The ending of a story is inextricably tied up with the rest of it. It flows from what precedes it, but it also shapes and reshapes everything that precedes it. The ending of a story can tell us what the story means — it can give meaning to all that precedes it.
If you’re already familiar with The Sixth Sense and Casablanca — or if you don’t mind having their endings spoiled for you — you might want to check out Slacktivist’s post on endings. Normally I read his journal for his ongoing dissection of the Left Behind books (as an evangelical Christian himself, he finds the books not just bad with respect to plot, character, pacing, and prose, but morally and theologically abhorrent). You can see a bit of that peeking through where he talks about the Book of Revelation as an ending, but mostly this post is about narrative, the job an ending is supposed to do, and what happens if you replace it with another ending.
Good thoughts, says I. And it reminds me of one of the challenges inherent in playing RPGs with an eye toward the aesthetics of plot and character. Unless you script everything that happens and leave nothing to chance — and sometimes even if you do — you will occasionally find yourself in a position where some event doesn’t fit, where the story takes a turn that you would not have put in, or would have revised back out again, if this were a story you’re writing. But RPGs don’t allow for revision; every gaming group I know tries to avoid redlining unless there is absolutely no other choice. So sometimes what you end up with is a fascinating exercise in interpretation: how can you view and/or explain those events in such a fashion as to arrive at a meaningful ending? How can you use an ending to resolve conflicts or disappointments lingering from before?
Endings matter a lot to me. I’ve said before, I don’t mind seeing/making characters suffer and fail and lose what matters to them — in fact, I often enjoy it; yes, writers are sadistic — so long as the suffering and failure and loss mean something. They have to contribute to a larger picture, whether that picture belongs to the character in question, or other people on whose behalf they have gone through hell. But random, meaningless suffering, or suffering whose purpose is to show you there is no meaning . . . no. I’ll do gymanstics of perspective to avoid that, to arrive at an ending that gives a different shape to what has gone before.
How about you all? What are your thoughts on endings? If you’re a writer, do you know them when you set out (which probably makes arriving at meaningfulness easier), or do you have to create them as you go along? If you’re a gamer, how do you feel about retiring/killing off characters, or ending games? How about the alternate endings Slacktivist talks about, where a different resolution gets tacked on?