Difference for Difference’s Sake

I spent half of the final year of my film degree working as a producer on one short film. For most of this time, I was convinced it was going to be great.

I first heard the story idea in the class pitching session, where a panel of tutors were deciding which six student films would get made that year. The soon-to-be writer-director of this particular film pitched his premise. It really grabbed me. And not just me—the panel were convinced too. 

Afterwards, the director approached me and asked me to produce it. I was thrilled. I’d be working on a promising project, we were putting together a good crew… in short, everything was working out. We were going to get into festivals. Audiences were going to marvel at our film and say “did students really make this?”

Fast forward six months and a lot of blood, sweat and tears later:

As you can imagine, the final film didn’t live up to my hopes. It was not the kind of film you show proudly to your friends or submit to festivals. It was the kind of film you shove in a bottom drawer and try to forget you ever worked on. To put it mildly, it was underwhelming.

So what went wrong?

Well, a lot of things. The usual student film problems. Some of the actors didn’t give great performances. We didn’t get quite the coverage we needed. The special effects we had imagined adding in post never eventuated.

But now, looking back at it, I can see what the main issue was. And it’s funny because it seems so obvious to me now, but at the time it wasn’t:

The story. And most particularly, the ending of the story.

The concept of the film was interesting: a young boy playing in a junkyard with his friends finds a tear in the sky – a gap in the fabric of the universe. The adults and officials don’t understand it and try to brick it away, but the boy becomes obsessed and determined to find out what it is.

The trouble is that at the end of the film, we never find out what the gap actually is, or why it’s there. The boy sees something inside it that scars him for life and lands him in a mental hospital… but we never know what he sees, or what the point of it all is. Instead we get vague suggestions that it’s evil, and that more of these gaps are appearing, and no one knows how to stop them. That’s it.

In all the script rewrites, in all the times I and other people were given the opportunity to suggest edits, we never realised that an ending like this might not work.

I take some solace in the fact we aren’t the only ones to have ever made a mistake like this. I’ve seen a lot of student films with similar endings. Vague, mystical endings, where the audience is just meant to figure out what happens and what it all means for themselves.

It’s for the Audience to Decide

This is now one of my pet hates in stories… when the filmmaker or author creates an unsatisfying or incomplete ending and says it’s up to the audience to decide how it ends or what it means. It’s “open to interpretation”.

It just strikes me as a cop-out option, and it’s not satisfying or meaningful for anyone watching or reading it.

Sometimes it can work, if it’s done well. In the movie Inception for example, the final shot deliberately leaves us in doubt. [SPOILER WARNING: the rest of this paragraph gives away part of the ending of the film. Same goes for the YouTube clip]. We never see whether the top keeps spinning or if it falls, i.e. we are not sure if the character is actually living in reality, or if everything is still just a dream world. Was his wife right all along? Is she still alive?

This kind of uncertain or ‘final twist’ ending works I think, because it gives us two clear possibilities… it’s either one or the other. We can debate which one is correct till the cows come home, but we are still either in camp A or camp B (I’m sure some enthusiasts have created a wacky camp C, but let’s just ignore those people). We still feel kind of satisfied because we have a clear sense of our options and can choose which one we believe to be correct, and can have fun arguing it with others.

This is very different to a vague or abstract ending.

An ending that leaves you wondering what on earth happened.

An ending where you have the option of endings ‘A’ through to infinity because it’s so unresolved you basically need to write the ending yourself.

An ending where you’re left abruptly with some unusual or poignant image that answers none of the questions the storyteller set up and leaves you with absolutely no clue what the whole thing meant.

An ending where you groan when the credits roll because “that can’t possibly be the end, can it?”

So why do people create endings like this?

Street Art: Boy Reading Book Well, firstly, it’s no secret that writing a good ending is hard. Finding that perfect resolution that isn’t too cliché or predictable, but perfectly concludes the story and leaves the audience feeling both shocked and satisfied? Not an easy task.

But in the case of the short film I worked on, and perhaps of a lot of student films that end like this, I think it’s something else too. I think it’s the desire to be different. The fear that if you resolve something, if you make anything too clear and straightforward, it’s somehow too Hollywood, too cliché, too conventional.

