Today I’m posting about endings. Specifically, what I can take from the Orphan Black ending, although I’ll be steering clear of any plot spoilers so don’t worry if you haven’t yet seen it yet. I watched through another show recently that I felt fumbled the ending very badly and it got me thinking about how endings are HARD. If I think back to the endings of so many shows, well, they just aren’t always great endings. They don’t always feel satisfying or… like an ending. Endings must be complex beasts.
This can be true within an individual story too – an episode, a film, a book. Although I have a suspicion that the longer form of narrative you’re trying to end, the more difficult it is. You have so much more to wrap up but, probably more importantly, your audience has invested so much more time in that narrative. The ending carries more expectation and more weight.
So why are some endings unsatisfying and some very satisfying? What’s the difference?
Having recently watched that Orphan Black ending as an example of how to do it right, I have a feeling it may not be all that complicated after all. I wonder if many of the unsatisfying endings are as a result of overthinking it, trying to be very clever about it or surprising. When in reality, whatever about what an audience might say, they aren’t looking for clever or surprising in an ending. They are looking for closure. And that all too often is missing from the unsatisfying endings.
The Orphan Black ending got all the tension out of the way in the first third of the episode. Everything from there was epilogue. It was giving us that closure. It was saying: here is the end of the story. While it played out differently, I feel the effect wasn’t all that different to the old fairy tale ending: “and they all lived happily ever after”. And that’s what we want. We want to be able to close the cover of that book, let out a deep sigh and know we have reached the end of a wonderful journey. We don’t want to be left wondering what the ending was about. Or what happened the characters who vanished. Or wonder about that last minute twist that will never ever be paid off.
We just want to see the characters we love overcome their challenges and be happy. We want to know they have won, have grown and are now safe. We no longer need to watch because we know they’ll be okay. We’re not going to miss anything now. We are given license to leave the story and be okay with that.
Good endings are pretty simple after all. Really, all we need in an ending is: “and they all lived happily ever after”.
Research is taken as a given in some types of stories. We wouldn’t write a novel about life in 15th century France without doing some reading into what life was like in 15th century France. We wouldn’t write a sci-fi story about the ISS without finding out what it looks like and what astronauts actually do up there. We wouldn’t write a show about lawyers without doing some research on the law and how that works, right?
Except that some people try exactly that. They see law shows on television and so assume that they know all they need to know to write a story about lawyers. It’s not really a true understanding, will likely lead to mistakes and lawyers who actually live that life will rightly tear your work to shreds when you make those mistakes. You’ve got to do your homework and look up the information.
Children’s media is different though. Especially in preschool. Stories can be about going to the supermarket and we all know what going to a supermarket is like. Or a story might be based around getting on a train. We know how trains work. They might just be about falling out with friends and that’s pretty easy because there isn’t even a picture we’d have to google for that one.
NO! This is wrong! Because what you know is what it is like to experience those things as an adult. The life of a child is VERY different. They will see things you don’t. What is mundane for you to the point where you don’t notice things is still new and exciting to children. How they react to their world and each other will be very different to you.
It can be incredibly beneficial to look stuff up that you take for granted. Firstly, knowing about kids is crucial. Those ‘Secret Life of 4 (and 5) Year Olds’ and similar shows are fantastic for getting a glimpse into how they interact. If you haven’t watched any, do so. But also look up what people are telling children about the mundane things you think you know everything about. What are educators telling kids about supermarkets? What things to their early reading books point out? A lot of these will have been refined over years with research and they might suggest something you never thought of. Look it up and see what you can find out.
And when you can, ask children. No matter how good you are at this, sometimes their answers are going to surprise you. They are the real experts in their own lives.
A couple of weeks ago, I went for a run that got me thinking about comedy in stories. Here’s what happened:
I set off as usual in my t-shirt and shorts with my little app going and my music on. And then I felt something wrong… a sort of sliding feeling on my butt cheeks. Under my running shorts, my boxers were slipping down and down. The elastic must have gone on my boxer shorts.
