How to Write an Ending No One Can Guess

writingThere are two ways to do it best. One is to start with an ending and work backward. I did this in Postmarked for Death, which began as a nightmare I had, involving an abandoned missile silo taken over by a madman. Not the usual scenario, either: there was no Hollywood missile, as in the movie “Twilight’s Last Gleaming.” It was just two guys in the dark, each with a gun, listening intently for movement in the utter silence. The advantages to this method is that once you know where you’re going, it’s a journey of discovery to get there. Why are these two guys there? How did they get there—what led to it? Once you know who they are, and have established them vividly, the novel will write itself. Better if each is not a walking cliché (walking dead man) but a fallible, real person with both good and bad in them. They have made wrong decisions in the past, but redemption comes in making the right decision in the end. The second method is not knowing the ending. Again, you have the main character fleshed out. And a firm idea of what his or her dilemma is. In the case of The Methuselah Gene, I knew it was going to be a thriller about Big Pharma: how pharmaceutical drugs are tested and produced, combined with how the science of longevity may produce a drug in the near future to extend life by a decade or more. (Science validated recently in the Ron Howard series Breakthroughs.) With the main character (a bachelor researcher tortured by anxiety) fleshed out, it became a matter of doing research, and interviewing a few scientists in the field of genetic engineering so that the plot idea would be plausible. After that? A blank sheet of paper. No idea what would happen to this character, who he would meet, and how the plot idea would evolve. I simply put him into a situation, and listened to what he might say. As one of my fav actors, James Garner, once put it in his biography: “I don’t act, I react. Give me a reactor over an actor every time. As soon as you look like you’re acting, you’re dead. You’re just chewing the scenery.”  That’s the way I did it. I put him in motion, and told it from his point of view. He surprised me. That way, there is no way the reader won’t be surprised too. Just let go.

kim jong un

The Grey VS The Edge

The Edge

There are obvious similarities between these two movies: both set in Alaska, both with men cut off from the outside world by a plane crash, and both groups being stalked by wild animals.  In The Grey wolves pick them off, one by one.  In The Edge a bear tracks them.  Which is the better movie?  That too is obvious.  The Edge has the edge.  Why?  It’s not due to the acting, which is excellent in both.  Liam Neeson is always believable, as is Anthony Hopkins.  The directing too is admirable, although the wolves are not always as present or real as that hellishly convincing bear with murder in its eyes.  It is the story that separates these movies.  Based on a hard-to-find short story by Ian Jeffers titled “Ghost Walker,” The Grey has in its premise the territorial nature of wolves, who will hunt anyone near their den, so when a group of oil field roughnecks crash land off the radar, their respective animosities are placed into perspective in order to survive.  Neeson’s character experiences flashbacks in which he remembers his wife, urging him not to be afraid.  While this one-trick pony is very effective, with a link to the poem recited, it also limits character depth, while at the same time making it clear that The Edge had an influence on this movie.  Unfortunately, instead of being written by a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright as was The Edge, the movie was written by its director, which is an unfortunate Hollywood trend (especially for we writers who’d like a shot at this.)  Can you be a great director and writer?  Maybe, but it is unlikely.  In this case, it is also obviously not true.  One should stick with what they do best, and leave what they don’t do best for professionals who do it better.  Accordingly, the dialogue is inferior to The Edge.  There is less scope to it, and the characters suffer because we are not shown who they really are, underneath.  By contrast, David Mamet was holding back in his movie.  For a full view of his powers, watch the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, which is based on Mamet’s incredible stage play.  (Try writing that, Joe.)  We are put into the character’s heads in The Edge.  And at the end, when the cynical billionaire played by Hopkins, (and whose wife has conspired with Alec Baldwin against him to get his money), arrives back at camp as the sole survivor, what does he say?  Not what you would expect from a typical Hollywood script.  Because, you see, the experience has changed everyone in the film, him included.  (Baldwin tried to kill him, but he forgave him for that, and indeed tried to save his life.)  So they ask him what happened to the others and he looks past them all, including his wife, and says, “they died. . .saving my life.”

Scarlett Johansson

UNDER THE SKIN beats LUCY hands down, but only if you hear the book first.

The Evolution of THE DESCENDANTS

George Clooney

The movie THE DESCENDANTS is based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and stars George Clooney. It concerns the trustee and part owner of a pristine parcel of Hawaiian beachfront property whose wife is in a coma, and who then learns she’s been having an affair (with whom is yet another kicker.)  Now Mr. King must attend to his family in a way he’s neglected up to now, particularly his daughters.  Hawaiian cousins there are many, most of them hoping to be rich soon, which puts Clooney’s decision maker in the pickle of deciding whether to sell, and to whom. As a debut novel, it’s a believable and quirky work, and Hemmings is particularly adept at framing dialogue which sounds authentic.  In the movie Clooney has a gift for inhabiting a character’s persona, and he is comfortable at being uncomfortable in King’s skin.  Both seriously sad and funny at the same time, the film and book are reminiscent of the book and movie “Sideways,” and indeed both movies have the same director.  Which movie is better is a matter of taste, and although it is perhaps unfair to compare films, they are both similar in tone as well, (as was “About Schmidt,” another incredible–albeit small–film directed by Alexander Payne.)  I suppose I’ll not see “The Descendants” again.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind seeing “Sideways” again (or “About Schmidt” for its twist emotional ending/impact), since the self destructive hilarity of those films, together with their touching self revelations, are truly memorable.  Director Alexander Payne is certainly someone to watch evolve, for good or ill, and despite his comments on Charlie Rose that he’s just making nice films he didn’t think were particularly $Important$, these are just the kind of films that Hollywood needs to make more of–as opposed to big, loud, or exploitative 3-D special effects blockbusters with 1-D characters.  These three are among my own favorites, too.