by Zoë Sharp
It has to be one of the best known classic cliff-hanger endings. The final scene from 'The Italian Job' with Michael Caine. The bus teetering balanced on the edge of the Alpine ravine, with Charlie Croker and his gang of gold thieves stuck watching their bullion booty sliding ever further towards the abyss as the bus rocks gently back and forth. Then Croker turns back to the gang and says, "Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea!"
But what was it? And did it work?
This year is the fortieth anniversary of the original version of 'The Italian Job', and to mark the occasion The Telegraph in the UK held a competition to see if anyone could come up with that grand plan to rescue the gold. The rules were simple – no helicopters, and it must be a scientifically provable theory. Over 2000 people tried their hand, with solutions ranging from the surreal (Superman flies in and saves the day) to the comedic. One gentleman claimed to have "a foolproof way of recovering the gold. However, since the occupants of the truck are a bunch of criminals and the gold does not belong to them, I refuse to divulge the method."
So, how would you do it?
The eventual winner did indeed have a very cunning plan, as Baldrick might have said, which I promise to share with you later, but first I wanted to see if anyone here could come up with something equally ingenious?
The reason for mentioning 'The Italian Job', and its ending, is that when we write a mystery or thriller novel, for me the ending is crucial. So often, it seems, a book can be front-loaded to the extreme. So much thought and energy – not to mention that low-down cunning – has gone into hooking the reader at the outset, that the eventual explanation can never hope to live up to it. I have even, on rare occasions, thrown a book down after the final page, feeling cheated.
There seem to be two main types of endings for the journey of your story. One is very circular, bringing with it some kind of closure or completion, and the other a lot more open-ended. According to Christopher Vogler in THE WRITER'S JOURNEY, which details mythic structure for storytellers and screenwriters, American culture tends to lean towards the circular, whereas Europe, Asia and Australia are happy not to have everything brought to such a neat conclusion. (And I do realise I’m speaking in generalisations here.)
Personally, I like some kind of conclusion, providing it doesn’t stray into the saccharine. I believe that is one of the reasons we are happy to read quite graphic and gory crime fiction. Because we know it’s all going to be all right in the end. Terrible things may happen in real life, inexplicable tragedies where nobody is ever brought to justice for what they’ve done, so we turn to fiction to provide that reassurance. We know that, although the ending might not be entirely happy, it will have some kind of a resolution that satisfies us.
Writing my Charlie Fox series, I have always tried to make the books free-standing, rather than standalones. Yes, there are continuing characters and there are returning characters, but I have always tried hard to make it so that if you pick a book up from later in the series, you won’t be baffled by in-jokes, nor will you encounter (too many) plot spoilers about what has gone before. Each plot is completely self-contained.
But that all changed with the last book, THIRD STRIKE. I ended with something that I knew would have to be addressed in the next book, and for the first time I realised I’d broken away from quite such a neat and tidy circular ending, and had left things a lot more open-ended.
I did a blog back in November last year, 'Tune in Next Week…' in which I talked about series books and whether it was possible to have cataclysmic change in a series, and the comments were very interesting indeed.
But this takes that question a step further. Do you need to have a neat and tidy conclusion to a crime novel? Does the hero have to catch the bad guy, or do you turn the bad guy into an ongoing nemesis of the Professor Moriarty ilk? To a certain extent, I feel this can lessen the threat posed by the villain. After all, if you know they’re not going to die, or get caught, then something of the thrill goes out of the chase. How long would greyhounds continue to chase the fake rabbit, if they were never allowed to catch it?
So, if you’d just written a thriller that just happened to be about a gold bullion heist in Turin, in which the intrepid heroes made their escape in three Mini Coopers, and ended with them pushing said cars out of the back of their bus as they drove over the Alps, celebrating their victory, would you, on the final page, be content to have the bus driver misjudge a corner and end up see-sawing precariously over the edge of a very long drop?
And, as a reader, would you throw the book against the wall if the final line was, "Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea!" Would 'The Usual Suspects' have been quite as satisfying if you’d never found out the identity of Keyser Soze? Did it matter in 'Ronin' that you never find out what’s in the case?
As always seems to be the case at the moment, I’m away on photoshoots all day today, but will reply to all comments when I get back this evening, so please bear with me.
This week’s Word of the Week is dénouement, which means the unravelling of a plot or story, from the Old French desnoer, to untie, and nodus, a knot.
