Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Good End, Part 1

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.


  1. But! I do love it when you go off the rails.

    Sometimes to venture into new territory you do need to go off the rails, and that could be the big problem the world of entertainment has. Its rails are too well set and lead to all the old familiar places for the people who ride them. Writers are no more than subway conductors controlling the speed of the train rather than its direction. When budgets get up into the millions? It only gets harder and harder to leave those rails.

    One of my favorite parts of this post is that comment you made about Marvel movies: "the Marvel movies (idk ... empty and unproductive entertainment to print money, I guess)" THAT! That encapsulates modern entertainment's biggest current problem in a nutshell. Here in the states the $2 bill was printed because at that time the difference between it and a $1 bill was as big as what currently stands for the difference between a $10 and a $20 bill, but since the difference has shrunk to a mere dollar of difference the $2 has fallen out of circulation in most places.

    Movies in the 70's were a big deal because all you had access to was whatever was playing in the local cinema. Fast-forward four decades and we have a rampant inflation of entertainment. Every pharmacy has a red box out front and an aisle of dusty media going for bottom of the barrel prices in the back. It all seems unwatchable because there is just so damn much of it. You probably couldn't buy a loaf of bread with a wheelbarrow of DVDs. So it's almost like we have been conditioned to be disappointed, and the people who make entertainment? They know it's not worth the risk to do anything new or interesting.

    A good ending? A good ending is an axe descending on the neck of the goose that lays the golden egg. And that is, once again, a reason why you won't get a good ending these days. That stunning moment of finality means that nothing more can be done with the property. Thanks to the media glut people are more focused on producing an "extended universe" than any single film, so no new film these days ever truly ends. Instead they die with a long keening whimper. Pirates of the Carribean? Anyone? Didn't think so :-)

    1. Thank you for liking and commenting! See, I more and more come to the conclusion that I'd really miss nothing if I just tuned it all out. Or at least, I wouldn't miss a lot ... Nothing I couldn't buy and own for a couple of bucks if I just take my time. And it's not only DVDs, 90% of what Netflix is offering is just that garbage bin material dressing up as variety.

      You know, reading books gets more and more appealing now: it is done wen you get it (usually), it has no advertisement and you can take your time and there's still enough out there to read that it'd cover several lifetimes ... it just still is the superior media :)

    2. "A good ending is an axe descending on the neck of the goose that lays the golden egg. And that is, once again, a reason why you won't get a good ending these days. That stunning moment of finality means that nothing more can be done with the property." - Interesting stuff, makes sense.

  2. There is a lot to unpack in this post like usual.
    I'll start with that 19.3 million people watched the final episode of Game of thrones. I can imagine that as many people who ran to the internet to proclaim that the ending was horrible, there was some one who just nodded and turned the TV off. OR who said "WOW THAT WAS GREAT" and went on with their lives.

    What I'm saying is between the consumer and the active watcher there is a spectrum of how people consume media. Each person on that spectrum brings their own experiences to form opinions. Where you see Harry potter being "glorifying a superior elite as the better people" I see a kids story about wizards that focuses on the lives / adventures of wizard students.(I pick Potter because it's the only one of the given examples in I have seen.)

    Perhaps I'm not watching at it as deeply / actively as I could. Perhaps my point of reference doesn't make me dig for sub context. Either way you take 100 people , you get 100 perspectives.

    I'm not sure all the endings are bad, just no film maker / writer/ musician can please everyone's perspective all of the time. The % of people who run to the internet to scream "I HATE IT!" are the ones that get heard.

    1. While that is true as far as immediate effects go (as in, the most (social) capital can be harvested when shit is fresh), it gets more clear-cut the longer the public had a chance to digest a work. To a point, actually, where you can say "movie A is considered a great artistic achievement because this or that, and if you don't like it, that's just opinion". At some point, is what I'm trying to say, it's the recipients miss to not see the obvious merit of something.

