When Story Goes Wrong: My Amber-Induced Rage

Roll up, roll up. It’s rant o’clock!

As you may or may not know, I love TV. Good TV that is. I have no time for people who are happy to stick their nose in a book but only look down their nose at television. I love stories and I love writers, and that’s what’s on and who’s behind TV. Yes, there’s bad TV, but there’s bad books too. If your argument is that TV-watching is too passive an activity, turn on your TV’s captioning service. There. Sorted.

ecard1

A few months ago, the final episode of a four-part drama series called Amber aired here on the state broadcaster’s channel RTE, and as our TV screens faded to black we took to Twitter and raged. Then we called into radio shows and raged. When we next saw our friends and family we said, ‘Were you watching Amber?’ and if the answer was yes then we raged some more.

In the first episode four nights before, a teenage girl — Amber — disappeared. She got her father to drop her to a friend’s house, waited until he’d driven away and then scurried off somewhere. We’d all stayed tuned for more than an hour each evening since to follow the investigation and the search, while flashbacks teased us about Amber’s final (?) hours. What happened to Amber? both we and the characters on the show wondered aloud. Where is she? Where did she go? The acting was mostly great, the production was sleek and the opening titles even had a touch of Top of the Lake about them. Many of us had spent numerous Saturday nights glued to subtitled Scandinavian drama on BBC4 (e.g. The Killing and The Bridge) and sat through Christmas impatient for new Sherlock, so it was a treat to have a slick crime drama of our own to watch featuring An Garda Siochana (the Irish police force) and Irish actors.

Or so we thought.

ecard2

I can’t write the rest of this without revealing the details of Amber, but since it already aired, most of you don’t live in Ireland and I feel compelled to warn those of you who live in the UK not to waste four nights of your life watching it like we did when it airs on BBC4 later this year, I think we’ll be alright.

But just to be fair:

***CRAPPY TV SHOW SPOILER ALERT***

So why the rage as the screen faded to black? Well, because the last shot was of Amber walking down a country road. Alive. The show ended without the viewer knowing what happened to Amber. Four episodes of a drama series about a girl going missing that in the end revealed… Well, nothing much of anything at all, it turned out.

That was bad enough.

That was annoying.

But what BROUGHT ON THE RED RAGE was the response of the team behind the show to our disappointment over this.

They said,* “It’s like real life, and in real life you don’t always find out what happened to the person who went missing.”

They said, “If you were really paying attention, there were plenty of clues.”

(Implying that you hadn’t paid attention at all and were too stoopid to put it altogether. You dumbarse!)

ecard3

And to pour acid into the wound they’d already poured salt into, they said, “She’s just gone and no, no character you met along the way had anything at all to do with it.”

?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

OH HOW MY BLOOD BOILS WITH SUPERFLUOUS CAPITAL LETTERS.

When a reader sits down with a book or a viewer settles onto the sofa, they’re expecting a story. Stories have beginnings, middles and ends and the end of a story is also the resolution of it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is tied up nicely in a bow and every mystery carefully explained away, but it does mean that the reader or viewer is left feeling satisfied. They feel there is a point to the story, a good reason for its existence.

That’s why the whole “but that’s what it’s like in real life” line doesn’t wash, because this wasn’t real life. It was a TV show. And TV shows get resolved.

(And also, if I wanted real life, I would’ve watched a documentary. Or looked out the window.)

I heard they also said that it wasn’t so much about the crime itself, but the effect the crime had on the family, neighborhood, etc. See Broadchurch for an excellent example of this. But what happened at the end of Broadchurch? Oh yeah, WE FOUND OUT WHAT HAPPENED AND WHO DID IT.

But that’s just the manslaughter charge in this crime against story. The murder one is the revelation that no one the viewer was introduced to in the fictional universe was responsible for the murder and/or disappearance of Amber.

Or to put it another way: cheating.

If the writer of a story that involves a crime (or other mystery) decides from the outset that they’re not going to reveal or explain to the reader/viewer what happened by its end, they are doing the writing equivalent of dictating to an assistant as they sunbathe on a beach in Bahamas while the rest of us live in a dark stone cell and scratch our story onto the walls with a pen knife.

By candlelight.