I think it would all depend on the story and how artfully it was delivered. Ronin drove me nuts, because we never knew. But I love Pulp Fiction to this day, despite the many rumors as to what was “actually” in the case (I’ve heard everything from gold to Marcellus Wallace’s soul). I like a tidy ending, but I think once in a while you can have a villain who is so fantastic that he has to escape. Think The Watchmaker in COLD MOON, or Dr. Lecter in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
As far as the original Italian Job, I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know if this is even plausible except for the pictures you’ve posted, but how about this: Take down the blinds closest to the group on each side. Open the bar at the top and unwind all of the string there. Tie some to both ends of the most solid part of the blinds (top or bottom), creating a ‘U’ with string sides and (admittedly thin) metal bottom. Throw the bar at the top of the stacks of gold and topple a few off the top, then drag them to you. Every brick you get increases your dough and your chances of surviving the bus fiasco.
I could never solve the riddle and I haven’t seen the film, but I think Michael Caine might have been able to pull off a line like that. If it was set up throughout in his character,
I think that’s a little harder to do on the page because you don’t have the pure human charisma of an actor working in your favor. Great actors are magic.
I like ambiguous endings, in general.
I don’t need a happy ending, just something satisfying, even if it wasn’t my preference for how things should come out. I’m much more likely to be dissatisfied with a book that reaches for a Hollywood, saccharine ending than one that leaves me thinking, “Gee, I wish he had lived,” so long as that person’s demise makes sense.
Sure the bad guy can get away, even if he’s not brought back in the next book. Maybe he can send a postcard to taunt the hero once a book, and show up a few books down the road.
For as much as writers are always being told to try something different, there aren’t too many people who actually mean that. Nice, safe, endings are still the course of least resistance.
I agree with Jake. Fashion a noose or sling and pull the gold towards you. Each bar moved closer to the people lessons the see-saw affect.
As to endings, coincidentally enough, I intend today to skim the last 10% of as many mysteries as I can manage to see how various authors have handled the conclusion.
I loved that movie – apart from the ending. I needed a triumphant bad-guys-get-away-with-it payoff. And, significantly, so did the writers … as I recall, that ending was mandated by the British Board of Film Censorship. Without it, an exhibition certificate would have been denied. It wasn’t “done” back then to let us see people profiting from crime. So the end scene always felt tacked on and botched. And forced, in that if three cars in a line had been unloaded, why was all the gold in a single stack way at the back? Ultimately I felt the scene was deliberately crap, to underscore the film-makers’ frustration.
And I felt it was a little racist, too, in that the team’s lone black member was the one who screwed up. But that was par for the course back then.
I haven’t seen the movie and if Lee hadn’t commented above, I would have assumed the gold was at the front and they were standing in the back. (That the gold had been unloaded up by the driver, then the cars removed.) Very interesting to hear the motives for why the film board didn’t want a “successful” heist closure.
Personally, I don’t mind some open-ended resolutions as long as the finale is satisfying–some justice is served, or someone is happy for now. Maybe not forever, but for now.
I tend to write as you do, Zoë — each book is relatively free-standing, though there is some information about the previous book to get the reader up to speed on the development of the characters, who means what to whom. Because I have a continuing set of characters, some issues will not be wholly satisfied at the end of the book where they first emerged, but I try to plant that in such a way that it’s enticing without being utterly frustrating.
Maybe this is just my cultural preferences showing through, but to me, a book which ends completely open-ended, without resolving the very crime / problem the writer brought it indicates to me that the writer painted themselves in a corner and couldn’t figure out a logical enough ending and so opted to pretend they were doing “slice of life.” It makes me want to throw a book across a room when I get to an ending like that.
I don’t have to have a tidy ending, but I do like one with “justice.” Unfortunately, many Americans do seem to like a little happiness wrapped in there, too. Some days I’m just not up to it.
I love a semi-ambiguous ending. I want the main story solved, but I’m happy to have some loose ends, so long as it’s a series. A standalone, no. I want everything wrapped up.
I’m not a big fan of cliff hangers (thinking “who shot J.R.” here) because they so often seem contrived, especially after seeing the next installment. I want to feel good at the end of a book, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the bad guy has to be caught. Let’s face it, (s)he often isn’t in real life. I do want the hero(ine) to be safe though.
