Trick Endings

Since O. Henry popularized them, trick endings have been a temptation and a danger to all writers but especially to beginners, to whom such gimmicks can be perilously appealing. Some tricks, like dirigible endings, are born of incompetence and the failure of imagination. Others, although unexpected, legitimately arise from within the story itself and are validly star-tling—on the first reading, anyway. And some tricks are solutions to narrative problems, trapdoors to let a story escape the trap of cliché.

Sometimes, at a story's conclusion, plots can run into a dead end, with no good way out. A trapdoor can't save a dying story any more than a dirigible can: that takes rethinking from the beginning. But it sometimes can make a basically sound story better, acting like a chute to use the story's built-up momentum and deflect the plot line with even greater force and speed in an en tirely new and intriguing direction.

Maybe the only possible ending seems too predictable—too much like fifty other stories, or telegraphed so far in advance that the writer gets boredjust thinking about it, let alone writing it. For these or other reasons, the writer thinks the ending won't work unless something really startling happens: a real surprise, a trapdoor, a trick.

I've talked before about valid tricks, about substituting something else ofthe same general kind, with the same emotional significance, for what you led the reader to expect. You can do that, if you choose, even in an ending—though I don't advise it. It's generally too risky to be worthwhile, if you don't know precisely what you're doing. If your gimmick doesn't work, your whole story goes down the drain, notjust the ending. And endings are such crucial times anyway that tricks become even trickier to bring off than they normally are, when everything isn't riding on their success.

All the same, with great care, trick endings can be made to work. As I discussed in Chapter 7, effective tricks and switches depend on proper preparation beforehand. If, in spite of the risks, you decide to build one into your ending, you can't just spring it, or drop it like a bomb (or a dirigible): you'll need to go back into your story and lay the groundwork—not enough to give your trick away, but enough to make it seem at least plausible when it happens.

Chute-out in outer space

The Empire Strikes Back seems to be leading toward a climactic duel between Luke and Darth Vader—the science fiction version of the noon shoot-out on Main Street. Predictable. Dull. But it would be disappointing if, after all that build-up, protagonist and adversary never meet, or meet but don't fight.

George Lucas decided to build himself a chute from the materials at hand, from the context the story had already established.

Groundwork about Luke's father had been laid from the beginning of the series. The elder Skywalker was evidently an accomplished Jedi warrior; like Luke, he was the student of Obi-Wan Kenobi—indeed, one strongly suspects Luke undertakes the Jedi training to follow in his father's ways. Obi-Wan, whom one takes to be a reliable source, reports that the elder Skywalker was killed by Vader—as Obi-Wan himself later is, before Luke's eyes.

From all these accumulated details, by the time we reach the part of the story where the duel commences, we know Luke's father means a great deal to him. It's the personal, rather than the political, part of his motivation for seeking out the duel: to avenge his father's murder, as well as that of his fatherly and beloved mentor, Obi-Wan.

And these details might have rested there, just like that: perfectly acceptable as background information about Luke, explaining and justifying his hatred for Vader. And then the duel could come, and Luke could win or lose, and we could all yawn and munch our popcorn and admire the special effects in a vague, abstracted fashion until the duel was done.

But rather than just grind out the expected cliched duel, Lucas saw the possibility for an effective switch. In his original stories, on which the screenplays were based, he laid the groundwork that would bear more than the one obvious interpretation. Lucas decided to go ahead and build on it.

He couldn't avoid the duel altogether: that would be anticli-mactic, since Luke's motivations for fighting Vader had been demonstrated so strongly. The duel is played out. All the expected swashes are buckled and the legitimate expectations satisfied. But the duel is less climax than build-up to a startling switch that changes it retroactively in our imaginations—not a worm in the apple, but a hissing fuse. It's not just a change in plot—it's a change in meaning and relationship and therefore more powerful and convincing than mere externals could be. Vader's revelation that he himself is Luke's much-idolized father—not dead, but corrupted and evil—turns the duel, and all Luke's attitudes, right around. The world changes, and that changes everything.

The chute, the trick, wasn't simple reporting of fictional "facts": George Lucas constructed it. Though we see the final product which now seems inevitable, as though it couldn't be other than it is, there was a time when anything in the story could have been changed and we'd never have known the difference.

Darth Vader didn't have to be Luke's father. In an interview, Lucas has admitted thinking about whether to go ahead with the revelation or not. No, George Lucas made Vader Luke's father. He didn't merely reveal the fact: he invented it, out of the details of plot, characterization, and background the story had already established.

Just as easily, Vader could have turned out to be Han Solo's father. Nothing rules it out—as far as I can tell, Solo was found under a cabbage: no parentage, no home is ever mentioned. But no groundwork had been laid, to give such a revelation resonance and emotional power: to make it matter. Can you visualize Vader declaring himself to be Solo's father, and Luke saying blankly, "So?"

Not any chute would have done. Only one that followed the story's essential dynamic, one that immediately and instantly mattered, could use the story's momentum and shoot it off in a new direction without slowing.

A switch can be sudden to the reader, but it must be foreseen and carefully planned by its author. And like all effective endings, it must grow out of what the story has become, up to that point.

It must not be an escape from labored plotting, but a fulfillment of careful plotting. It's not a thing to do in desperation, because you can't think of anything else.

If you're in doubt, don't do it. The wrong chute will do nothing but zip your story straight through onto some editor's reject pile.

If you're going to have to go back into your story anyway in order to construct a valid and effective trick ending, look around while you're there. Consider the moods and attitudes and other elements that might be adjusted to lead to a different conclusion than the one you're contemplating with dread and boredom. Maybe you'll find you don't need a trick after all. And maybe that will be for the best.

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