I watched a romantic comedy last night for which I had seen previews a year or so ago when it was released. The film had big stars and a cute premise, but when I saw the previews I thought to myself, “Well, I already know the entire story.” The movie then came and went as predictably as I imagined the story was.
But there I was last night with nothing to do and looking for a little light entertainment, and I liked the actress in particular, and it turned out to be set in the publishing industry of all places, so why not? As soon as I began to watch, I noticed something odd. It was funny. Laughing-despite-myself funny. What’s more, I believed that the male and female leads disliked each other at first and then, as the movie progressed, I believed that they were both softening to one another and falling in love. The dialogue was surprising, and the characters were real. Why hadn’t this movie made a bigger splash?
Then, as they say, we came to the end. It wasn’t one of those horrible, tedious, Hollywood endings where nothing is left to the imagination and you see the leads getting married, having children, then grandchildren, then being buried in matching plots. But it was flat, despite all its efforts to make the characters’ declaration of love dramatic. It got the job done, but nothing more, and that was when I understood why the movie had not done better.
Regular readers of this column may know how I feel about endings. In general, whether in novels or movies, I believe they are often the least-attended part of a story. I think writers often tighten up at the end, especially in genre stories (which a romantic comedy certainly is), where the ending is somewhat predetermined. Even if you are writing a story where you know the killer must be caught or the guy must get the girl, you should still allow yourself to be surprised.
There is no formula for an ending that is, as Aristotle put it, both surprising and inevitable. These endings are a consequence of the writer trusting her story, trusting that what she had to share is valuable and that a satisfying ending will naturally flow from it. Life is surprising and inevitable. We never know what is going to happen, but somewhere in us we always know why it did. You can never control the end of your own life, don’t control the end of the story. It will be as beautiful, touching, scary, or poignant as you like, but only if you let it.