As to getting the gold out of the bus: using the price of gold when the film came out, I figure there is about 5-1/2 cubic feet of it — that’s about 4-1/2 copy paper boxes in volume. A gallon of gold would be 160 lbs, which is my estimate of a ‘bunch’ of the gold bars. Assuming the gas tank is toward the rear of the bus, we need to empty it to reduce the weight hanging over the cliff. Caine is crawling along what looks like access panels to the vehicle’s underside. So we remove the panels and drain the gas. Assuming a 50 gal tank, that isn’t quite full, that will remove about 250 lbs. That’s probably somewhat more than the weight of one person — there appear to be 10 of them total. So the Caine character now goes back with the rest of the people and the lightest of them gets off and starts bringing rocks to the bus for ballast. Since gold is about 7 times heavier than rock, there will be a fairly large quantity about the front of the bus. After enough ballast is added, most of the men can get out and then two men at a time can safely start to move the gold to the front, one batch at a time and pass it out of the bus.
I’ve made many assumptions and don’t really know anything about the bus. To do this correctly, the bus length, fuel tank size and position, along with some other info would be necessary. I used to work with precious metals and know how heavy gold is, and my training was in mechanical engineering — so my safety factor for how much rock to use for ballast would probably be considerably higher than needed and may not leave room for two men to get past. 🙂
Bittersweet endings, fine. Partial resolutions, great. But I absolutely hate books and movies that don’t resolve the central story question. There was one book I read a year or two ago where the detective was working on a crime similar to a cold case. Because of how the book was laid out and the story unfolded, I expected a resolution to the cold case. I almost NEEDED it, and because it wasn’t there, I hated the whole book (though it was well-written and page-turning, the ending just sucked.)
The original STAR WARS trilogy did this exceptionally well. End of episode 4–all is right with the world, there is a new hope, but Darth Vader escaped. That’s okay–knowing that there was another story to come.
I need someone to root for, I need someone I care about and like to survive and come out on top. I don’t need everyone to get what they want, or to have everyone survive or every bad guy caught or killed (though that’s always a nice bonus!) But I have to be satisfied that justice is served.
THE DEPARTED, one of my all-time favorite movies, does this exceptionally well. If the last bad guy standing didn’t get what was coming to him, I would have hated the movie. I don’t want to give away spoilers to anyone who hasn’t seen it, but a lot of people die, even people you don’t want to die, but it worked because in the end justice was served.
Next heist I do, BG’s on my team. I’m just sayin’. 😉
“And, as a reader, would you throw the book against the wall if the final line was, “Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea!”
Probably. I hate endings that are clearly cliffhangers for the sequel.
Would ‘The Usual Suspects’ have been quite as satisfying if you’d never found out the identity of Keyser Soze?
No…that sudden reveal is great because it makes you rethink the whole rest of the movie, it’s not just a setup for another movie. Every line suddenly has a new meaning.
“Did it matter in ‘Ronin’ that you never find out what’s in the case?”
No becuase, like the contents of the case in Pulp Fiction, it was the chase that was important.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR “SAFE AND SOUND”!
I’ve gotten some feedback on the end of S & S that was along the lines of “You can’t leave Jack like this!”
But there was no way there was going to be a completely happy ending in that one, becuase the theme of the book was built around what you sacrifice to keep the ones you love safe. The bad guy was brought to justice, but at a terrible cost.
I know it’s a bit of a cheat in Ronin, but there are so many other unanswered questions in that film, that I have to admit it’s still one of my favourites. The bit where Sergi says to Vincent, “Where do I know you from?” and Vincent just replies, “Vienna.” It’s a throwaway exchange, it’s never explained, it means nothing to the rest of the plot, but I still love it. Sorry …
As for Hannibal Lector and The Watchmaker escaping at the end of those books, I completely agree with you. Fantastic villains ought to get away with it. I have no objection to the villain getting away, providing he (or she) has done something reasonably ingenious in order to achieve it.
And your solution to the gold problem is highly ingenious. I don’t think anyone thought of using the blinds as a kind of lasso. You clearly have the right kind of mind for a life of crime … ;-]
I like ambiguous endings. They feel more real to me. Life isn’t always packaged up with a neat little bow. Actually, I just saw THE WRESTLER and it had had a bit of an ambiguous ending. But don’t worry, I’m not giving a spoiler.
By the way, Z, I loved the original ITALIAN JOB. That and I just like Michael Caine.
