It's rare these days that I wake up with time on my hands and have a blog post waiting at my fingertips. I still didn't for this, as I really should be writing something else today. However, it actually is a topic that occurred to me on several occasions this year alone and I guess I have an opinion on it. So the topic for today is: what makes a good end for stories and what are the machinations for it? Let's see where this will be going.
Lots of bad endings ...
The appliance of this topic for role playing games are obvious. However, where it really hit home for me the last couple of months was with a book that read really, really well for all its 1000 pages and fucked up really hard in the last 50 pages or so. I felt betrayed. It was the cruelest thing. Up until that end I would have recommended it to friends. How the author decided to end it, though, killed the whole experience for me.
Maybe I should go into an analysis of why I thought that ending was bad (or what book we are talking about), but for now, a specific example of something that is not universally hated as bad would make the argument anecdotal and that would be of no use here, right? You all know what I mean (if people are interested, I can share specifics in the comments, though).
That said, there are a bazillion examples in pop culture right now, most popular among them would be the last episodes of Game of Thrones. So bad, that millions of people signed a petition to re-shot that hot mess. Or the end they are producing for the original Star Wars saga. That would (arguably) be another great example (my guess is they'll kill it for good with The Rise of Skywalker). The third season of Glow also qualifies as it had NOTHING to do with the original show and was a waste of time so cringe-worthy, it cemented my decision to cancel my Netflix account for good.
My impression is that this is a trend for the worse right now. Maybe the decades-long pop cultural rehashing of the same old themes finally proves to be a downward spiral (who would have guessed?). Or the capitalist impulse to always produce new content actually forces creatives to start at ground-zero zeitgeist every time and hinders innovation in a way that popular stories stopped growing in mainstream and stagnation always carries the danger of running foul (or rather, nothing stagnates ever ... if it's not moving for the better, it starts moving for the worse).
Whatever the reason, it is a phenomenon worth analyzing or at least talking about. I get weary when I start seeing a new tv show and like it, because the end could ruin it for good. It's gotten so easy to produce a frame that makes content just, well, bingeable, that we not only created a new word for the process, we also started neglecting the messages stories transport and the end is always the tell in that regard.
Going by the above, there are several reasons for endings to be received as "bad" (or even where endings begin, for that matter) and all have the obvious common theme that the [drum roll] Suspension of Disbelief is disrupted to a degree, where the experience ends up being disappointing.
The good end no one liked
Let's start with the low hanging fruits, the movies or books or tv shows that run over long times and maybe even with lots of time between parts or seasons. Something you will see or read over long periods of time. Notable examples would be the Matrix trilogy, Star Wars Episodes 1 to 3, the third season of Twin Peaks or the last books of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books (originally a trilogy, the author went ahead and wrote a sequel 6 years later, where she tried to re-write the original and changed the tone significantly).
And people don't like it. Or rather, popular opinion is against them although, in those cases, the results aren't necessarily bad, just different. If something popular has too much time to fester in the pop cultural mindset, the perception of it changes. Or maybe ownership of the ideas changes. The artist gives something to the public and it keeps developing from there on.
So when the artist picks up a story years after it's initial release, he'll have to challenge the new beast that the story is with his own interpretation. There's a couple of popular examples where this worked once or twice (Terminator 2 and Aliens 2 come to mind), but usually, the result is hated and only reception over time will show if a sequel like that has merit or not.
In a sense, it means that the sequel is banned to the fringes again, away from mainstream, and people willing to invest the time to analyze and talk about a sequel like that, will dig for the nuggets and carry them back into mainstream consciousness.
|Staring down mainstream since 1990 [source]
The Episodes 1 to 3, for instance, weren't as bad as the initial reaction may have you believe, the Matrix trilogy is a coherent story, just not the one people wanted and Lynch's Twin Peaks is so far away from the mainstream perception of it, that it will take years to digest what he did in season 3 and Le Guin changed as a person and arguably didn't write a sequel but used the world of Earthsea instead to express her new world view, but reception was good nonetheless.
See, these works have merit, but you have to take a closer look, you have to work with the artist here. Some people think, that just because they consumed a work often enough that they can consume it without investing further thought, it must follow that sequels will be just as easily digestible. Those are, however, two different versions of reception. Maybe this deserves a little excursion ...
Consuming versus conscious reception
This is the most important distinction you will have in this argument. It's the two ends of a spectrum we succinctly call entertainment. It describes not the level of commitment (as people can get very committed about just brainless consumption), but the level of analysis you are willing to invest into something.
There is no judgment either, sometimes you just need to see a well-scripted show about baking. Done right, it is a form of meditation. Or you like just aspects of something, so you see it just for those bits. I've had run shows in the background, giving them maybe 20% attention while doing something else, just to get the whole picture.
However, when I sit down to see something and I like what I see, I tend to be on the other side of the spectrum. I will give it my full attention, not chatting, not checking my mobile every ten seconds, I'm all over the thing: analyzing, connecting, interpreting.
The mindset with which you go into the experience is what will form your opinion on it (consciously or not). So if you go to see the next Tarantino with the expectation that you will get a rumination of Pulp Fiction, or if you go to see what Tarantino did next, makes worlds of a difference (and is a stigma many authors and writers have to overcome after their first success).
The problem is, we tend to fall more to the consumption side of the spectrum the more familiar we made ourselves with a certain oeuvre. That's where, in its extremes, fandom makes an entrance, that's where stories change ownership, in a sense. Music is another good example for this, with a way higher overturn. Once a musician is pinned down to be successful at a certain type of music, they'll have a hard time doing something else with the same success.
