Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Cliffhanger endings and unsolved mysteries reveal an uncomfortable truth: no matter how adamant our opinion behind our eyes lurks insecurity and doubt.

I want to talk about writing. Weird, huh?

It occurred to me as I was thinking about my White Walker post earlier this week that one of the things that keeps me coming back to George R.R. Martin's books are the unsolved mysteries. My mind yearns for answers, yet if I were to actually get them I'd swiftly grow bored and move on. But there's a curious thing that happens right before resolution: it's this desire to be validated about my theories as if my own opinion about something isn't enough. And it's something that I think all of us feel, which is why cliffhangers and unsolved mysteries have such a hold on us as human beings.

Take for example the movie "Inception." The ending is wide-open for interpretation and has been the root for countless argument between couples. Is the top going to spin forever thereby indicating that Leonardo's character is stuck in a dream? Or is the top going to topple over, thus proving that Leonardo is in the real world. The camera cuts (frustratingly) away from this scene before a resolution is delivered. And no matter who you ask, there's always an opinion. However, all of these opinions have one thing in common: they don't really trust themselves. In other words, they'd like the director to give them a final answer and "validate" what they believe. But if this were to happen, then some of the magic of the story would be gone.

This is one documented reason why Stephen Spielberg was so resistant in making changes to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" despite studio pressure. The master craftsman that he is, Spielberg knew that if people were allowed to see behind the curtain, that his film would somehow be diminished. And this is exactly what took place. Getting a view inside the interior of the mothership is the same as looking upon the Wizard of Oz and arriving at the realization that he's nothing but a Kansas con man. How many people were disappointed by this as children? I know I was. But when it came to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," lots of people wanted an answer because they didn't trust their opinion of what took place. It's just another sad case of people wanting it to be real only to be reminded that reality oftentimes disappoints.

So are we hardwired to always care what other people think? Are we always going to doubt our own opinions unless it is validated by someone else? The answer biologically may be yes because we experience a reward sensation in our brains when meeting with another's approval (as seen in M.R.I. scans).

If this holds true, then a skilled writer should be able to craft each chapter in such a way that it ends with an unsolved mystery or some kind of cliffhanger that forces the reader to turn the page in order to validate their own opinion. George R.R. Martin is a master of this. Me? Not so much (though I try really hard).

The critic Emily Nussbaum wrote in an essay that appeared in The New Yorker, "cliffhangers are fake-outs. They reveal that a story is artificial, then dare you to keep believing. If you trust the creator, you take that dare, and keep going." And that's just it because I think we are more apt to trust someone else than we are to trust ourselves.

I don't know if I had any kind of particular epiphany about this (or where it even came from) but it seems to me that cliffhanger endings and unsolved mysteries reveal an uncomfortable truth: that no matter how adamant our opinion, behind our eyes lurks insecurity and doubt. And that is why these two tropes keep paying off in spades. I look forward to your opinion in the comments even though I know you secretly don't trust it.


  1. Cliffhangers along the way keep you going, but one at the end is sometimes really disappointing.
    Perhaps it's that sense of child-like wonder we enjoy? We just want to know. And as adults, it becomes that we just need to know for certain.
    By the way, Close Encounters is one of those old, nostalgic films where the special effects have held up really well.
    And the top wobbles, therefore he was in reality. I've believed that since the first time I saw the film.

  2. I liked "Donnie Darko" a lot better before I read the director's explanation on IMDB. Before that I could come up with whatever theories I wanted and search for clues and stuff. But then I read the explanation and it's like, "Oh, so that's what it is." It's much less satisfying.

    It's like there was this was one album my brother and I were looking for through most of the 90s because we'd heard a song on the radio and couldn't find the song to buy anywhere, so whenever we went to a new city or state we'd check out used CD stores and the like. But then along came the Internet so we could just buy the album online. It was a pretty bummer ending to the quest because even though we got what we wanted, the end was really anticlimactic. So I guess sometimes the quest is more important than the ending.

    Though with "Inception" the end is pretty obvious. The top is still spinning, which means he's still in the dream world, only he's tricked himself into creating a happy ending so he doesn't know he's still there. Though if I read an interview with Christopher Nolan where he'd actually explain that it would take a lot of the fun out of it.