“I think that’s a little harder to do on the page because you don’t have the pure human charisma of an actor working in your favor. Great actors are magic.”
I agree totally. It’s funny, I recently listened to an audiobook and loved the actor’s interpretation of the writer’s voice … much more than I actually liked reading the original.
“For as much as writers are always being told to try something different, there aren’t too many people who actually mean that. Nice, safe, endings are still the course of least resistance.”
Hm, interesting. After the ending to the latest WIP, I think it’s safe to say I have not taken the line of least resistance.
Of course, there are edits to come … ;-]
Another ingenious solution, but, thinking about it, would the breaking strain of the string holding the blinds together be sufficient for the weight of the gold, bearing in mind the bars were stacked in baskets, rather than loose? Not sure about that one!
I’m fascinated by your study of endings. That would make very interesting reading …
Yup, I had a sneaky fondness for ‘The Italian Job’, too. When I first saw that film, my mother was driving round in a Mini, so it always stuck in my mind. And she would have made a damned fine getaway driver, I can tell you!
I can completely understand the film censors hammering the ‘crime doesn’t pay’ motif, and that would explain the reason behind the cliff-hanging, afterthought nature of that final scene.
As for the racism – casual racism was rife in those days, in books as well as film. Actually, I’m amazed they didn’t have a woman driving, just to go the whole hog …
And although the gold ended up at the back of the bus, I always assumed it slid there during the crash.
But why is it that film-makers seem to be able to get away with many more – and larger – gaffs than we writers can ever manage?
If ever you have a rainy afternoon spare, rent ‘The Italian Job’. It won’t be wasted, if only for the sight of Benny Hill doing his Professor Peach, or Noël Coward as the inimitable Mr Bridger. Horribly dated, but a classic, especially when you consider it was made forty years ago when they didn’t have CGI, so all those Mini-driving stunts were actually done for real.
I admit, I like the books freestanding, although I realise I’ve just entered a much more linked phase with the latest one. I will find out in due course if this is going to present a problem!
I admit, though, that I like to slide in things in earlier books that I know I’ll come back to. During the events of HARD KNOCKS, Charlie acquires a new motorcycle – a Honda FireBlade – which would come in very useful not one but two books further down the line, in ROAD KILL But, if you read the later book without having first read the earlier one, you wouldn’t be mystified by how she’d come to own this machine.
Disappointing endings also make me want to throw the book. Doesn’t have to be all neat and tidy, but you’re right – some kind of satisfaction is a must.
Anything except the ‘leave ’em laughing’ kind of ending. One of the James Bond films was dreadful for that. ‘Licence To Kill’ I think it was, with Timothy Dalton. His friend Felix Leiter gets kidnapped on his wedding day and his new bride is horribly murdered, then Felix gets dangled into a shark tank and his leg bitten off, but by the end of the movie he’s sitting up in his hospital bed being all cheery with Bond.
That extra bit of happiness went just a tad too far for me ;-]
I’m trying to think of a good example of a standalone novel with a really ambiguous ending, and all I can come up with are movies, dammit!
(Sorry, been out all day photographing a $300,000 Ford rally car – wow-wee it was quick – and my brain is fried!)
“I’m not a big fan of cliff hangers (thinking “who shot J.R.” here) because they so often seem contrived, especially after seeing the next installment.”
That’s a really interesting way of looking at it, because here was I thinking it was probably easier to leave things up in the air and NOT to have to find a resolution. Hm …
And as for your solution to ‘The Italian Job’ ending, wow, you’ve about got it nailed … there was just one more aspect to the winning entry in The Telegraph, but the majority of it is spot on. Brilliant!
Apologies everyone – I’ve only just noticed that for some unknown reason my computer decided to sign me in as ‘Murderati’ instead of me. Doh!
I can understand your frustration with the cold case book. If you’re not going to attempt to solve the central crime, why write a crime novel? There have been a number of books that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading … until I got to the ending, and then I felt really let down.
Hm, is it OK for the bad guy to get away if he just fails to get away with what he was after, though? Is that justice enough?
“Next heist I do, BG’s on my team. I’m just sayin’. ;)”
NEXT heist? What do you mean, NEXT heist …?
First of all, many congrats on a magnificent post yesterday! Any idea what a tough act you are to follow?
“I hate endings that are clearly cliffhangers for the sequel.”