In a draught.

With no reveal/explanation, there are no rules. If there’s no rules, you don’t have to play by them. You don’t have to induce a migraine tying your plot up in knots and drawing graphs and using six different colors of Post-It notes to map out every last twist and turn. You can do whatever you like because it doesn’t all have to make sense at the end. You can fill your story with intense moments of mystery and end every chapter with a crazy cliffhanger and it all doesn’t matter because — woo-hoo! — you’re free to make this crap up as you go along.  You can do whatever you like because you haven’t committed to doing anything in particular except stringing us all along. Let’s throw in a unicorn and a ghostly apparition and a car chase and then – POOF! – deus ex machina, THE END.

I should’ve known that Amber had a plot problem because of the shambles that was Episode 2.

Amber had a non-linear narrative that kept jumping around in time as it followed different people through her disappearance and the subsequent search for her. In episode 1, we were shown Amber coming out of the city centre on the Luas (tram) carrying a shopping bag. Got that? Right. In episode 2, we focused on a very shady character who was already in prison for another crime and, in flashbacks, we saw him looking very suspicious as he sat in a parked car and watched Amber walk by on the day she went missing. But anyone with two brain cells would’ve instantly been able to deduce that Mr Suspicious had nothing to do with Amber’s disappearance, because when she walked past his car she wasn’t carrying a shopping bag. Therefore she hadn’t been into the city yet. And since we knew from Episode 1 that she stayed alive long enough to get back on the tram and come out of the city with her shopping bag, we knew this guy didn’t kill or take her.

(I’m not even going to talk about the episode where Amber’s father SAVED AMERICAN BACKPACKERS FROM HUMAN TRAFFICKERS IN EASTERN EUROPE BY WATCHING PORN AND HAVING A PROSTITUTE OVER FOR DINNER. No, really. That was actually the “plot” of the final episode.)

ecard4

If convicted for this first degree murder of what a story is supposed to be, the prosecution should seek the death penalty in this case because while leaving us hanging is bad enough, the creators admitted that (a) they know what happened (um yeah, oh-kay…) and that (b) NO ONE WE MET IN THE SHOW WAS RESPONSIBLE.

(Remembering that they told us the show was filled with clues, had we bothered to pay attention.)

Are you [BLEEP] kidding me with this?

That breaks the cardinal rule of crime and thrillers, and breaking this rule shows such a blatant disrespect for the reader/viewer that I’d need to start taking blood pressure medication if I thought about it too much. It’s just not playing fair if you don’t give the reader/viewer a chance to figure it out for themselves. Now I read crime novels and thrillers all the time, and I never figure it out. I like it that way. (I was once friends with a girl who would start every book by turning to the last chapter to appraise the ending. Only if she liked it would she go back to the start and read the book. We’re not friends anymore. Coincidence?) But when what really happened is revealed, I go ‘Oh, right! I see it now.’ I realize the clues were there all along. Readers who are cleverer than me may go ‘I KNEW it!’, but despite our different reactions we’re both feeling satisfied, we’re both feeling like the time we sunk into the book or show wasn’t wasted.

But if the person who killed/disappeared Amber WASN’T EVEN IN THE BLOODY SHOW, well, we don’t have much of a chance of figuring it out, now do we?

And of course, it also means that no one involved in writing the show had to figure it out either. Again: cheating.

It’s not that stories that aren’t neatly tied up can’t be satisfying. See Tana French’s In The Woods or series 2 of The Bridge for more on this. But they worked because even though not every plot strand was tied up in a bow, something was. And that something made sense. It also involved CHARACTERS WE’D ACTUALLY BEEN INTRODUCED TO.

I was venting my rage on Twitter the night of finale when someone suggested we send the writers a copy of Robert McKee’s Story. I suggested that that might be a bit advanced for them. Perhaps an episode of Murder She Wrote instead?

ecard5

You know something? I realize now that this blog post may not have a point. I just really needed to vent about how stoopid that bloody show was. But you know what? Maybe it’s not supposed to have a point, because that’s, like, real life. Things don’t get all neatly tied up in real life, dontcha know.

[UNICORNS DESCEND]

[A T-REX BURSTS OUT OF THE BUSHES]

[THE POWER GOES OUT]

The End.

