good thoughts on endings

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?

0 Responses to “good thoughts on endings”

  1. ninja_turbo

    Kelley Eskdrige did a little talk on endings for us last week, and talked about it like this: When someone reads a story/watches a film, etc., it’s akin to the writer taking the reader on a journey. The ending is not the destination, it’s the arrival.

    More interpretation from me: An ending should give that sense of completion, resolution, the rise and the build of a completed journey. It’s not the final step through the threshold, it’s the deep breath you take when the journey has come full circle. Doesn’t mean it has to be a happy, uplifting circle, but the ending should deliver on the promise that the story’s beginning made of the reader’s expectations, and should resonate with the metaphorical/symbolic system of the story as well, if possible, bringing things home so that the reader finishes the last line and spends a moment, a minute, an hour or a lifetime taking it all in, reflecting on and learning from the journey they’ve taken.

    Commentary on gaming endings perhaps later.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think that touches on why a lot of people want a third doppelganger book, and I have no particular drive to write one. As far as I’m concerned, the characters have arrived — but it seems a lot of people want me to talk about the destination. The characters just walked through a door, and sure, you can’t see everything in the room that’s beyond it, but really, to me, the room is a static place, and therefore not something to write a book about.

      • ninja_turbo

        The extended series fantasy has created a reading aesthetic that refuses a status quo and/or completion. Each challenge is done long enough to anticipate the arrival of the next.

        You could tell more stories in that setting, especially if you went generational. But unless you’re called to tell them, or Warner drives a dumptruck of money up to your house, there’s no particular need.

        • Marie Brennan

          I wouldn’t need a generational story; I would just need a new conflict worthy of a book. People keep on pointing at things like Urishin/Naspeth, the Mirei and Eclipse situation, or the bit with the young Cousins as material for a third novel, but there just isn’t a conflict there.

          I can be okay with an open-ended series if it’s episodic, but the soap opera model of plotting — a constant, overlapping series of arcs that goes on from now to infinity — is the structure that appeals to me the least. Either give me a modular set of episodes that you can snap new ones on to, or give me an arc that reaches completion and is done.

        • kendokamel

          The extended series fantasy has created a reading aesthetic that refuses a status quo and/or completion.

          I agree.

          I’ve also noticed a trend of everything needing to come in “trilogies” – including, unfortunately, stories that neither need nor ought to come in three distinct segments.

          I do like that analogy of the writer taking the readers on a journey. I know that on many a good trip I’ve been on, I haven’t wanted it to be over. Naturally, I’ve felt that way about characters in well-written books and movie/television series.

          However, I appreciate when authors stick with the “less is more”, and end things when they are in a good place… rather than dragging them on, forever (or until everyone gets bored with the story).

          • Marie Brennan

            Unfortunately, writers may face pressure from both publishers and fans to keep going — witness the campaigns to try and convince J.K. Rowling to keep writing about Harry Potter after the series is done.

  2. mastergode

    Personally speaking, my feelings on novels/movies and games are somewhat different.

    When I play a good roleplaying game, I get pretty emotionally attached to the characters. Probably because I’m so invested in it, time-wise. Like, I’ve spent all that time with them, and if they die, I feel kind of like that time was wasted. Even if the character dies in some noble manner befitting his or her life, it still makes me cry a little on the inside (or the outside).

    But in books and movies, I like it when characters die. Sometimes I cry when they die, but it’s the good kind of crying, not the bad kind. Assuming that it’s done responsibly, of course. For example, the Deathstalker series is an excellent example. I have to give Simon R. Green props for creating some really fantastic characters and then making them all fight to the death. Few authors have the proverbial balls to kill off characters that have clearly been so lovingly created.

    That applies to my own writing. If I think that it’s appropriate to kill someone off in a story, I’ll do it without hesitation. I’m not the sort of person who would think, “well, this character should really die here, but I just don’t want to do that.”

    As far as endings in general go, I don’t think that I’ve ever started a story with a full understanding of what the ending is going to be. I think that’s because I don’t know what the whole story is going to be, and of course, the ending is a function of the rest of the story. Usually I reverse-engineer my stories from a scene in the middle, or a premise, or a character. I don’t think I’ve ever started with an ending.

    • Marie Brennan

      See, I’ve come to love killing off a character in a game — under controlled circumstances. If I know she’s going to die, I can enjoy the performance of that death, in much the way an actor can. But losing a character on a bad roll of the dice is not something I think I would enjoy. (Unless the setting allows for return from death, in which case that death-and-rebirth becomes part of a larger meaning.)

