-pigeonhole playwrights like Ibsen and Shaw ended their plays definitively; not to mention Jane Austen and the Brontës.

Nowadays It’s Not So Straightforward

Nowadays art – drama in particular – in an attempt perhaps to imitate life, does not always end conclusively. And that’s okay, because life doesn’t end in a neat bow, it inevitably ends in an ellipsis.

However, a great ending can (almost) redeem a less than perfect product. While a disappointing ending can definitely ruin an otherwise good one. BBC’s TV series Line of Duty’s ending appeared to disappoint practically everyone. The conclusion of Sky TV’s Succession on the other hand – which happened this week, so I’m told – was perfect: surprising, yet it made perfect sense. (I wouldn’t know, not having watched the series, not having access to Sky TV).

There’s the ending that says, “There’s another series coming up,” which is guaranteed to be infuriating, particularly when you know this was not the original intention, which is why the denouement is being artificially withheld from viewers in order to win them back to the new series. This is bound not to work, it seems to me, as where does such a strategy end?

The Best Ending of All Time Has to Be The Graduate

In The Graduate, having gone to the ends of the earth to win the girl, to the point of banging on the stained-glass window of the church in which she is about to marry another, before rushing into the church, grabbing hold of her hand and pulling her out and away and into a passing bus, Dustin Hoffman scrambles with Katherine Ross to the back of the bus where they sit, wordlessly, while the soundtrack plays The Sound of Silence and their faces express a glorious mixture of joy followed by doubt followed by uncertainty and – “What the hell did we just do?” The perfect combination of fairy tale and Real Life.

One of the worst endings, in my recent film-going experience, was Return to Seoul, an otherwise intriguing film about a Korean woman brought up in France returning to her native country in search of her biological mother, who first refuses to see her and then relents, and finally . . . well who knows?

There Are Endings That Tantalise Tantalisingly and Those That End With – Uh?

I don’t mind some ambiguity so long as it leaves the viewer with something to speculate about, rather than thinking, “They simply ran out of ideas.” (Or worse, that I am literally losing the plot.)

Endings in My Own Writing

When it comes to the endings of my own fictional products, and to some extent the non-fictional ones as well, I tend to fall into the old-fashioned category.

Even though I write in series, I have no idea when I finish one book what the next is going to be about, so the idea of withholding anything, or even trying to tempt the reader with a taste of what’s to come, doesn’t arise. When I look back, my books, which I defiantly describe as NOT romantic fiction, tend to end with a reconciliation between Him and Her.

With the latest one however I wanted to do something different.

Having got to within a stone’s throw of finishing the manuscript, I got stuck. I told friends I was one paragraph away from The End. I wanted to go out not so much with a Bang as with a, “Well, fancy that!”

What I eventually came up with surprised me, and to this day I am not one hundred percent sure of it as it heads off in a quite unforeseen direction, though I think it does fulfil the ‘Well, fancy that!’ expectation.

Perhaps there’s a new career possibility for Providers of Satisfying Endings? (And no, I am NOT suggesting AI.)

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What was the latest book or show ending that really surprised you? What about a disappointing ending? Are you a fan of old-fashioned endings or do you prefer uncertainty? What else do you want to say about endings?

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The Author

Patsy Trench has been an actress, scriptwriter, theatre tour organiser and theatre teacher and lecturer. She now writes books about her family history in colonial Australia and novels featuring enterprising women breaking boundaries in Edwardian and 1920s England. She lives in London.

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