Now, how was that for you?

Amber is apparently going to air on BBC Four sometime this year and after that it’ll infect Netflix. It’s too late for me but run, save yourselves!

UPDATE: BBC *did* show it and my blog visits have been boosted by people searching for ‘amber crap ending’ and the like. For more Amber rage, see this great piece by Daragh Keany writing for the Sunday World. Now, go watch some GOOD TV. 

What show or book had an ending that gave you the RED RAGE? Why was it so rage-inducing? Did you watch Amber? Do you think we can have some of our TV license fee back from RTE? Let me know in the comments below…

*I’m paraphrasing.

58 thoughts on “When Story Goes Wrong: My Amber-Induced Rage

  1. luminousmuse says:

    Thank you! You’ve given me a good laugh and saved my wife and me 4+ hours of our lives. The “slice of life” theory of story telling is bogus. Life is boring – that’s why we have writers.

  2. Journey Photographic says:

    This would have driven me nuts. And “It’s just not playing fair if you don’t give the reader/viewer a chance to figure it out for themselves” – this is why I don’t like the original Sherlock Holmes stories, since when you get to the end reveal, you find out that Holmes has solved the case with aide lot of clues that were never communicated to the reader. At least in this case that is internally consistent with the structure of the stories (Watson is the narrator, so if he doesn’t notice the clues, we don’t know about them either), but it still drove me nuts every time. (Sorry for the rant, this happens to be one of my pet TV/literary peeves!)

  3. writerlyderv says:

    My God! I heartily endorse everything you said, including the gratuitous use of capitals. They dropped the ball, pure and simple. Though most of my Facebook followers didn’t agree with me.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I think a lot of people whose viewing of this kind of program was confined to Amber and other RTE dramas were probably impressed, but when you’d spent week, months or even years of life watching the best of US, UK and European crime/drama TV, you could tell the creative highlight of the series was the opening credit sequence.

  4. Danielle says:

    This post totally does have a point: If you are an up and coming writer, don’t look at writing books and general advice about writing and dismissively say “I’m too talented to follow base formula and expected conventions, I’m going to do something completely different and expect everyone to appreciate my creative genius and originality”. It usually doesn’t work and is best left to seasoned writers, and even then only works if the true base formula is actually followed, but in an unconventional way.

  5. michaelrwilson says:

    One of my favorite authors, Tad Williams, wrote an awesome fantasy trilogy called Memory, Sorrow & Thorn. LOVED IT!
    So when his 4 book sci-fi story Otherland came out, I dove right in.
    5 years and 4 monstrous volumes later…

    **Spoiler **

    the plot behind the entire series is…a giant mutated BRAIN in outer space. A space Brain…the genius boy that runs their whole virtual reality world has atrophied away to nothing and only his giant brain lives on to control.

    FURY! It’s like…hey…have a 1950’s grade B monster after $150 investment in my 4 doorstopper book series…

    Thankfully, there are few times such a rage has occurred. I love books too much for that! (And we almost always have the captions on to read our TV shows! Funny that you mentioned that!)

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I actually read Otherland (was the first one called Otherland??) in secondary school and I’d never read fantasy so it was like the most dense tome I’d ever attempted, and I’m so glad I gave up after one! :-D

  6. Rhoda Baxter says:

    Oh, Oscar and Lucinda. I threw the book at the wall and ranted about it for weeks after I finished it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book. Brilliant, in fact. It gets you to care about two difficult and not entirely likeable characters. Guides you through their story and WHAMMO! Betrayal! Aaaargh.
    And don’t get me started on some of the series endings of Dr Who.

    I shall remember to avoid Amber like the plague. Thanks for the heads up.

