The End of the Story

And they lived happily ever after.

Well, perhaps the characters did, but it is rare that a viewer, reader or player is overjoyed by an ending.

Beginnings are full of mystery and promise. Middles are where all the action and drama lay, the meat of a story. Endings, though, are like a blank wall. They represent the moment we have to leave the fictional world we engaged with and have to find something else to do. There is also something disturbingly impenetrable about an ending. Like death, we cannot see beyond it – we can only wonder.

There is something disturbingly impenetrable about an ending. Like death, we cannot see beyond it – we can only wonder.

Sequels don’t count. Each fiction has finite borders and while a sequel may continue a story, it has its own beginning, middle and end. Moving from one volume to another creates a kind of dissonance – a new beginning is not the same experience we would have had if we continued walking along with those characters into the sunset.

For most stories, the joy is in the telling, but since the end is our exit, it can infuse the whole concoction with a note of bitterness. For some people, a bad ending can be poison. For me, this happens more often than not with Stephen King’s novels – how many just simply stop, or resolve with a convenient explosion of cleansing fire? Despite the fact that The Stand and ‘Salem’s Lot are gripping for the vast majority of their lengths, their awful endings invalidate the entire experience. Don’t even get me started on Lost.

Gamers have it slightly better; because games are interactive, there’s potential for a variety of endings based on happenstance or a player’s choices. They come in three basic flavors: success, failure and some mediocre middle ground between the two. Earlier this year, BioWare’s epic space opera Mass Effect 3 ran afoul of fans who thought its three possible endings didn’t adequately reflect all the choices that were made over the course of three very long games. Still, three possible endings are two more than you get with a book, movie or television show.

That's AllThere are exceptions. The bleak uncertainty of John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of horror cinema’s most unsettling finales. Red Dead Redemption was about as perfect a revenge story as has ever been told. I count the conclusion of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, The Bane of the Black Sword, as the very best. Moorcock is an uneven writer and his Elric stories are no exception as they drift from dynastic dramas to psychedelic interludes and beyond. The very end, though, in a single line of dialogue, is so shockingly unifying – and satisfying – I have yet to find its equal.

Because a good ending is such a rare find – I can scarcely think of another worthy of mentioning – their approach is terrifying. There are only eight episodes of Breaking Bad remaining – what if they fail to thrill? There are two more volumes left in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – what if they leave more questions than answers? I can hear the howls of despair already.

Why do we wail so? Are we so sensitive to absence, is finality so grim, that a single page can outweigh the hundreds that preceded it? If on a hike we come to a cliff and don’t appreciate the view, we don’t rage at nature. We shrug and move on in another direction – and a new journey begins.

———

Stu Horvath still occasionally bitches about the way Lost turned out on Twitter @StuHorvath. You can’t always be thoughtful.

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  • http://twitter.com/johnpetergrant @johnpetergrant

    Writing a satisfying ending is really tricky, especially in this age of the tentpole franchise movie and the indefinite serial. I wonder if this view of stories that we now take for granted — as "intellectual properties" rather than self-contained narratives — has tainted writers' ability to create satisfying endings as well as the audience's ability to be satisfied with an ending.

    Like, how would Poe have ended "The Cask of Amontillado" if he was writing for network TV? I mean, would he have husky voiceover asking "WHEN WILL MONTRESOR KILL AGAIN?" before "EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: DICK WOLF" appeared on screen?

    Still, I have to disagree on one key point. I'm with you that poor endings leave a bad taste in your mouth, but I don't think they necessarily "invalidate the entire experience." I was also an obsessive fan of LOST, so the ending disappointed me more than most. Eventually I came to realize that they had written themselves into a corner, particularly in that last season, and there were only a few ways they left themselves to resolve the conflicts they'd created. And for a while, yeah, I thought, "why the hell did I waste so much energy on this crap?" But in reflection, the time I spent poring over online ARG clues and deciphering glyphs on the hatch blast door was enjoyable, even if the payoff never came. The journey was fun. Same with The Stand — the first 100 pages of that book are about as good as it gets for the genre, even if the rest become a slog into mediocrity.

    I guess what I'm saying is, sometimes a bad ending is actually instructive. It helps you reflect on what parts of the story did work, and why. That can be a powerful exercise.

    • Stu Horvath

      The term "Intellectual Property" was floating around in my head the entire time I was writing this. I think the idea that fictions have become these massive industries instead of, you know, simple stories, contributes a lot to the problem. But endings are just plain hard any which way. I stared at the ending of this piece, for instance, for several hours very early this morning, wondering how to make it better.

      As for The Stand – you are right. The first chunk of The Stand is about as good as King gets. The Lincoln Tunnel scene? Jesus. And, in general, the clunky bits of his entire body of work are really something you can learn from. He's not shy about his shortcomings in On Writing. 'Salem's Lot, though. That book has an infuriating ending. Even calling it an ending is inaccurate – it just stops. It made me so angry that I had to read the Dark Tower books to find out how things shake out with Father Callahan. And that, in turn, made me angry that the further implications of having a town of vampires in the middle of Massachusetts is never explored further.

