Challenge,  On Writing

Wow, What A Bad Ending

COUNTDOWN… Robert Altman Movie…

Book by Hank Searls called “The Pilgrim Project.”

Stumbled across it, about an alternate universe when the Soviet Union got ahead of the US in the space race, and sent three men to the moon. So the US rushed one man to the moon.

Really bad graphics, but a lot of stars.

So along comes the ending. Astronaut sort of panics, lands on the moon, wonders around with only three hours of air left looking for a shelter he was supposed to have landed beside.

But we the viewers think he’s going to make it. That is our expectation.

He finds the Soviet’s dead cosmonaughts and puts the American Flag with the Soviet Flag. Nice theme. Horrid graphics, but nice theme. More than likely that scene sold the movie.

We see all the people back on Earth working and waiting for him to find the shelter he was supposed to land next to so he can contact them and tell them they won and he is alive. We viewers are waiting for that moment.

Then, with only seven minutes left, he spots the shelter a long ways off. We’re going to get the feel-good ending, right?

Nope. He starts to walk toward the shelter, tension high that he will or won’t make it.

Fade out…

The end.

Wow, no wonder no one ever saw or remembers the movie. Just mind-numbing stupid ending. I think they just ran out of time and didn’t know what to do if he had lived. So they just decided to not tell us one way or another.

Shows how really critical reader and viewer expectations are to the right ending. We teach that reader expectations in different classes. Just never saw it illustrated so clearly and in such a bone-headed way.


  • Murees Dupé

    I see this a lot these days. It really makes me feel robbed. You get invested in the story, and then bam!! No actual ending. And you’re left wondering what the hell just happened. I think the brains behind such creations think it is the ultimate thrill to not conclude the story properly. That it makes their piece more artistic, or something. I just hate it. Robbed, I tell you.

    • dwsmith

      And that was exactly my point. Never do that to a reader. Just horrid. Know the ending you have set up and either go there or make it clear there is another ending that makes sense. No ending feels like they forgot to just finish the story.

  • Philip

    The premature fade-to-black ending is nothing more than a lazy storytelling gimmick. What’s worse is this type of ending has generally pissed off audiences for years.

    The infamous series finale of the Sopranos comes to mind. Did Tony get killed, arrested, something else? We don’t know, fade to black. I loved the Sopranos, and in a series got hundreds of hours of entertainment, so I forgave it to an extent.

    The Wrestler is even worse. Movie came out after the Sopranos–It was a mini comeback for Mickey Rourke and he was nominated for an Oscar. The audience has all this tension of whether Mickey Rourke is going to die of a heart attack in his last match because the docs warned him. He climbs to the top rope, leaps, and…fade to black. That movie was critically acclaimed.

    Dean, is this kind of ending ever a good idea for a writer? If so, how would one approach it?

    • dwsmith

      That’s the point, Philip, it is a horrid thing to do to readers (or viewers) and you would never want to even think of trying it in a novel. The reason? Your ending sells your next book. And an ending leaving readers/viewers angry and unsatisfied will never sell another book for you. That simple. No matter the art reason for doing it.

  • Maree

    I’ve always sort of thought the ambiguous ending was a literary thing? I seem to remember some rather endless discussions at school about stories with no clear resolution at the end. I remember thinking that leaving the reader feeling frustrated and unfulfilled was the goal of literary fiction and I’ve avoided it ever since!

    Now I’m reminded of a somewhat similar plot device that you see in older science fiction. Where the threat/obstacle is removed by something other than the actions of the MC, like in War of the Worlds, where the aliens are felled by human viruses, or The Andromeda Strain, where the virus naturally evolved into something harmless to humans. (The Birds was another of these types of resolutions.)

    This type of ending always felt unfulfilling to me, but I do wonder if it’s just a matter of changing tastes? Did readers/viewers from the past enjoy these type of endings? There is a certain creepy aspect to it, and the idea that nature is beyond our control, but there’s definitely no clear ‘win’.

    • dwsmith

      Maree, no one every enjoyed these types of endings. It was just a notion that the film maker or writer was more important than what the audience cared about.

