Category: endings

FRINGE and Foreshadowing

Whose hand do you think that is?

From 2008-2013, Fox ran FRINGE, a science fiction show created by JJ Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman. JJ Abrams is one of the world’s most famous directors now, but back then he was known as the guy that created LOST. Which means he also took a lot of heat for the ways in which LOST spun its wheels, often introducing ideas or mysteries for short-term gain without a long-term plan.

Rewatching FRINGE now, you can sense the desire from all involved to simultaneously push back against that (there are multiple times throughout the series where a character says, “Sometimes answers lead to more questions.”) and avoid the same trap. In fact, it’s apparent on my rewatch just how much the show knew about its mythology and characters from the very first episode.

The most obvious of these is the Observers that appear in every episode, beginning with the pilot episode. As the show goes on, they weave in and out of the narrative until their purpose and endgame become clear in the final season.

Setting that aside, as it’s more of a plot machination, FRINGE shows the importance of understanding your characters as early as possible. Before I continue, I should provide a SPOILER WARNING for a decade-old show. So, ya know, spoiler warning going forward. Here’s a picture of the Observer from the pilot as a break.

I think it’s clear which part of the picture the Observer is in.

With that out of the way, it becomes apparent early on in the series that something is off about Peter’s history and his relationship with his father. We’re led to believe that it’s because of their fractured relationship–Walter has been in a mental institution for the past 17 years, and Peter hasn’t visited–but there is always a sense of something else beneath their interactions. A lot of this has to do with the acting, John Noble and Joshua Jackson annihilate their roles, but as the first season progresses more and more hints are dropped about Peter’s history.

Things Walter says when Peter is in danger (the most on the nose of which is when he tells Astrid, “I can’t lose him again.”), hints provided through the cinematography and lighting. Because the writers knew the secret before the characters did (Peter doesn’t find out until episode 15 of the second season, nearly 40 episodes into the 100 episode series), they are able to foreshadow the reveal early and often. This adds a layer of intrigue and mystery to an already intriguing and mysterious show.

Some writing advice says that you can’t write your story until you know the ending. Others prefer the act of discovery as they go. I think it depends on the type of story you’re trying to tell. I also think that it’s important to know your characters, if nothing else, and their secrets. In long-form storytelling especially, characters are what will keep your audience with you through the major plot revelations (parallel universe?!) and the missteps (alternate timeline?).

Endings Both Good and Bad

Over the course of my last two screenplays, The Inhabitors and Peripheral, I’ve noticed a trend: Endings are not my strong suit.

Endings are extremely difficult to do. Ideal endings are thought to rise organically from whatever has happened throughout the story. They perfectly tie together characters, plots, and theme into a seamless tapestry of art. That’s not an easy thing to do, especially if you have a complicated plot or your characters refuse to cooperate with their fate.

Many writers, perhaps to circumvent the problems associated with conceiving endings that fit and are satisfactory for the story and the audience, say to have your ending figured out before you even start writing. I disagree. I believe there needs to be flexibility in a story. If you have everything plotted out beat-by-beat-by-beat where does the spontaneity lie for the characters and their (hopefully) unique personalities? My fear is that a story will read as if the ending is predetermined if the ending is, in fact, predetermined. That being said, I’ve also found that some stories lead to certain endings more easily than others. For example, in The Time Bubble the entire story was leading to a confrontation between the Government and the Revolution at the heart of the story. The script I’m currently working on, a Western, is leading to a conflict between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, for lack of better descriptions. Those are the most logical endings for those stories because the conflicts are fairly straightforward. To throw a twist or deviate from that would either feel like cheating, or completely underwhelm the audience and leave a bad taste in their mouth.

Nicolas Refn’s Only God Forgives is guilty of this, but the climax to that story is purposefully underwhelming. The entire movie builds to a confrontation between Ryan Gosling’s character and the Policeman that killed his brother, and then (SPOILER ALERT) Ryan Gosling has his ass handed to him. The fight isn’t even shot in a way that’s satisfying, instead taking a bird’s-eye view of the action so it’s difficult to see the details of the fight. Refn seems to be saying, “Betya thought something else was going to happen here, huh? I got you good!” But on a deeper level, if you feel the work deserves that sort of analysis, the fight underscores that Gosling’s character and his family are awful people and deserve to get their asses beat, but also that sometimes vengeance doesn’t work out. Sometimes things are just as they are and there is no changing them.

But those are stories with clear, unambiguous conflicts at the center of their stories. What about stories that are ambiguous? The Inhabitors and Peripheral both fall under this category, and both have given me two different problems with the endings. The Inhabitors runs the risk of being underwhelming (because the story seems to be setting up a final confrontation when it’s not), but also became a forced ending. Peripheral, on the other hand, was anti-climactic. In both cases, I had to go back and rewrite the endings from scratch.

Forced Endings

This goes back to predetermining what your ending will be. In The Inhabitors I had themes I wanted to touch on, and secrets that needed to be spilled. The main kinda-sorta antagonist, Seth, was the mouthpiece for this. The problem was that everything he said as clearly the writer speaking through him. The dialogue between him and the two other characters in the scene was haphazard at best. They would ask him a question, or say something pertinent, and he would rant at length about a completely unrelated topic. It was sloppy and totally sucked the drama out of the situation. He may as well have had a soliloquy all to himself.

I ended up rewriting the ending from scratch. I did a much better job of focusing on the events that preceded the confrontation and allowing the characters to speak to one another. The story was never in a position to end in violence, which is always easier, so the characters had to be revealing and wounded without being forced. I’m not 100% sure if I succeeded or not, but it’s definitely better now than it was through the first few drafts.

Anti-Climactic Endings

The Inhabitors, because it’s a climax of characters talking through their hurt feelings, will probably end up feeling anti-climactic to a lot of readers. That’s fine, because that has more to do with audience expectation than artist intent. Peripheral‘s ending, on the other hand, is the physical manifestation of a psychological/emotional conflict that runs through the entire story. It needed to escalate to a bigger level and the first draft fails.

For one, the entire ending is very quick. It builds and builds and builds and then the story cuts away to return only when the fireworks have already ended. I had to rewrite just to stay with the action and give the audience more bang for their buck. Another issue was with where the characters were. The (for lack of a better term) protagonist, Jon, takes his daughter Awa away from the house before the climax. They’re our emotional base for the entire film and they’re not even there for the climax. I had to get them back.

So it came down to rewriting again. Now they are in the midst of trying to leave the house, preserving some sense of realism in the story (otherwise people might say, “Why haven’t they left? The characters are so stupid I can’t relate to them and therefore hate this story.”) while also allowing me to put them in harm’s way. I hope the physical danger they’re in now leads to a better emotional release at the end of the film.

Conclusions

Endings are hard. Harder than beginnings, where you have the freedom to go in any direction you want. Endings are more of a choice. But choosing the best ending can be a difficult thing depending on where the story beforehand went.

Which is why one should never be afraid of revisions.

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