    Another example would be 2001 the movie vs. the book. The movie at the end it gets really confusing while the book is a lot more straight forward. I think most people would prefer the movie then because it leaves more wiggle room.

    So I guess the point is we're creative, cantankerous beings and thus we like to be able to imagine and argue about stuff.

  3. I always hate those "you decide the ending" movies.

  4. Getting other people's approval or having my opinions validated has never been something I've needed. Maybe it's because I grew up in a low-approval environment and had to learn to validate myself (so to speak) or maybe it's because my brain doesn't seem to have the normal receptiveness to chemicals as everyone else.

    The issue with the ending to Inception is that there is no answer to that question. Not that he didn't tell us the answer, there just isn't answer.

  5. I don't mind cliffhangers as long as the next 'thing' is readily available. Otherwise, I forget and move on.

  6. Most of the enjoyment my children and I have with TV shows and book series is the guessing of what will happen next. I try for the cliffhangers in my books too. Sometimes it works.

  7. George needs to quit killing everyone, though, because I don't invest in the characters anymore. I don't trust him there. But I MUST know what happens to Arya. She keeps me reading.

    Some cliff hangers I've hated. Some are good. If they peak the curiosity for more, yay. If they make me want to throw the book at the wall because I feel cheated, boo.

    Whetting curiosity is what the page turner is about and what, above all things, us writers must master. All other sins are forgiven.

  8. I remember being horrified when they showed the interior of the mother ship on Close Encounters. It looked like a stupid shopping mall.

  9. I think cliffhangers hook us because we want to see what comes next. That's why we turn the next page.

    I know when a story of any sort goes against what I think might have been "the right way" I launch into writer mode. I rewrite the story so it matches what I think ought to have happened.

    But I've always been a bit weird.

  10. Open-ended endings are pretty tough to pull off. Close Encounters was perfect. Roy's story did give us closure, and we got a glimpse of the story to come.

    Some people get ticked off, but I love cliffhangers if done right.

  11. I enjoy cliffhangers unless they're at the end. I do want a final resolution and feel cheated if it's not tied up nicely.

  12. I try to write cliffhangers at the end of chapters, but ending a book the same way would frustrate me both as a writer and a reader. Then again, it's good to have a few loose strings or set-up so that the story can continue in a series of books or movies; Harry Potter is a great example.

    More than I'd like to admit, other people's opinions of me or of what I write really matter to me. There may be one or two people I don't respect and whose opinions I don't trust (usually I'm related to them), but overall I can't be emotionally isolated.

  13. Not really a fan of the open ended ending. It usually feels like the writer couldn't come up with a good idea so "over to you...".

    I know the arguments for it, but when you see some writer really nail an ending you get to see how good it can be, it's just that it's very hard to do.

    Moody Writing

  14. Nice article, but I think your premise is flawed in the same way that asking someone "When did you stop beating your wife?" is flawed. We may crave closure in stories, but it's not clear to me that means we all want validation. Me personally, I don't guess, that's why I watch the story; I want the story teller to tell me.

    When I spend time I could be doing something else to watch a show I do so because the story intrigues me and because I want to know what happens in the eye of the story teller. If I wanted to create my own stories I'd sit in the corner and play with toy soldiers! I could certainly guess what would have happened, but I have no interest in guessing; I want the story teller to tell me. Specifically I can't "know" because my guesses can never be canon; only the creators of the show can deliver canon.

    Without knowing what is canon I gain no feeling of closure. And I don't get a shared knowledge with others about the answers so there can be no references to other works in said answers because no answers exist. No analysis or discussion of the canon because there is no canon. And no new stories, fan fiction or otherwise, that leverage canon because there is no canon. All-in-all not knowing the canon answer is deeply unsatisfying.

    In summary, if the story teller doesn't provide answers to the mysteries they pose then they violate the pact they made with many when a viewers who choose to devote their time consuming the story teller's story. If the story teller violates that pact then many will do their best to avoid future works the story teller produces because they can not longer trust the story teller to make good on their implicit pact with the viewer.

    P.S. I'm not a writer of fiction as it appears many of the here commenters are. Maybe this is too much "inside baseball" and maybe most writers want to finish other's stories. But my guess is that most non-writers want stories to be artfully told by a great story teller and just watch a story unfold.