  7. Cecilia Carelse says:

    Enjoyed your post.
    I think I must be one of the few people who enjoyed this show and the ending. I know why we want everything wrapped up in conclusions and I agree it’s needed especially for novels and films and tv series but this tv mini-series ending was different. I felt like the parents of the daughter who was missing. Everyone searches for clues, but at the end of the day, some people stay missing and that’s why I appreciated the ending of this show because it’s every parents worst nightmare – to never know. I know it’s not a popular opinion, Catherine forgive me, but as a viewer I got it. I think it’s like Marmite, which I love…

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      But there was no satisfaction…? And there’s a way to make the reader/viewer feel as the character does, to get the horror of not knowing, but there needs to be something resembling a plot in the lead up to. Tana French’s book does that spectacularly (In the Woods.) There’s a present day storyline, which is resolved, and a past storyline, which is not, and the feeling of not knowing the past story’s resolution is shared with the main character, who won’t ever get answers either. Combined with its other plot problems, Amber comes across as nothing more than amateur hour to me, which is a shame because clearly there was a lot of creative talent in the acting, etc. and I’d love to see more of this home-grown programming on TV. But this just didn’t cut the mustard…

      (Also I would say that if they came out afterwards and said, ‘Oh this guy killed her’ and you could go back and look for the clues yourself, I would have forgiven all. But they admitted no one in the show killed her. This is just absolutely unforgivable. That’s not telling a story. That’s stringing scenes together and hoping for the best.)

  8. Sherry Marshall says:

    I haven’t seen it as I am in Sydney, Australia! but won’t bother now if it comes my way. I love your vent. Similar to one’s I have about other similar TV. programmes and movies.
    The point for me is Satisfaction. if we can’t get no satisfaction, to quote an old but great song, there is no point! It’s just a waste of our time. Thanks for warning us all.

  9. daydreaminginwords says:

    Thanks for the warning. I had a similar reaction when I read the mist in the mirror by Susan Hill. A short book, not a bad story but so much was left unexplained at the end, including the mist in the mirror!

  10. R M Nicholls says:

    I had this rage in Season Three of ’24’. The viewer was all worried about whether Kyle Singer* will infect America or will Jack Bauer get there in time (*teenage blond kid that was supposed to have a killer virus). Turns out Kyle never had the virus, and the package he was carrying didn’t contain the virus and Kyle was… absolutely nothing to do with any virus and had no role whatsoever in the plot. I’d spent five episodes trying to figure out how it would resolve. Do these people think I’m MADE of time? Am I a walking grandfather clock to them? Or a Time Lord? Or… something else made of time? I’m a working mother who also writes books, and when I give a show/book/play my time I demand a reward in the form of clever writing.

    I don’t mind a red herring – that’s clever and really hard to do. But this wasn’t a red herring it was just like: ‘we can’t resolve this plot line so we’re just going to say it was never a plot line after all and look, look over there – something shiny!’. CHEATS! If I did that with one of my thrillers everyone would just say ‘Ah, self-published you know, she can’t even resolve her own plot lines.’.

    Thanks for saving me from the Amber mist. That’s four more hours I can spend sticking brightly coloured flags in my current draft saying “Resolve this!”, “Give this character a plot role or ditch them.” etc.

  11. naturalbeautycabinet says:

    Ha! Loved reading this. I love good comedy ranting and your account of the show ended in a much better way than the show itself. Nice work. I won’t watch it when it surfaces on BBC4 because cop-out endings annoy the out of me and I couldn’t agree more that fictional stories, unlike real life, really do have a responsibility to have a point, even if they’re not neatly tied up with a bow.

    To be fair though, when watching TV my need for resolution is so intense that I find it nearly impossible to stick with anything that doesn’t offer closure in the first episode. So many of my favourites are hospital-based shows (like House, Grey’s and the much-missed ER) because I get INSTANT resolution of incidental storylines to keep me going through the endlessly drawn-out main plotlines. I can stick with a book indefinitely but I want my TV to be over quickly. I wonder why that is. Anyone else get TV ADD?

  12. Marie Moneysmith says:

    Yes, yes, yes!!! You absolutely nailed this, Catherine. I watched Amber on Netflix, got totally sucked into the story, and then — WHAT? No ending??? Colossal disappointment.

    I figured they had run out of money or someone died or whatever. Why on earth would you not end the story properly? So now we know, thanks to you, that the problem was with the writers. Darn it, I really wanted/needed an ending. Guess I’ll make up my own ;-)

  13. Katy Gilmore says:

    I loved this, chuckling all the way through! And you have saved us from four hours sitting and many hours puzzling. Closing in on the end of this season of Game of Cards, woops House of Cards (US version), and feel certain it will have similarly disappointing conclusion (as in no conclusion). Thank you! (and loved the images also)

  14. don says:

    I recorded it on sky+ but deleted it, unwatched, when I heard about the ridiculous “ending”.
    Glad to hear I did the right thing.