I think this was the same reason that as a teenager I did not write fantasy or action-packed YA fiction, even though this was what I was reading. I saw these stories as too dangerously conventional. Whenever I had to do a creative writing task at school, or in my spare time, I wrote things I thought my teachers and my parents would like. I wrote things I thought people would praise as arty, different, or thought provoking. I wrote abstract, symbolic, poetic, self-conscious stories without real endings.

When I went to uni, yes, I’d learned a few things. But it was still there: this compulsion to reel against the traditional, to steer so far clear of convention that I couldn’t possibly risk a cliché.

And in doing so, I fell right into another cliché without even knowing it. There are plenty of similarly unsatisfying and vague stories out there.

Eccentricity and Originality

Robert McKee sums it up well in his book Story:

“Never… mistake eccentricity for originality. Difference for the sake of difference is as empty as slavishly following commercial imperatives. After working months, perhaps years, to gather facts, memories, and imagination into a treasury of story material, no serious writer would cage his vision inside a formula, or trivialize it into avant-garde fragmentations.”

Reading this struck a chord with me, because it highlighted the mistake I had been making in my early writing.

The answer to avoiding clichés is not to throw everything out the window. It’s not to do away with troublesome things like beginnings, middles, and ends; to confuse the audience with unconnected and meaningless noise; to be vague and philosophical. It’s also not to just spit out every overused story device and character you can think of. It’s to find a way to be original within the frames of a genre or form, to use powerful structures and conventions to tell a story, but to do it with skill and originality: to make your characters and concepts and plot points feel unique and fresh.

Yes, that last part’s a hard task, but I think that’s one of the reasons why storytelling is so difficult. That’s why if I go to the cinema this year, out of any random ten films I see, maybe only two or three are really going to strike me as brilliant and entertaining and original… if that.

Fantasy and Originality

There are probably people out there who think fantasy is all the same. That it’s formulaic and cliché… a bunch of stories about dragons and castles and damsels in distress.

Anyone who reads (or views) widely in the genre will know this is not true. Yes, fantasy has a lot of conventions you see regularly. Some fantasies are boring and formulaic and use tropes in tired and predictable ways. But, in my opinion, good fantasies don’t.

Good fantasies surprise you with interesting characters, unique worlds, fascinating concepts and interesting magic. They take the things you’re used to seeing and throw them back at you in new and fresh and vivid ways (Tolkien describes this process in his book On Fairy Stories, dubbing it ‘recovery’). There are multiple types of fantasy, multiple styles and sub-genres. Just about the only thing that all fantasies have in common is the element of the impossible – of something magical. That’s the core that radiates out to the fuzzy edges of the genre.

If you boil things down to an overarching story structure, for example the hero’s journey, you could say almost all fantasies are the same. But then by that measure you could say pretty much all stories are the same, no matter the genre. The difference is in the detail: the characters and setting and the unique choices and circumstances.

When we rage against story structure, when we shy away from creating a resolved ending because it feels too much like it’s been done before, not only are we rejecting an ancient and much loved form, we are missing the point. The most important thing is to take the reader or viewer on an emotionally-engaging, intriguing, entertaining, and thought-provoking journey.

The Learning Curve

So I guess this is the advice I wish I could have given myself ten years ago:

Don’t be afraid of convention, don’t be afraid to give your story an ending, and don’t try to be different simply for the sake of being different. Try to tell a good story, a fresh and interesting story, and most importantly, a story you would want to watch or read. Because if you wouldn’t want to read it, why is anyone else going to?

By the same token, don’t feel you have to sing the praises of a nonsensical film or book that doesn’t actually appeal to you, simply because you feel a duty to appreciate it for how daring and non-linear it is (or worse, because you think other people will judge you if you don’t). Read what you enjoy reading. Watch what you enjoy watching. And write for yourself.

One thought on “Difference for Difference’s Sake

  1. Excellent essay.

    Story structure exists for a reason. It is embedded in the human mind and in, some would say, other parts of the fabric of the universe.

    Related to this is the problem of the story where the author obviously does not respect the readers … he or she wants to baffle them, annoy them, “make them think,” and blow their tidy little minds. Readers can tell when the author is constantly sneering, and we tend to stop reading.

    Also, I love “On Fairy Stories.” So glad you mentioned it.

    Liked by 1 person

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