We need to be aware of this pattern to understand how reception works and what a response to something means in its context. Or rather, how the level of introspection and objectivity changes the perception of a work and therefor has to be judged within that spectrum. In other words, trust the critique that shows thought beyond the assumption what an artist should have done to succeed as he did with his previous work.
You don't even need to know where the artist is in his life right now or what person they are, you just have to accept that they most likely moved on and will express that in their work with the form they found to express themselves. Only then you can have an attempt at a proper interpretation if the work is successful or not (not commercially, though, that's a different story yet again ...). It's also a good way to create a position towards other opinions you may encounter.
Your perception will furthermore change over time, obviously, so there is lot to be taken into account before getting a true grip on what works and what doesn't (for you and in general).
Okay, end of excursion. Where were we ...
The bad end
A bad end constitutes that independently of where you are at the spectrum described above, you end up being disappointed. Like, you could be just on the consumption side of the spectrum and it rubs you wrong for some reason. But then again, as you shift your perception towards a more conscious reception, you may find yourself coming to an understanding after all. If that still fails, however, you might have a bad ending on your hand, getting worse as others chime in to express the same opinion (because to a degree this is still about taste and level of cognition).
Ultimately, the general insight if something is bad (or good) is the result of multiple shared efforts over time, especially if the continued progress of a work is geared towards innovation instead of mirroring the success of a former work.
The question is, now, what we can learn from decades, nay, centuries of documented reception. Because we don't always have to start at the beginning, we can (should) stand on the shoulders of those who successfully took a closer look and shared their insights. We can see what went wrong and take a stab at guessing what went wrong and where. Considering all the above, we can also make fair assumptions as to what constitutes a bad ending in general and why.
I've named some popular examples at the beginning. We also see J. K. Rowling right now revisioning her past work for the worse. It's a good example how not knowing when to stop can also make for a bad ending.
Common themes here are (1) rewriting of the established work (in a sense the attempt of the artist to prevent his story from being changed or advanced by the public), (2) the ignorance of the established which then changes the experience significantly (a really common theme there is establishing characters as intelligent and then having them make very dumb decisions, another example would be ignoring established archetypes ... Han Solo, anyone?), and a third big mistake would be (3) to make the final message of a story a lie.
The third point is the most tricky one and the hardest to catch. It's those endings that just "don't ring true", as the saying goes. It's where the antagonist is beyond humanity and acts in a way that fits, for instance, an effort of propaganda (How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a sad example for this).
It's also when the Suspense of Disbelief is kicked to the curve and the end is not authentic in the way the story was set up. It's where external forces (like the studio or organisations) change the arc of a story for, say, commercial reasons (like, every cut down version of a film ever) or to fit a certain ideology (Disney had Rogues One changed and re-shot significantly after they felt that the original result had been too much of a war movie).
The thing is, we grow up with stories, among them stories that are successful for thousands of years and there are reasons for that success. We recognize as a collective whole if something is worthy or not, and with more success the more time we have to take a look. You see right there the default line of failure: to be commercially successful you have to turn stories fast without paying too much moolah for it.
Rather new, inexperienced writers than seasoned but expensive writers, rather starting from scratch and hoping for a quick success than building and expanding something established with (risky) innovation ... I could go on. And if something works, it needs to stay the same, it needs to be "All Ages", as if it is a good thing that stories can't grow with us.
There are so many misconceptions how stories have to work just based on capitalist assumptions that favor a short success over a true success, it shaped whole industries, and we see it fail more and more often. As I said, over time those things will be recognized as lies (or half-truths, if you will).
But it gets worse. You have read so far, but it was all to set up this one, final point (I've already hinted towards it): we have become so well versed in making things easily consumable. The right filters, the right music, the right tone, the right people, a symphony of the recognizable REGARDLESS OF THE STORY BEING TOLD. And that's very dangerous. Look at Harry Potter (glorifying a superiour elite as the better people) or Glow (turning full woke) or 13 Reasons Why (glorifying mental illness) or Ready Player One (blatant nostalgia cash grab) or even the Marvel movies (idk ... empty and unproductive entertainment to print money, I guess). Just lean back and let it happen. It doesn't matter what we are telling you, just enjoy the how.
That's a really ugly trend and a lot of ugly endings for lots and lots of famous franchises. Right now everything that Disney touches seems to turn to shit, Netflix seems to be in trouble for spending shit-loads of money for inferiour quality, Doctor Who is losing its fanbase, mainstream comics have a hard time right now ... I could go on and on and it always comes down to bad storytelling and bad endings.
Anyway, I guess I made my point.
The good end
It's been a long time that I went off the rails for that much of text without having a clear picture of the pay-off it all could have. Of course we are still talking games here and how to make the endings in the stories we tell more satisfying. The whole tirade above is to be understood as an attempt to show the patterns that form opinions about stories as well as misconceptions about creating them in differentiation to what we can know and should use to tell stories. As I said before, we don't need to invent the wheel everytime.
So, with having all that on the table, we can talk about how to create good endings. Or better yet, how to bring a story to one of its potential conclusions ...
Holy shit, I don't know how to end this. The irony.
|I thought this'd work out for sure ... [source]
Actually, that part deserves a second post, because we need to come at this from another angle when talking about games. For one, with role playing games the ones creating the story are also the audience and what constitutes a bad end for a lot of people could work for a select group of friends. The focus shifts and with that the problems or how to address them.
This post, however, should help you recognizing bad endings and bad storytelling and how all that connects or how you stand towards all of it and conclusions you could draw from that. I guess that is something (if I actually managed it). If you have any thoughts on this, I'd be happy to hear them.
Read Part 2 here.
Read Part 2 here.