Sunday, July 3, 2011

Lessons from the Movies--Planting and Returning Images to Create a Satisfying Ending


There's a place in every book where all the assembled objects begin to balance.  They have slowly come together through many pages and form a cohesive whole.

Of course, this is the end of the story.  It's supposed to be satisfying, even if it leaves us with questions and aches to know more.  It should never leave us confused, however.  All the elements brought into play during the book must be accounted for.

I find that ending a story, especially a book's story, is hard.  Every book I finish offers its own particular agony in its ending.  Endings leave me really concerned--what sleight of hand to perform that will bring delighted gasps from
my reading crowd.  How to make a cohesive whole that works!  I hate leaving holes, where the reader is left thinking back over the story and wondering where this or that object or person has disappeared to, because it annoys me as a reader.

I just finished a nonfiction book that was published this year, Your Book Starts Here, and I ran into the same dilemma with it as I did with my novel or memoir manuscripts.  There was so much more to say!  But I had to say goodbye sometime, so when was the best moment?  And how did I know that I'd successfully wrapped up all the important points I'd launched in the early pages?

Last night I watched a movie that showed me exactly how good endings are born--from the end backwards, a pathway laid carefully through the story via a technique that writing teacher Rebecca McClanahan calls "plant and return."

The movie wasn't all that recent (2007), but a friend had recommended it.  It's a bit violent, in the way of bank robbing, con men, films, but it's so well crafted from a story point of view, I thought about it long after the final credits.  It's called The Lookout, and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Chris, a young man who is living with the sad effects of a car accident that left his brain askew (TBI) when he meets up with a con man who muscles him into helping with a bank robbery.  Jeff Daniels plays Chris's roommate Lewis, a blind man who has a talent for R&B guitar playing.  Chris makes huge breakthroughs in his stalled-out guilt over the car accident (two friends died) and saves Lewis in the end, but only because he heeds Lewis's advice to "tell the story from the end."  When Chris is in dire straights, he begins imagining what he'd like the ending of the story to be.  Then he works backwards, taking notes to remind himself of each step.  Then he carries those steps out.

To me as a viewer, this was brilliant--a concept of a higher order placed in the midst of a shoot-em-up film.  Then I read the screenwriter was the same who'd written Out of Sight and Get Shorty.  Out of Sight, with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, featured the same intricate weaving as The Lookout.  The ending is written first, it seems, in the screenwriter's mind--where would we like to be at the finish line?  Then the writer carefully tracks each element backwards through the previous scenes.

Chris uses a notepad and pen to keep track of all that his brain no longer remembers.  These are featured as crime solving tools later, introduced as basic life tools earlier.  A great plant and return.  He often locks his car keys in the car, but he keeps a spare in his boot.  We see him open the car with the boot-hidden spare several times early in the movie; then, when he's being chased by the bank robbers near the end, he again locks himself out of the car and uses it in the nick of time.  Again, a plant and return--an image used earlier, quite innocently, ends up being pivotal to the ending.

I love to trace this technique back through my own books.  Begin at the end, find an important image, and read backwards to see where it is planted and where it returns and why.

I've found that unless I make all the important images repeat, culminating at the ending, it's frustrating for the reader.  Remember Anton Chekhov's admonition:  if you put a gun on the mantelpiece in Act 1, it must be fired by Act 3.  Very true.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Make a list of all the important images in your story.  Begin with the objects--the easiest to identify.  You can also include thematic images, such as clouds, a river, arranging flowers, etc.  Or certain pieces of clothing, music, and food that are important to your book.

2.  Find out where these land in Act 3.  How are they used in the culminating sections of your story?

3.  Then trace each back through the chapters, seeing where they are planted and returned to.  If you find huge sections where an important image drops out of sight, ask yourself why--is it intentional or is it something that needs fixing?

4.  Get a copy of The Lookout and enjoy watching a master screenwriter use this technique (warning:  it's moderately violent and may offend some).