      And Potter is a tough target, I know, but the stuff Rowling throws around about it (like Dumbledore being gay after the fact) or the new movies they try to sell ... it's harming the franchise big time.

    2. Rowling went woke and ruined the franchise with her own politics after the fact. This is a common problem I pop culture.

  3. A good story is a myth, which I define as a fiction which holds truth. (There is one true myth but that’s another story.) we recognize truth and that story will stand the test of time.

    An author’s job is to put a new coat of paint on an existing true myth or to add his own truths to that myth. Adding untruths will not do. Cutting the myth short will not do.

    The stories have been told. The genius of a great author is to retell those stories in new ways.

    This is a totally different process from running a campaign. The campaign is the story that emerges from the table interaction. Forcing a story into the campaign a priori is almost certainly doomed to failure, or at least doomed to substandard result.

    1. Well, yes, some of that. I still think that not all stories are told. Transhumanism, for instance, the possible leaps humanity will make in the next 10 or so years. The advent of a singularity. Climate change ... There's a lot to talk about. That's where innovation comes into play. And you need to honor the old stories. You need to retell them as well. That's just not all there is.

      As for stories in role playing games, I have to agree with your assessment, but with the caveat that that's not the only way to tell stories in rpgs. I play it completely random and the tools I use allow for a natural manifestation of epics anyway, archetypes and all, completely out of the game, with beginning, middle and end. So, yes, if you go into the game with preconceptions what has to happen, you will most likely fail. However, if you honor the medium for what it is, the storytelling is on equal level with what authors can do in terms of storytelling.

  4. Okay Jens, I'm curious to know what the 1000-page book is - specially if it Malazan, that I've tried to read because of your recommendation. ;)
    But, even it is not, I'm always trying new books and it would be nice to avoid a 1000-page book with a bad ending.
    I agree with some of your examples, but Marvel has some genuine good movies and Avengers: Endgame is a decent ending to the saga.

    1. I'm with Scorsese on Marvel: it's theme park entertainment. That needn't be a bad thing, but with the little time I have available to indulge in media, I have to stay away from wasting my time on something I know I shouldn't support to begin with ... Also: I've really lost track of the movies a couple of years ago, I won't start working my way towards Endgame. And just seeing it would lose me a lot of context.

      I'm afraid, the book I was talking about was Perdido Street Station (I think we talked about that one?). I enjoyed 95% of the book, but the end was so fucked up that it not only ruined the entire book for me, I also vowed to never touch another book written by that author. I'm not the one for writing angry reader mails to an author, but that one made me come as close as I could get ... Luckily enough, there is more than enough good writers out there to keep me busy a lifetime or two. I've read lots of books in my time. Some I lost interest in, some were not that good, but I finished them, but that book had me engaged to the end only to shove a stupid contemporary political message down my throat. What an asshole move ... You won't have that with the Malazan books. They are good writing, getting better from book to book. Still a matter of taste, though. Just not condescending virtue signalling on the reader.

    2. Hahahah I guess the tables have turned! Fair enough. I like PSS for the world-building more than the story, so I don't entirely disagree with your assessment, even if I recommended the book...
      Marvel is theme park, yes, but compared to other forms of "low" entertainment (the new Star Wars, for example, or most DC stuff), it is light-years ahead, IMO.

    3. So you didn't like the Malazan Books of the Fallen? Well, as I said, a matter of taste :) I've read a bit more about PSS afterwards and I'm not alone in this one. It was not a bad recommendation. As I said, good for the most part, with the worst ending ever. I know something I didn't know before, so it was not all bad.

    4. I didn't read Malazan yet! I bought the first book, but the start is a bit slow for my taste. Will insist a bit more before deciding, I think.

    5. This comment flew completely under may radar (sorry). I stand by my recommedation. The Malazan Books are among the best reading I had in the last 20 years. Very dense and deep, very rewarding. That said, you need to like the first book (although he's getting better and better as the series moves on).


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