      As for Lost, I was like you, an obsessive fan picking through the ARG elements. That was fun. It remains an amazing memory. But the show itself, which I poured over and watched multiple times? I never need to see it again. The ending is so flat that the story holds zero interest to me any more. In that way, it really was a definitive ending, like a death. I have some good memories and some bad ones, but all that is over now.

      But! My overarching point, which might have not quite come out right at 6 AM this morning, was that all that energy spent being angry and disappointed about the ins and outs of an ending, or a story in general is foolish. They are closed systems. Complaining about them is like King Canute ordering the tides to stop coming in. If you don't like them, write your own story.

  • Andrew

    I think you raise some interesting points, but what about the opposite phenomena? Let's talk serials for a second,as they're a great case-in-point. As fate would have it, we have the perfect analogue – serialized fiction! I'm not talking indefinite sequals, I'm talking the old-school, Charles Dickens era serialized fiction. The "ending" has a whole lot of pip wandering around revisiting places and reminiscing before we actually hit an ending. Sometimes when we don't want to leave a story, it starts to sour. How many endings were there, exactly, to Return of the King? It felt like it ended at least 5 or 6 times before the credits rolled.

    So yes, ending can be abrupt and separate us from the worlds we love. But when we don't have them, or when they are spun out past their welcome, it's even worse. How much do we complain about 'cashing in' for unnecessary sequals? Why do we complain about more of the world we love? Because it 'doesn't feel right' or 'isn't true' – in other words, the story ended but the game went on.

    Speaking of good endings, let me mention one and why it works, and why adding more would be a bad thing. Far Cry 3's ending was fantastic, though generally not for any of the reasons people think. Choosing to leave the island with your friends marks the end of this transformative process, a return to the real world, if you will, from his psychedelic glorification of violence and destruction. He chooses to turn around, to go back to the beginning. Why would we want to go beyond that? We all know and experience the reality he's going back to. The journey was around making the decision.

    The other option is a very sneaky slap in the face on the level of Fight Club – we realize that while we got the immediate promised reward (do I really need to clarify?), our character has given in to the insanity of everyone else on the island. Insanity. Conclusion. Done. More gameplay would have been pointless, mindless fun on a lot of levels, because the story, or his descent into insanity, has finished.

    Yes, endings can be a shot-to-the-gut ellipses, but when done right, they become the perfect exclamation point!

    • Stu Horvath

      I can't talk yet about the ending of Far Cry 3 – still working through it, albeit slowly!

      Serials though, I have some thoughts on. I think they are a completely different species. I touch on this in the comment above a little bit, but a one-off story is a closed system, a unique event. Sometimes, as you point out, market forces get involved and suddenly we're drowning in wonky sequels. Serials, though, are created with market forces in mind. The best ones (think comic continuities or maybe Doctor Who, rather than Dickens) become these perpetual motion machines, constantly evolving, expanding, collapsing, reinterpreting. They practically have their own seasons.

      Something similar can be said of formula fiction. The joy there isn't about the plot, which is the same give or take in every telling, but the theme and variation of the telling.

      In both cases, the underlying structure offsets the fact that endings are tough.

      So much for this column being a brief musing on endings – I should probably have done a whole series on this. Thanks for your feedback!

  • DJ Bobby C

    For me, the key to a good ending is to keep it surprising up until the last possible second, but still ensure that it remains believable and satisfying.

    It is interesting that writers often seem to struggle to produce original and interesting endings, even if the beginning and middle of the story is drenched in creative imagination.

    Interestingly, what makes a good ending does seem to have some cultural bias in it. Many traditional Japanese stories, for example, are often just a snapshot into the characters' lives, and aren't meant to provide the neatly gift-wrapped endings that Westerners often expect.

    • Rob Haines

      Sometimes I think it's the creative imagination earlier in a piece which causes the problem. Shows like Lost clearly wrote episodes early on which asked really interesting questions, but since the writers didn't know the answers to those questions there was no core narrative which they could tie it all together with. It's no surprise that the deus ex machina they eventually used to tie up all the disparate plot threads was disappointing.

      It is interesting how cultural variations lead to differing satisfaction. Western audiences tend to want all plot threads resolved, and the closer together those resolutions occur, the more satisfying they are. Of course, that does result in problems when sequels are created using characters whose primary motivation has been resolved at the end of the original story, as it can be difficult to create a fresh motivation to drive a new character arc without it feeling shoehorned in.

  • Rob Haines

    I think the impenetrability of endings could also be the root cause of most fanfiction. We naturally assume that the characters with whom we've spent the last however many hours of our lives can't just stop, remaining perpetually in limbo at the moment when we look away from them. Their lives must surely go on. Perhaps it's a means of grieving for people who, for a short time at least, have seemed ever so real.

    Speaking of Stephen King, the ending of the Dark Tower series was infuriating. I enjoyed the books, but for the author to end the series, then insert an author's note saying "As far as I'm concerned, that's the end. But if you insist on knowing what's inside the tower, here's another ending!" was ruinous. Did I want to know what was inside the tower? No. That's not the point of a grail quest; it's the journey that matters, and the final reveal could never live up to the weight of seven large novels-worth of expectation.

    But can I genuinely put down the last book of a seven-book series with twenty pages unread and say "I'm done", and never wonder what might lie within those pages? Unfortunately no. My brain isn't wired that way.