Last week in my writers’ group, we engaged in a brief discussion about how to resolve a story to the reader’s satisfaction. Chiefly, at what point does the villain step beyond redemption and into the valley of death?
I love my group. We have great discussions.
I asked this question because I always (well, not always) feel torn between killing my villain, and having him captured to face the consequences of his actions. I hold firmly to the belief that the rules of poetic justice always provide the reader with satisfaction. I also believe that the punishment should fit the crime.
I want to know what you think. Does an antagonist always deserve death? Should he always be made to answer for his crimes or sins? Does it make a difference to you which character dispenses the justice?
I prefer the punishment to be dealt by the person who is wronged, however, I hate the idea of some of my characters suffering through the anguish of knowing that someone else died by their hand. Yes, I know they aren’t real, but they’re real to me while I write them.
In the movies it’s easier to see. Someone steals a million dollars. He deserves to be caught. He must give the money back.
A bully smacks a child—he’s going to meet a bigger man’s fist.
A murderer’s punishment, though… is it always death? Will he suffer more in prison? What if he’s insane? What if he kills a woman? A child? What if he only threatens to kill them? When must he die? A writer faces this dilemma every day.
In slasher films, like the Nightmare On Elm Street movies, the terror can return again and again, because of Freddie’s spectral nature. In Bonnie and Clyde, the villains (heroes) make their last stand to be gunned down for their crimes.
In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Thelma and Louise, the ending remains ambiguous, because the heroes/ villains are sympathetic, but still have consequences to face.
In the Star Wars saga, poetic justice reigns throughout the films. Everyone who makes those fatal errors in judgment must pay, sometimes with life and sometimes with an appendage. In the end of Return of the Jedi, though, we see the ultimate redemption of even the most corrupt.
In 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven, and the sequels, the heroes are all criminals, but we delight in their success, because the group takes on an even bigger “villain.” The smarter scoundrels win.
What movies have the best endings to you? Which movies left you flat? Which ones made you angry that the bad guy got away? Is there a motion picture that made you happy when the villain succeeded with his evil plot?
That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!