How to Ruin an Ending in One Easy Move

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945) was a fantastic movie. Heartbreaking, suspenseful, psychological. Yes, one hour and 15 minutes of it was great. The last 5 minutes, however, were horrendous. You see, this movie suffered from Cop-out Ending Disorder, and it ruined the entire thing.

Spoilers are included in this post, but don’t worry. If you watch the movie, you’ll be so confused by the ending that only the final screen’s warning will hint at what actually happened. “In order that your friends may enjoy this picture, please do not disclose the ending.” That was the only thing that told me the filmmakers hadn’t gone crazy. I had to really think about what on earth I just watched and only then did I finally understand. That’s when I got really annoyed.

Imagine you spend time writing a deep, sometimes slightly disturbing psychological suspense movie script. You write it all the way to the end and you have two choices: (1) satisfy moviegoers with something that fits the rest of the movie or (2) show that none of the intensity that led to the ending ever happened. That’s right, 30 minutes worth of movie were for naught. And somehow, for some unfortunate reason, Universal Pictures decided that #2 was the ending for them.

Even while you’re watching the bad ending, you think you know where it’s going. You think the main character has gone insane and it’ll end on a fittingly disconcerting note, slightly creepy and still within the movie code (in this time period, movies had to adhere to a movie code where everyone gets their just desserts, essentially). But no. It turns out none of the most satisfyingly dark stuff ever happened and everything is okay and everyone lives happily ever after. In other words, they’ve chosen the dream trope. Oh, thank goodness it was only my imagination!

I don’t know about you, but the disappointment in this kind of cop-out forces me to hate the movie as a whole and want to rewrite it with the much better ending it should been given the dignity to have. If you, reader of my blog, are a writer, please don’t do this to me or to your book. It’s not fair to your readers, your characters, or your writing in general. Do something with your ending that will satisfy and, if possible, surprise. It’s 100% worth the effort to come up with something that is, at the very least, appropriate to the rest of the story. If readers remember your book based on the last thing they read, your ending had better make the whole experience worth it.

That’s my editorial rant for the day.

Symbol Sample: Harriet Craig

I am a HUGE fan of symbolism in every artistic medium. I always look for it in literature and movies specifically, and I always include it in my writing, no matter how short the piece is.  Symbolism is an essential part of my work, and the great thing about it is that a reader can choose to look for it and find it, or they can ignore it and still enjoy the piece.

I’ve had lots of people ask me how to layer stories with symbolism, some obvious symbols while others may not be so obvious. It might be best to answer this question through examples in both literature and film that I can show you through a series of blog posts. I’m going to start with an easy one: Harriet Craig.

The movie Harriet Craig (1950) with Joan Crawford and Wendell Corey is a prime example of good symbolism that doesn’t have to be noticed but adds to the enjoyment of the film. Quick synopsis: Harriet Craig is a cold, manipulative control freak wife who will lie to her husband, Walter, about anything in order to keep him all to herself and following her rules. She has no boundaries as to how far she’ll go to make sure her marriage stays in tact – and she covers her tracks well. Her husband is a trusting, loving man who doesn’t catch on to her scheming ways, though his friends and others see her for what she is.

That being said, Harriet has a lot of rules about her house and how it should be kept: make sure the blinds are closed by 11 a.m. every day so the sun doesn’t fade the furniture, keep the expensive vase away from the edge of the mantle, don’t sit on the arm of the chair, never throw anything (like a newspaper) down but instead place it neatly. She treats her husband more like a son and constantly chastises him. A couple of people mention that the house is cold and lifeless “like a thing that died and has been laid out”.

There’s a particular chair in the house that looks ornamental although it’s meant for sitting, but even more importantly it’s stiff and hard. If you watch
harrietcraigchaircarefully, you’ll see that Walter can’t get comfortable on that chair, even with a pillow. Harriet, however, feels perfectly comfortable on it. This is representative of their differences in personality. Walter is a warm person and can’t stand sitting in the stiff chair, but Harriet is a cold person and feels right at home on it. The only time Walter is able to sit on the chair is towards the end of the movie when he rearranges the pillows and lies down on it once he has decided to take back control of his house. He takes control of his comfort in the chair just as he is about to take control of Harriet.

Little things like this are easy to put into your story as light but still important symbolism. Think about what your characters have in common or their differences. Now think about their environments, even their work. How can you implement this same tactic to insert a layer of depth in your story? The good thing about this type of symbolism is that it can be stated relatively outright and still not seem out of place. You don’t have to worry too much about presenting it artistically if you don’t want to; the point of it is to be more towards the surface of the story instead of buried deep inside.