Fulfilling Reader Expectations
There's a scene in the movie Silver Lining's Playbook where Bradley Cooper's character is reading a novel and he's so aggravated with it, he throws it out the window. That's how I felt after watching I Care Alot, a movie where the protagonist is defrauding the elderly. For over an hour I was watching and waiting for this character to get her comeuppance. Instead, not only does she thwart her opposition handily, but she winds up being heralded for it. Yeah, she gets shot in the head, but that only adds to her status by making her some sort of martyr
When the audience is waiting for a specific outcome, one that's been built up by the storyteller throughout, and it doesn't come... that leaves the audience deeply unsatisfied. I was so irritated at the the end of this film that I wanted to throw it out the window just like Bradley Cooper did with that novel.
Writers are interesting creatures. I know, I'm one myself. We like to test the boundaries with our writing because otherwise the same stale stories are being told. I'm all for breaking the rules, but having assholes and evil doers getting away with crimes is a tired trend in Hollywood. If I wanted to see that I'd watch the news!
Does every story need a happy ending? No, but it needs to have a satisfying one. If you're building up a certain theme in your story and you don't deliver that in the end, it leaves a bad impression on your audience.
Take Game of Thrones for example. The HBO series broke new ground and was heralded for seven years as the best show on TV. But the series conclusion was so bad it made the loyal audience turn on the entire series like a pack of wild Direwolves.
Alot of viewers went so far as to say the series finale ruined the entire show for them. That's a little extreme, but you get my point. Game of thrones built up character arcs and then abandoned them by the said of the road in the finale. It wasn't a clever twist of plot and I don't think it was even trying to be.
Clever twists are hard and when pulled off they can be great. But when they aren't done right you shoot yourself in the foot and insult your audience.
Take another example in The Magicians. In season four, the writers thought it would be interesting to shake things up if they killed off their main character Quentin. Was actor Jason Ralph leaving the show? No, the writers just wanted to end his story even though in the books he's the central character and remains throughout the entire series. As a result of the TV show's deviation, they faced massive backlash and The Magicians was canceled just one season later.
Writers need to understand the investment their readers and viewers are putting into these characters. Time is a precious commodity so when your offering your story a certain way and then you spin it poorly its going to leave a mark. lately I've read a few novels by my favorite author Dean Koontz and he's starts the story strong only to taper off into a poor ending. I don't want to invest my time in a book and not have a payoff at the end.
It's the same reason the edited versions of True Romance and The Hitcher don't work. You're invested in the hero. They have horrible things done to them. They deserve their revenge. When you water down their revenge, its unsatisfying.
Now, let's look at the flip-side. A well-done ending that wraps things up will more often than not have the audience return to watch/read the same story over again. Because they know its a satisfying ending, they'll invest more time with these characters they love. More than one TV series has ended poorly after years of fanfare leaving a bad taste in the mouth of loyal viewers. Only some of them have ever gotten the ending right.
When Blindspot ended they offered their viewers 2 different endings to choose from. one where everyone lived happily ever after and the other where the lead, Jane died. There viewers could decided for themselves which was the real ending. That's a bit of a cop out, but its better than leading your audience down one path and then pulling the rug out beneath them.
Throughout the 3rd season of Netflix GLOW they had multiple storylines start only to end abruptly with no resolve.
How did Debbie conquer bulimia so fast?
What happened with Cherry's gambling addiction?
These aren't just failed endings, they're massive plot holes.
Something as simple as a kiss has irked me for a long time. At the end of The Killing, they wrap the series well, except they teased Holder and Linden getting together for four seasons. Then they teased a kiss at the end and still didn't reward the audience with it. Why not? The writer thought it would be too "pat." Who cares, do it anyway! The audience wanted it so why not reward them?
Along those same lines, the 80s sitcom Who's the Boss played on the romantic tension of the two leads. Loyal viewers waited to see Tony and Angela get together which finally happened in the final season. However, the payoff was lackluster. Because studio heads believed syndication would be damaged if they had the two characters get married, it never happened. Nevermind that for nine years the fans of the show waited to see it. Instead, they offered a piss-poor ending that didn't really have the same effect.
The audience isn't always right and more often than not they're split in their interests. But the point I'm trying to make is that in storytelling, you should not build up an arc and then not deliver on it. Don't put out a trailer that makes it look like the woman running the cons on the elderly finally crosses the wrong guy and her own life implodes then not follow through when viewers watch it.
Calling something a dark comedy doesn't give you carte blanche to make a complete asshole of your heroine and then not give her at least some sort of a redeeming story arc. I have an asshole character in my novel Lucky Sevens. But I wasn't foolish enough to keep him that way throughout the entire book. Readers would be chucking it out windows like Bradley Cooper. I'm not usually affected this much by bad writing but this one insulted me as a viewer and a writer. Don't insult your audience or you might not get them back.