    • BDS

      I hate these much more than the non-ending. The non-ending can be used effectively, IMHO. The out-of-nowhere deux ex machina ending is just a lazy cop-out, the last resort of a writer who can’t figure out how to end his story. In films, this often takes the form of an impromptu sporting contest (in a non-sports movie) or a 9 courtroom trial (in a movie that has nothing to do with the courts or legal manuverings).

  • Angie

    Yeah, that kind of thing sucks. Viewers(readers) end up cussing and throwing things, and there’s always some self-righteous jerk who’ll look down their nose at you and tell you that you’re just being lazy, not wanting to think about the ending, not wanting to do any work. I don’t know how many times I heard some teacher drone on about that when we students were complaining about how much stupid that Lady or the Tiger movie they make everyone watch over and over is. :/ Sorry, but it’s the writer’s (filmmaker’s) job to figure out the ending and write(film) it. I shouldn’t have to do their work for them.


  • Joseph Bradshaw/Bradshire

    Ugh. The non-ending. The frustration ending. I see bad endings a lot. I see it when writers want to leave me hanging, so I’ll buy the next book. I don’t take the bait. I see it with artsy stuff, lit fic, an ambiguous nothing of an ending sitting there staring at me.

    I’m a huge endings guy. The book or story can be a little dull, can sag in the middle. I think Tarantino does this sometimes. The endings save it, for me the ending is the whole freakin’ point.

  • Mike

    The ending to Inception come to mind but I think is different than what is being described here.

    The story of Inception actually does END (they pull off the heist) but the final scene in the movie leaves you guessing about what happens next (did Leo get out?). So I guess that would be more like setting up the next book or movie in the series?

  • Mickie Dreysen

    I think I have to both agree and disagree with you, Dean (longer version of this argument here): I think ambiguous endings are foundational to SciFi and Horror. Remember Carpenter’s version of The Thing? Or Flowers for Algernon?

    That doesn’t mean Altman put in the work to pull it off in Countdown. It sounds like either he didn’t. Or, perhaps, he was working in the shadow of Apollo 1, and the loss of Grissom, White, and Chafee, and didn’t realize how much he was relying on that anxiety?

    • dwsmith

      Mickie, not classic sf by any means. The period of the 1960s or so when the New Wave was in play tried that kind of stuff and is majorly responsible for making sf a much smaller genre in books. They didn’t like the good wins endings of classic sf. But Good wins endings made Star Trek and Star Wars major fan movies. Good wins with Alien and so on.

      Leaving the reader without an ending is always a bad idea, no matter the fads at the moment or the art made-up reasons.

      • Mickie Dreysen

        Ok, Dean, like I said, I mostly agree with you, but I’ll play Devil’s advocate here with the ball you teed up: How do Wrath of Khan and Empire Strikes Back fit into this, then?

        Doesn’t it boil down to the fact that Kasdan/Lucas and Sowards/Meyer more than earned their endings?

        • dwsmith

          Series movies. Just like the ending on the first Avengers movie last year. As a stand-alone movie, that sucked, as the first part of a series, it was fine. Different animal, apples and oranges.

      • BDS

        Never cared for the New Wave and this is one of the reasons. Sometimes the bad guys do win, but you know what, it’s okay for the good guys to take the prize once in a while. ALIEN (1979) is a dark, cynical movie, but Ripley’s triumph at the end is one of the things that makes it work so well, and keeps people coming back.

  • BDS

    I see the logic of that ending. The point was that he made it; it doesn’t matter if he ultimately survives or not. Frankly, it’s almost irrelevant. Sort of how the point of ROCKY is that he goes the distance. He doesn’t have to actually win, he just has to go the distance. That said, tone plays a big part here, and if the film is shot and structured in such a way that we’re expecting a more concrete resolution (as Dean suggests – I haven’t seen the movie) then a non-ending (or an unexpectedly cynical one) can definitely be a deal-breaker. You need to know what you’re writing, and be aware if this sort of vaguery works for the story you want to tell.