Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Open Endings: A Lazy Writer's "Device"

I'm on a roll after yesterday's rant, and I think now's a good time to point out one of my most loathed "plot devices": open endings. There's nothing quite like getting to the end of a story and not having it really end. The author gets to say, "You choose," but what I hear is, "I was too lazy to wrap this story up in a logical way, so I'm hoping you can do that in your spare time," or, just as bad, "This story is an artistic reflection of real life so of course it can't have a definite ending!"

Open-ended stories are the result of lazy writers. I despise them.
Every single story I've ever read or watched with an open ending left me feeling cheated of all the time I'd spent reading or watching it. If I wanted to write the ending of a story, I'd sit down and my computer and work on my own novels. And, yes, I get it: endings are hard. It's difficult to wrap up all the storylines you've woven, to make sense of the emotional and physical growth your characters have undergone, to provide that feeling that this adventure has come to a close. But if you weren't willing to see the project through to the end, why did you start it to begin with?

My other pet peeve with open-ended plots is that they're never happy. It's never a choice at the end of the movie or book for the main character (who you've hopefully grown rather fond of by this point) to pick between traveling around the world on a brand-new all-expenses-paid yacht with the man of her dreams or taking over the reins at a ranch with a stable full of trained Lipizzans, where she and the love of her life will live our their days in happy splendor riding these wonderful beasts. No, it's a choice between one type of death or the other. Between losing one person or the other. Between giving up a loved career or a loved person. Depressing.

Which seems to be the underlying theme of open-ended plots: this narrow-minded idea that open-ended plots mimic reality, and reality is always a sad, miserable existence. I don't buy into that, not in real life, and most especially not for my fictional characters. (Which just made me think, if I could be reborn as a character in someone else's book, I'd want to be born into a paranormal romantic comedy. I'll have to think a little about exactly who I would want to write it, though.)

I can site a very annoying open-ended waste of time. Do you remember back in June when I was complaining about how nothing kills a story quite like confusion? In there, I mentioned that we were watching Riverworld (spoiler alert). Well, we finished it and it disappointed on yet another level. After watching nearly three hours and two episodes of this miniseries, the ending didn't bother to answer a single question the whole show had raised. Why were these people on this strange planet after they died? Were they dead? Why didn't everyone show up on the planet? Who was evil? Who was in the spaceship? Who are these blue people that kept showing up and playing God? Is the love between the protagonist and his girlfriend real or imagined?

That's a lot of questions, but the author(s) took the easy way out and left the ending up to your interpretation.* I don't want to interpret someone else's creative vision. I want them to interpret it for me, show me what they envisioned. It's the equivalent of an architect showing up to build your home with some prebuilt walls and a few windows, but then asking you to draw the blueprint from the supplies provided. Irritating. Frustrating. Pointless. The only saving grace of an open-ended plot is that now I know to avoid those authors' future works.

*In the reviews on Netflix, I just learned that Riverworld the TV miniseries that I watched is part of a larger work of fiction by Philip Jose Farmer. The reviewer says the TV show didn't cover the full works, only part of it. This doesn't in any way make me more lenient to the show—if you're going to take the time to adapt a series of novels into a miniseries, adapt enough to make sense to the audience. It does make me curious, though, to see if Farmer gave his readers a real ending. Too bad this miniseries ruined any interest I might have had in reading the novels.


Tracy said...

Ahh! I really wanted to watch the new miniseries of Riverworld...and now not so much :(
But, yes, I see what you mean, I've never really liked open ending movies or books. I do feel cheated and like it was all a waste of time. The point of literature is to create a something new and different, and a lot of writers want to SAY something. But you know what, if you have nothing nice to say... as that goes...
I just generally choose not to read stories that depress me, I read them as an escape, for something grander and more beautiful than my own life. :)

Rebecca Chastain said...

Tracy, I also avoid stories that would depress me. There's a lot of serious, real things in the world that I could get worked up about if I'm desperately in need of something horrific to depress me. And there are plenty of things that spring up unbidden in reality. In my fiction, I like things to be uplifting, to make me laugh, and yes, to escape. Thats one of the reason my two favorite genres are fantasy and romance.

Shaida said...

There is exactly one open ending that I enjoyed: The Italian Job (the original movie version). Other than that, I completely agree that open endings are an unsatisfying option. I don't necessarily need everything lopped off tidily and wrapped in a bow, but I DO need to feel like the time I invested had a payoff.