I’m having trouble with my ending. Many writers do, and for me it is a sign of having started more scripts than I’ve dared to see through to the end. So much more can depend on a film’s ending than its beginning. Think of M. Night Shyamalan—who would remember The Sixth Sense in the same way without its twist ending? Likewise with The Village, albeit more negatively. One of the hardest devices for any writer to avoid is the dreaded, yet oh so tempting Deus Ex Machina.
There’s a reason that Aristotle wrote about the Deus Ex Machina (DEM) in his Poetics, which is still seen as an authority on story crafting. For those who need a refresher, DEM literally means “God from a machine” and is currently used to indicate a plot device that, when used, will cause all of the problems in a story to magically disappear. Often, it arrives in the form of a completely foreign plot element. It’s the classic “He woke up and realized it was all a dream!” or (spoiler alert) the boys suddenly being rescued at the end of The Lord of the Flies. Another form of it is to kill off all of your main characters and in doing so, kill off all of the problems (I’m looking at you Shakespeare).
DEM is cheap and wrong, even though it sometimes feels so right. Like everything in storytelling, it was all the rage once but then became overdone, so it’s scorched earth for the rest of us (zombies are next). DEM is often criticized as being uncreative, but I won’t say that. I think it can be very creative. The real reason that DEM feels so unsatisfying is that as story receivers, we have become accustomed to having certain elements of a story pay off. We have expectations, even if we aren’t fully aware of them. As much as I would love to have giant eagles swoop in and fly my heroes to safety, I know that my readers would be disappointed by such an unexpected conclusion. What I love about story telling is that good stories work by getting their audiences to engage with unspoken rules and expectations that result in feelings of resolution by the end of a story. I’ve read enough screenwriting books (for better or for worse) to know that it is possible to break down and analyze how to compose satisfying stories, but where’s the fun in that? When something feels off, it’s because one of the unspoken rules has been broken and from a writing perspective, the real enjoyment of story crafting comes in fine-tuning.
A good film in which to explore the interplay of expectations and surprises is Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a Christopher Nolan fan. I don’t like to admit it because everyone is a Christopher Nolan fan these days, but I like to pretend that I was ahead of the crowd, liking him before Batman and Inception. Like any master craftsman, Nolan has his critics. He’s been called many things, among them boring and contrived but I disagree. However, I will admit that I have rare tastes in films. I like it when things slowly add up and pieces fall into place. I liked the ending of Signs where (spoiler alert) every character, every action, every event had been leading to the conclusion—defeating the aliens. Those kind of endings give me chills, and from a writing perspective is a much harder task to create than the Deus Ex Machini that we are often tempted to resort to. The real trick is subtlety to avoid predictability.
But back to The Prestige. It wouldn’t be a novel claim to suggest that the process for performing a magic trick serves as a metaphor for Nolan’s method of story telling. In the opening moments of the film, Michael Caine’s character Cutter explains to us how every magic trick consists of three acts (oh, this is starting to sound familiar…). The first act, the Pledge shows the audience something seemingly ordinary, in the film, a simple bird in a cage. In the second act, the Turn, the magicians job is to defy that first expectation, and make “the ordinary something…do something extraordinary,” such as smashing the cage and making the bird disappear. Cutter then tells us that it’s not enough to make something disappear, which is why the third act, the Prestige, is required in order to bring it back.
The Prestige has a certain Eliot-esque magic about it that is almost reminiscent of Memento, in which you’ll find the end in the beginning. In essence, the act of presenting something, taking it away, and then making it reappear is a simplified version of a certain type of crafty ending resolution. An ending is always much more satisfying when the answer was right in front of us the whole time, and we weren’t able to figure it out. The trick with writing is to present something, and then have it fade into the background in such a way that causes an audience to forget it altogether.
Consider the Simons & Chabris Selective Attention Test (below) in which we’re instructed to count the number of passes between players, and in doing so we completely ignore the man in the gorilla suit who walks through the shot. It was mind boggling the first time for me. This same method of distraction and guided misdirection is required for both successful magician-ship, and I contend even for story telling.
This is why the DEM feels like such a cheat, we want to be able to play along and figure out the ending on our own, but if a foreign element concludes the story, then we had no chance. To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending of The Prestige, but it was the first (and possibly remains to today the only) film that did not disappoint me. Even if the secret wasn’t anything as outlandish my 17-year-old brain had hoped it would be, it still made the concealment of it an art, and for that I appreciated the effort.
So granted, this analysis doesn’t apply to everything (Mean Girls did a pretty good job of getting away with a totally unforeseeable ending). But what do we want from clever endings? Resolution is number one, and then consistency. An ending shouldn’t be unexpected, although, of course, that doesn’t mean that it should be too expected.