I hiked them up and kept going. They slipped again. I hiked them up. They slipped again. At this point I couldn’t help but think about what it must look like with me adjusting my pants every minute or so as I jogged past people. This couldn’t go on. So about a kilometre into my run, I stopped and tried to tackle this properly. What I did was take my boxer shorts and get the seam right under the waistline of my running shorts, pulling my running shorts tight. The idea was that the running shorts would hold the boxer shorts in place. And they did…
…for almost another half km, at which point they slipped again.
I stopped to adjust and got another half km out of that. But I could not keep running with my underpants sliding down my butt cheeks over and over again.
So I did the only thing I could to hold them in place. I took hold of them and I pulled hard, giving myself a wedgie. The only thing that could hold these in place was the power of my own butt cheeks. So with wedgie firmly in place, I ran. I ran like the wind. No, it wasn’t comfortable but I was running and my boxers stayed in place. I smiled as I ran, not one person knowing how my boxer shorts were pulled right up my butt crack except for the people who saw me adjust them again two kilometres later, giving myself the wedgie to end all wedgies to get me all the way home.
And I thought about how ridiculous this was and about comedy. Great comedy so often comes from the little human failings. The disasters. The challenges we aren’t prepared for. I wrote one project once for a really great director who just had one thing missing – comedy wasn’t his thing. The reason was that he was seemingly great at everything (and he really was). He couldn’t understand when characters got things wrong or weren’t prepared for the challenges they faced. That didn’t make sense to him. It makes sense to me. I fail. I get everyday life wrong. And I can write good comedy.
But here’s a really important thing about the challenges we give characters in comedy – they are funny when they don’t completely beat the characters. On my run, had I just gone home and changed my underwear, that wouldn’t have been funny. Had I stopped and broken down in tears, that wouldn’t have been all that funny either. What created a funny situation was that I didn’t give up. I persevered and was a willing participant in the situation becoming more and more ridiculous. That’s funny.
So if you’re going to write funny, you need to understand what it’s like to be the guy who will go for a 7km run with a wedgie.
Regular readers will know I like to be able to break a character down to the very basics. When you write your story, you have to be able to quickly bring to mind that character and how they act. A simple sense of who the character is really helps give you clarity.
But it can also help you avoid what is an all too common problem: all of your characters coming across the same in your story.
The big test of character is not how great your description is. It’s if the audience knows who these characters are in a single story. In a single scene. They should. Every time. Your characters should be that clear. And how do we do this? Through action. Through how they tackle a situation, react to the unexpected, respond to pressure. So you need to give them situations, the unexpected or pressure.
And you can test this. Give your scene to someone who doesn’t know the show and ask them to describe the characters. Do they get it right? If not, what can you do to fix that?
Here are some things you shouldn’t rely on to make your characters different: funny voices, catchphrases, colours, different tools or weapons, racial stereotypes. None of these things are a substitute for actual personality and the last one is right out.
Know who your characters are. Make them different. Then make them clear.
In all likelihood, if well-developed, your concept has more than a single strength. There might be many reasons why your concept should make it to screen. But when you’re pitching, you need brevity and clarity and you need to know what your strongest reason is. What is the one thing you can say that will make your show an easy buy?
If you know what that is, the rest is simply support. Don’t bombard people in case that one good reason is lost in the crowd.
However, there is something very important to keep in mind: not everybody is looking for the same thing. Every broadcaster has their own vision, their own remit and they buy different types of shows. You need to know who you’re pitching to. Now you can’t please everyone and I would advise that you don’t try – that’s how you water a show down to nothing. You have to have a sense of who your show might be a fit for.
But you don’t have to pitch the show the same way for those people.
If you give the exact same pitch to two people looking for different things, there is a good chance that it won’t work for one of them. And yet what that second person wants might well be in your show. It’s just a different strength. If you accept that different people are looking for different things, highlight the right things when you pitch. Don’t lie! Don’t try to make out like something is in your show that isn’t there – a broadcaster will see through you in an instant and it won’t go down well. But if your show truly has something that would work well for that particular broadcaster, put it out in front.
What this comes down to is the exact same thing you need to think about when making your show: know your audience. Know who you’re pitching to. Look at what is on their channel, at what they’ve said in articles or magazines and try to get a sense of what works for them. Look at your concept’s strengths and make sure the appropriate one comes across in your pitch. It won’t be the same every time.