Well, it wasn’t intended purely as such, but in that case, don’t read the epilogue of THIRD STRIKE … ;-]
Although, having said that, I have had emails from people saying, “When’s the next book! We need to know what happens to Charlie!” But, I suppose maybe I haven’t had emails from people who were frustrated by the situation in which I’d left her. Hm …
And Jack Keller is a fairly tortured soul. The ‘leave ’em laughing’ ending just wouldn’t sit well with his kind of inner demons.
Michael Caine has been in some really bad films, but he’s nearly always very good in them! And the other classic line from ‘TIJ’ has to be “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.”
Interesting that you prefer ambiguous endings for their reality factor. Who was it who said if you want fiction, read a newspaper, but if you want truth, read a novel?
Could you just bash out the back window of the bus and have as many people as possible “hike out,” the way they do on sailboats for speed?
Other than that, I’m clueless.
“NEXT heist? What do you mean, NEXT heist …?”
Well, a girl’s gotta have hobbies. 😉
Z, how about Tana French’s IN THE WOODS?
That’s an example of an ambiguous ending that left me seething. Brilliant book too, I just felt cheated at the end. I’ve developed my own version of what I think happened in those woods, and the subsequent actions of the main character, which satisfies my curiosity, but I’d surely like to find out the real truth. As if there is a real truth in fiction…
“…here was I thinking it was probably easier to leave things up in the air and NOT to have to find a resolution…”
Up in the air isn’t the same as a contrived cliff hanger. One is a real life, here’s this problem and what will/can happen next. The other is a ‘way out there, it can’t happen extravaganza’ but I’ll make you wait till the next book and then really aggravate you with the resolution.
“…you’ve about got it nailed …”
Well, in that case I need to give Stephen some credit. He said see-saw and I started thinking of the industrial size and strength ones we had when I was growing up and the things the kids tried with them — aside from the usual one person to an end kind of ‘aren’t we playing sweetly’ sort of thing.
The gold is actually in the back of the bus, which is hanging over the edge of the drop, so hanging out of the back of it would hasten their demise. Probably isn’t obvious as, from the pic, the back and front ends of a 1964 VAL14 Bedford coach look very much the same.
But, part of the winning solution did indeed including breaking the rearward windows outwards, and the front windows inwards.
So, you’re more cunning than you think ;-]
“Well, a girl’s gotta have hobbies. ;)”
Hm, and there, your Honour, rests the case for the defence …
Thanks for the suggestion of IN THE WOODS. I haven’t read that one, but will have to give it a try.
I suppose it’s a fine line between keeping you thinking about the book long after you’ve put it down, and it just plain annoying the heck out of you!
Thank you for the distinction. I feel very relieved that there is one ;-]
The old black-and-white ‘Flash Gordon’ series on TV used to always end with an impossible cliff hanger to make you tune in next week, but when you did, you were invariably cheated because they escaped from the unescapable with such ease, just in order to get themselves entangled in this week’s cliff hanger by the end of the episode.
Hm, I’m trying to think of what a group of kids could get up to on a see-saw “aside from the usual one person to an end kind of ‘aren’t we playing sweetly’ kind of thing,” and only one word comes to mind:
As promised, the winning entry in The Telegraph competition to find a solution to ‘The Italian Job’ was from a Mr John Godwin. He suggested that the gang break the two large windows immediately overhanging the drop, with a shoe or other hard object, so the glass falls outwards, then reach round and break the next windows forward, but inwards, so the glass lands inside the bus, and do this with all the windows at the front.
Then the gang could lower one member out to let down the front tyres, which Mr Godwin felt were acting as springs and exaggerating the bouncing movement every time the bus rocked.
This would enable one of the lightest gang members to get off and bring back some rocks to further weigh down the front end.
The next plan is to either slash a fuel line or lift an access plank in the floor to reach the drain plug, in order to empty the estimated 36 gallons (UK, not the smaller US gallon) of remaining diesel, weighing approximately 300lbs. As the fuel tank is located in the overhanging rear, emptying it would enable the smallest member of the crew to then begin bringing the gold forwards. Mr Goodwin did point out, however, that escaping would mean hijacking a passing vehicle and he apparently felt quite bad about that.
Thank you, also, to everyone who refrained from pointing out that when I first posted this, I’d spelt ‘denouement’ incorrectly. Either that, or nobody reads the Word of the Week … ;-]