Note: I don’t watch Hallmark movies (not that there’s anything wrong with it), but I have heard them discussed.
I was surprised a few years ago when someone, I’ll call her Ann, told me she won’t read a book or watch a movie without first knowing the ending. This seemed very strange to me, as I have always enjoyed the suspense of not knowing what will happen next. I have subsequently learned that a sizable minority of people share Ann’s sentiment. Many people, in fact, enjoy reading a book or watching a movie multiple times, sometimes enjoying it better when it’s familiar. I remember being told about someone who liked the original Mad Max movie so much, she saw it over a hundred times (once was enough for me).
While I still enjoy the suspense of not knowing exactly how a story turns out, I understand why someone else might not want to invest the time it takes to watch a movie, or the many hours required to read a book, while risking disappointment at the end. For Ann, a real let down would be an ending that isn’t warm and fuzzy. I think most fiction book readers and movie watchers like a happy, or at least a satisfying ending, one that doesn’t make them feel worse than they felt at the beginning of the piece.
That would be nice for non-fiction, too, although I think most people understand that reality isn’t always happy. The endings to biographies of famous people of yore usually includes the subject’s death. Even though I knew the fate of Alexander Hamilton from my knowledge of American history, when I read his biography by Ron Chernow, I would have preferred a different ending. Same with the play. The duel was so lame, such a letdown, the story would have made for a terrible work of fiction.
There are reasons other than a depressing finish for people to be disappointed in the ending of a book or movie. Finding out that the whole story was only a dream from which the protagonist wakes up at the end can be very annoying. If the character is saved from an apparently inescapable disaster by something contrived, magical or from completely out of nowhere (called deus ex machina, which literally means a god from a machine), the reader or movie-watcher can feel ripped off. Ditto when there is no resolution to a problem, an uncertain future, or the story just collapses in a mess that doesn’t make sense (ever see Mulholland Drive?). Yet another reason some people like to find out the ending to a story before reading or watching it is that they simply can’t take the tension of not knowing what will happen.
That being said, I believe that most people, including myself, enjoy the tension of not being sure how a story ends, trying to guess what’s going to happen, and being surprised. We still, however, don’t want to be disappointed at the end (whatever disappointment means to a particular individual) and may rely on reviews or familiarity with an author or director to protect us from disappointment.
I, for one, bring my own attitude about endings to my writing. Although some disturbing things may happen, my endings are meant to be satisfying to most readers. Maybe not as saccharin sweet as a Hallmark movie, but comfortable. While the exact ending in some of my short stories may not be explicitly stated, it’s pretty clear what will happen. No magic or saviors appearing out of nowhere in my stuff. If you’re one of the few who want to experience the protagonist being beheaded with blood spurting all over, or a child being sold into slavery at the end, I’ll save you the trouble of reading the ending and tell you up front–you won’t like my stories.
That brings me to the title of this missive. What do I mean by the Hallmark movie guarantee? I mean, you know what you’re going to get. The way you can count on a Big Mac being a Big Mac without needing to vet it. The ending of a Hallmark movie is something the viewer can always count on. The couple will live happily ever after. Ann can watch one of them without first watching the ending. Satisfaction guaranteed, if you like that sort of thing.
It would be nice to have a rating for movies and books (short stories, too, while I’m at it) to ensure that the ending fulfills certain parameters. We can easily find out if there is violence, explicit sex, or vulgar language. But there is no rating to warn us of movies or books that have depressing endings, endings that make no sense, or involve magic or dreams. If such a rating existed, those who worry about the ending could have the joy of being surprised without being concerned about wasting time on something they will ultimately hate.
I haven’t even touched on the phenomenon of being able to choose from a selection of alternative endings. For those of you who prefer that option, please decide which of the following finishes to this blog you prefer:
1. I must confess that I enjoy watching Shawshack Redemption from time to time. I’ve probably seen it at least five times (more than any other movie). Don’t think I would tolerate a hundred, though.
2. I see it’s time to wrap this up. My guests, a group of eight adorable ten-year-olds, dressed in warm jackets, wool hats and mittens, has just arrived. It is a multi-racial gathering and includes two children with disabilities. All the kids have clean faces and bear bright smiles. I will serve them hot cocoa and delicious-smelling chocolate chip cookies that have just finished baking in the oven. We will laugh, tell jokes (all clean) and share stories for the next three hours. Yeah – in your dreams.