Vicky Newham

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Endings in drama and fiction

(Warning: contains spoilers)

After watching the last episode of The Fall last night I was motivated to consider endings in drama and fiction and what we expect from them. This has come up a few times recently with high profile British television dramas, including Broadchurch.

For years it’s been the norm with long-running television series to end on a cliffhanger. I find it frustrating but it does make me tune in for the next series to find out how the story progresses (although by then I’ve often forgotten the plotline and/or lost interest). However, with crime dramas, my expectations are a little different. With long series like The Killing I, with twenty four episodes, there was a self-contained story which was resolved at the end. In the next series, we were given a new story line. And I think that this is how it should be. What I found annoying about last night’s concluding episode of the Fall was that I expected the same, and it didn’t deliver. Halfway through the series it was announced that a second series had been commissioned. What I am now intrigued by – given last night’s finale – was what would have happened if it hadn’t been? Would the programme have ended as it did? Or did the producers chop it off so as to be able to keep part of the story back for series two?

The Fall also prompted me to review my understanding of fiction and ‘story’. It was a television drama rather than a novel but should it still conform to the the rules of fiction? I would argue, yes. It wasn’t a real life drama. In real life things often aren’t resolved, they’re are lots of coincidences, and people often do things for strange reasons. Fiction is very different and norms vary depending on whether a novel is genre or literary fiction. In crime fiction the convention is that the criminal is caught and justice is seen to be done. People refer to the ‘moral nature’ of crime fiction, and, although I don’t see it as such, I do want to see people punished or treated (sorry, I believe in treatment!), depending on what has motivated their crime. I don’t necessarily want to have every detail sewn up and interpreted for me. Did I expect the killer to be caught at the end of the first series? Yes, I did. Were the producers perhaps worried about not having another story and lead character for the second series which would measure up to the one with Jamie Dornan as the very attractive serial killer? If this is the case, it means that the plot was governed by commercial rather than storytelling principles. I can quite see how, having started with such a dramatic opening storyline, and if they had resolved it at the send of series one, they might worry about this. But surely this just means that they need to invest in scriptwriting to ensure that series two could be equally strong… no? To chop it off in the way they did, to eke out the existing story, is bound to lead to claims by the audience that they feel cheated.

With The Fall, I think that something else contributed to the last episode being a failure: we knew who the killer was from the start, and the story was about why he was committing the crimes. The viewer was only given a little information about this in the final episode. We discovered that he’d been in care and had disrupted attachments. Personally, I wanted a bit more than this. It felt a little cliched, and I wanted some detail to show me how his developmental experiences had led him to sexual violence. After all, not everyone who has been in care becomes a serial killer.

With the last episode of Broadchurch I remember all sorts of articles, interviews and tweets about ‘having to watch right til the end’ and this led to speculation about a killer twist. Then it turned out that there wasn’t one at all. Had I not read those comments, and been led to expect something, I would have been happy with the ending of Broadchurch. For me the ‘why’ is almost more important than the ‘who’. But I felt that I’d been manipulated slightly into watching til the credits just so that the programme makers could tell me that Broadchurch would be returning. Whose benefit was that for then? Ahem.

Do readers and viewers want a last minute twist? Do they want everything explained? If a crime has been committed, do they want to see the perpetrator apprehended? I wonder if the medium affects how we might feel about this. Surely a publisher wouldn’t publish a crime novel where the perpetrator isn’t caught at the end? And if the publisher said to readers “Oh, just buy book two to find out”, those readers wouldn’t be happy. And that’s fair enough. I’m not bothered about last minute twists in novels. Sometimes they seem gimmicky and can ruin an otherwise brilliant resolution. But I just don’t want to feel cheated.

What do you think?

Vicky Newham © 2013