  15. L. Palmer says:

    That’s not cleverness. That’s poor writing.
    At the end of Battlestar Galactica, (SPOILER), they made a hamfisted attempt to do a ‘moral of the story’ connection to the modern world, leaving with ‘this could happen again!’
    It did not work, but was not as frustrating as Amber seems to have been.

  16. Danielle Lenee Davis says:

    You said it perfectly! I would’ve been unhappy about that too. In fact, I (my book’s main character) posted about something similar on my blog last week, but it involved a book. It feels like you wasted your time watching the show or reading the book.

  17. Widdershins says:

    Really sloppy writing! … yeah, the end of BSG – same thing … and it seems that Warehouse 13’s last season is heading down the same slippers slope.

  18. Tara Sparling says:

    I was really dissatisfied with Amber too, but for slightly different reasons. I would have been ok for the unresolved ending, but for the fact that there was no payoff at all during the 4 hours because overall, it just wasn’t good enough. I threw my eyes up to heaven so often watching it, I ended up with a nervous tic which now gets me refused coffee in certain establishments.

    Like you say, anyone who’s become used to watching such sharp Scandinavian stuff or the new cinematic US and UK TV for instance is used to better. Amber didn’t work for me because the quality just wasn’t there, in production values or the writing. The acting was really poor in places (1 main character in particular who shall remain nameless) and sometimes it felt like the director/writer was RAMMING A POINT DOWN OUR THROATS ‘CAUSE WE JUST WOULDN’T GET IT ON OUR OWN, LIKE.

    If I’m going to sit through 4 hours of resolution-free postmodernish drama, it should be good enough to keep me entertained before we get to the end. It didn’t, and I wasn’t!

    • jomb87 says:

      The part that really had me rolling my eyes was Amber’s phone. These volunteers are working in a “Find Amber” office. One opens an envelope, a phone falls out and he just drops it on the desk to be covered by a pile of envelopes. Then some idiot woman finds it and shoves it in a drawer (umm… who in “real life” would ever do that, you know, if this story is supposed to be so true to life and all that) and then somehow her grandchild (or whoever he was) has it in his stroller (so… not only did she make no attempt to find out whose phone it was – like look at the pictures or the contacts – but she then steals it and gives it to a toddler as a toy) and he very conveniently drops it down a drain. Because every toddler I know has the dexterity to do that. So irritating!

  19. Devon Trevarrow Flaherty says:

    “Or to put it another way: cheating.” Brahahaw!

    Ooh, do I hate stories that don’t plant the necessary foreshadowing to make you go, “Oh, I get it,” at the end. (Dare I mention that the uber-popular “Frozen” is like this?) And thanks for the warning on “Amber.:

  20. Emily Heart says:

    Haha that’s hilarious but I can relate after watching Enemy. Fantastic acting and intriguing story. The ending.. I can’t even explain how angry I was – it made no sense, it’s like it stopped half way through. I couldn’t sleep from anger. But I’d watch it again just for Jake Gylenhaal.

  21. Pauline Ross says:

    Great post! I feel your pain. I STILL have outbreaks of capital letters about the ending of Lost, which crashed and burned a full four years ago. I gave that program SIX years of my life, and the writers had NO respect for…

    Wait. Deep breath. Sorry. Great post.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I’m with you there. I was a dedicated LOST fan. I still think the first & second series of that show was unreal, some of the best TV ever made, but then… Well, let’s not get our blood pressure up!

      • Pauline Ross says:

        Agree about the first two series. Totally awesome. Then in the third series, it started to go somewhat downhill, but still very watchable. But the final series…

        I will not get mad, I will not get mad, I will not get mad…

        • catherineryanhoward says:

          Yes, and I forgive the 3rd series because they didn’t know how many more they were going to have to do so they were like Stretch Armstrong-ing the plot while they waited to find out. But after that… They set themselves up for failure. Too many intriguing questions raised. There was never going to be enough satisfying answers.

