When you start telling a story, you have to remain consistent. Being consistent promises to give the audience what they want. Being inconsistent means promising one thing and giving the audience something they didn’t expect.
Imagine if you walked into a fast food restaurant and the cashier asked if you wanted an oil change? Or what if you walked into a computer store and the salesman tried to sell you vitamin supplements to go with a suitcase. Would you be confused? You bet you would, and chances are good that what surprised you wasn’t what you wanted, ultimately leaving you disappointed.
The same holds true for story-telling. When you promise a comedy, you better stick with comedy. If you promise horror, stuck with horror. Many movies failed by ignoring this basic idea.
Critics complained that “The Great Waldo Pepper” seemed to start off as a comedy, but then suddenly turned into a serious drama the moment someone actually died (a woman fell off an airplane while attempting to wing-walk).
In the original “Rocky” script, Rocky was supposed to get so disgusted with the way boxing worked that he walked away from the sport. Kind of a bummer ending, isn’t it? After devoting the whole movie towards hoping that Rocky would win, to have him just walk off in disgust derails the audience’s expectation and destroys the movie’s consistency.
In “I Am Legend,” Will Smith’s character is fighting zombie/vampires. In the alternate ending, he suddenly realizes that he’s the bad guy and these zombie/vampires have humanity and deserve to be respected. Once again, the whole movie sets up the idea that these things are trying to kill Will Smith and that he’s the good guy. To suddenly reverse our expectations and make us realize that Will Smith is the bad guy (in the eyes of the zombie/vampires) destroys our idea of the hero and disappoints us.
In “Terminator 2”, Linda Hamilton was supposed to be back on the children’s playground in the future, watching the children play and no war destroys the planet. Once again, the whole movie is about devastation and impending doom to spring a cheery, happy ending on us at the end derails our expectations. James Cameron had to change the ending to make it more in tone with the rest of the movie, which is where you see headlights in the dark going down a road with Linda Hamilton’s voice telling us that the future is on our hands.
In your own story, make sure that how you begin your story sets up the ending. It’s okay if your hero is a bad guy, because that can prepare us for his eventual demise such as John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction.” If you start off as an action thriller, the ending better not be a mild confrontation with words instead of explosions and gunfire.
Just let us know what type of story you’re going to tell us and then satisfy us in the end.