      • feyangel

        “Unless the setting allows for return from death, in which case that death-and-rebirth becomes part of a larger meaning.”

        He he. You know I can help you with that. *grin*

        • Marie Brennan

          <g> Given what this party is like, I don’t think there will be any shortage of opportunities for Lessa to die. But remember: we’ve agreed to try and not die for a while.

      • mastergode

        I just can’t do that. Enjoy the performance of a death, that is.

        Of course, I’m slightly biased. I have severe, death-related anxiety problems that tend to make me horrendously hypochondriacal. There’s an alliteration for you.

        So I just can’t feel good about a character of mine dying, because it hits a little too close to home.

        Also, on another note, it’s the aftermath that bothers me. For example, if my character dies killing the evil bad monster of doom so that the rest of the world may live, when it’s over, I sit there and say, “So, now what?”

        • Marie Brennan

          That’s totally understandable.

          As for the “so, now what?” question . . . it depends on the game in question. I’ve killed off characters who were temporary PCs, so while I might spend a brief period at the end of that game session with nothing to do, I know I’ll be returning to my usual PC, and I usually need a little time anyway to disengage my head from whatever dramatic scene was going on. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any character-death scenarios where a) it’s happened early in the session or b) I haven’t known how I’ll be continuing on with the game. (I also have not, I think, used character death to quit a game. That I remember, anyway.)

  3. sartorias

    I’m with you on endings.

  4. kendokamel

    Two roads diverged

    Of all the stories I’ve written, I’ve probably “known” the ending to a good portion of them. It’s a character flaw of mine – that I like having solutions, even if I don’t know why they are what they are, right away. So, if I can control the situation, I start with where I want to end up, and figure out how and why I got there.

    However, as I’ve grown (and I’m not even sure how much I can validate “growing” as an author if I’ve never had the balls to show anyone else my non-academic writings… because I’m afraid that I can’t subject anyone to them until they have reached that perfect spot), I started out to construct what I thought was the journey toward a particular point, but then got sidetracked, and let the characters take me somewhere else, instead.

    As for alternate endings to stories, I can see where they would be a valid storytelling element, but only if each one can reconcile everything that led up to it. For movies that aren’t Clue-esque, I’m not really sure if that could work. I agree that it would just make it a different movie.

    However, I could almost see it working with a series of books or shortstories. You could start out with one story… and then have two different “sequels”.

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: Two roads diverged

      Huh. Now I want to see somebody do a more elaborate version of “Choose Your Own Adventure,” where they write a complex of short stories, spinning out the consequences of alternate endings to earlier stories in the set.

  5. calico_reaction

    Thanks so much for the link! Fantastic posts (both yours and his) and plenty to consider, especially since I’m nearing the end of the rough draft of my own novel.

    Personally, I like having a sense of knowing where it’ll end. That way, I have a direction, but since I’m not entirely sure HOW it’ll end, there’s room to play and to let the story go where it needs to. Like for my current project, I know how it all will add up, but I’m not sure what my characters will do when they get there.

    For short stories, I usually don’t know. I discover the ending when I get here. Course, I don’t like outlining anything at all, so that may be part of it, in both shorts and novels.

    As far as writers go, Karin Lowachee has some of the most pitch-perfect endings I’ve read in a long time. The end of her WARCHILD is seared into my brain, I swear.

    • Marie Brennan

      Probably one of the best endings I’ve ever read — at least at the time it seemed so; I can’t vouch for whether it would still be true if I re-read it now — was in C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy. There’s some lumpiness and sagging in the middle of that set, but the last scene, and the last few lines, were beautifully appropriate.

  6. diatryma

    In a lot of dislikable movies, a character will die and be symbolically reborn at the end as the first baby of the new world or new planet or new something. Books, too, like the author ran out of names of a sudden. I don’t like that kind of tacked-on meaning, and try not to do it in my own writing.
    Except yeah, the novelish was fairly plotted years ago.
    Deaths are hard to do. I have one in particular that I know is coming, I know it’s sort of pointless– it’s a battle and she’s hit by an arrow, falls off her horse, and that’s just about that. The death is just another death. The reactions people have to it are not. The meaning has to come from the characters who are actually there.
    Other deaths, the ones I realize are going to happen while I’m in the shower, those are just fun.

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