          WHAT WERE THE WHISPERS? JUST TELL ME THAT!!!

  22. Book Nanny says:

    Thank you for this post – just what a good rant should be – totally partisan, informative and hilarious! Trying to be too clever at an audience’s expense and style over content are not two qualities I admire in storytelling. I hope they consider themselves suitably chastised and will do better next time.

  23. Anita Diggs says:

    Very excellent point, Catherine!! Do not ruin the climax. For example, it shouldn’t turn out to be all a dream and that none of it ever happened in the first place, and the protagonist woke up and told someone about it. What a downer. We’ve stuck with you for all of this time; we want a conflict ending that is satisfying!

  24. karen says:

    I wish I had read this four weeks ago, I’ve just watched the last episode of Amber. Arrrrrrrrgh ! The actors where great but the story was disappointing.

  25. Bill says:

    I wish I had read this 4 weeks ago. Having battled with Amber on BBC4 and all the steps backwards and forwards I was hoping for some suggestion of what might have happened to her character, but I ended up feeling that the writers did not care about her and they had little sympathy for the rest of the cast as well

  26. Thil says:

    I gather that the Writer’s main defence was that in this is supposed to reflect real life where there’s often no answers.

    Ok the problem with that is that they didn’t structure the story like a real disappearing kid incident , they structured it like a conventional mystery story with no conclusion. In real life there aren’t apparent hint, clues and mysteries old men in prison who seem to know something. In real people vanish and then there’s just nothing, no hope of an answer ever.

    If they had just focused on the family coping exclusively and not focused at all on the investigation and all the red herrings I’d probably still feel annoyed but I’d have to concede that this thing had at least been successful at what it set out to do. as it is the show is just conclusionless whodunit pretentiously pretending to be something deeper

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I totally agree. It could have been a character study in what the disappearance of a child does to a family OR a conventional mystery but it was never going to work trying to be the first while acting like the second. I felt like they kept us hanging on episode after episode with the clues, suspicions, mysteries, etc. and then – click your fingers – oh, we’re a character study now, see-ya! Drove me cuckoo. Is STILL driving me cuckoo, obviously! ;-D

  27. Angie S. Burkey says:

    This US citizen thanks you from the bottom of her raccoon eyes. I watched the first episode of Amber via Netflix late one night. For some reason, I felt I couldn’t continue watching unless I knew the outcome. (I never do this.) So, I googled “is Amber dead or alive” and came across your blog. I’ve never laughed so hard and was shocked to learn the outcome (or lack thereof) of this series. I share Europe’s disappointment with the writers. Boo!!! How dare they? I will find something else to watch. Thank you for the warning!

    Now, I am going to see if you have written anything about the casting choices for “50 Shades of Gray.” : )

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Alas, I havent. I *love* Jamie Dornan (have you watched the amazing The Fall? It’s on Netflix) but while he’s eerily believable as a serial killer, freshly shaven he’s more angelic altar boy than corporate overlord/dom…

  28. Cyn says:

    The clue to what happened to Amber is in the last scene, she’s walking on a country lane, the road dips, we no longer see her, storm clouds overhead, remember how hard it rained when the con is in his car. Another clue: her bag is found in water, I think she stayed on the lane, the storm brought loads of rain, flooded the road she was swept away, along with her bag, and her body is carried far enough along that it hasn’t been found.

    what do you think of that theory?

  29. jomb87 says:

    Oh my gosh! I just watched this show on Netflix. Was hoping for something similar to Broadchurch, boy was I wrong. In true Netflix style I marathoned my way through it, each new episode hoping to get somewhere. I did NOT like all the jumping around. I can’t remember which day they flashed up before each scene and I was getting very confused as to what happened then. And then I got to the end of the 4th episode… WTF?!? That has to be the stupidest, most pointless show I have ever wasted my time on. If I wanted an unresolved ending I would read about an actual missing persons online. What was the point??? So of course, I immediately went on the internet and googled “Amber crappy ending” and came across your blog post which I couldn’t agree more with! My question is… how the heck did it get 3 stars on Netflix??? Who on earth rated this pathetic excuse for a show more than 1 star?

Ah, go on. Tell me what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s