All things have a beginning and all things have an end. This is one of those inalienable facts of life, existence and creation. Ultimately everything in transitory, forever on a journey between these two markers. It’s a bit grim when you think about it. Depressing. I’ve been having a bit of a mope these last few days, one of those ennuis courting with malaise in a downward spiral of misery. I’m sure if it could be visualised it would look awfully pretty were it not for the fact that it makes me feel so downright awful. So forgive the somewhat maudlin tone on which I’ve began. Of all the bastards and traitors I have ever known my own brain is the greatest amongst them. But that is a matter for another time. This latest plumbing of the depths of my own self-absorbed mopery got me thinking about the aforementioned end of all things, specifically stories, tales, yarns and suchlike. Endings are fantastically important things, if they’re handled badly or poorly executed, then pretty much everything that has come before them is rendered ultimately pointless and irrevocably tainted.
Those of you of a gaming persuasion no doubt noticed that large portions of the internet exploded with incandescent rage over Mass Effect 3’s ending. The series was, by-and-large, a master-piece. Most of the third instalment was wonderfully well written, at one point it even made me cry. But then came the ending. It felt rushed, it left too much unanswered and unexplained and not in the good “draw your own conclusions” way. Ultimately it left me feeling a little unfulfilled, the cumulation of several hundred hours worth of investment left me thinking “is that it?” That’s not to say that it was awful, it was just a bit “meh.” It detracted from the splendour of everything else. The end of something is always a tricky business, how much do you resolve plain and simple? How much to you leave mysterious and unmentioned? It is, as it is with all writing, more art than science. Endings are a skill I have yet to master, my endings are often very abrupt and not particularly well thought out. This is usually because I’m rushing to finish a story off, because I’m poorly organised, because I can’t quite come up with anything quite right, or simply just because I’m shit.
I’ve had a think about the different types of ending that get used and have come up with a short list. The list is by no means exhaustive, but I think it illustrates quite nicely some of the options available to the writer when it comes to finishing things off. Quite often different endings get mixed together in strange and wonderful combinations, a little bit of this a little bit of that. Now for your delectation, the aforementioned list:
The Happily-Ever-After – A personal favourite of mine. Despite being a chronic misanthrope I like happy endings, I like to be able to say “isn’t that nice.” Everyone finds what they were looking for, all the evil is vanquished, the quest complete, everyone goes home happy, content and lives long fruitful lives free from complication and strife. They usual involve a big shin-dig, party, a wedding or someone popping out babies. It’s often seen by many as an unrealistic cop-out, but a feel-good ending can fill the yawning hole left by the fact that the story is over. An especially good choice if you’ve written characters that readers will become attached to and invested in.
The Iain M. Banks – My own personal name for the “Everybody Dies” scenario. It doesn’t happen in all of his books but he has a habit of wrapping things up with a big pile of bodies. It’s a harsh contrast to the Happily-Ever-After, the other side of the coin. Life is a cruel and uncaring bastard, it doesn’t care for main characters, for feelings or for some inflated sense of destiny. It is heartless, merciless and without pity. People die, fact. This ending is grounded in the cold, hard truths of reality, it pulls no punches and will probably leave an audience feeling a bit down in the dumps or, if poorly executed, betrayed. It draws a line under everything, a big red line, of blood. It’s hard to continue something when everyone involved has been killed-off. It can feature noble sacrifices for the greater good, terrible and crushing betrayals or just a plan going horribly, horribly wrong.
The Mexican Stand-off – Something of a step down from the Iain M. Banks, drawing things to a close just before everyone tries to horribly murder each other, or not. That’s the beauty of it, you’re not entirely sure how things will turn out. Will they kill each other? Will they come to some sort of agreement and put the murderfest on hold? Arguably it’s a sub-category of The Cliff-hanger but the ubiquity of The Mexican Stand-off in spaghetti westerns makes me think that it warrants its own mention. Although now considered quite cliché it can add an air of uncertainty to an ending without going all the way to cliff-hanger town.
The Cliff-hanger – An ending in which everything is up in the air. At its core this ending is all about uncertainty. Things could go one way they could go another. The inherent precarious nature of the cliff-hanger gives the opportunity for a continuation at a later date or to leave things “as is” for perpetuity. The best illustration of the cliff-hanger that comes to mind is the ending of the Italian Job, which sees the cast trapped in a bus teetering on the edge of a very big cliff.
The Big Reveal – A catch-all term for what I would refer to as the answering of all questions, the solution of outstanding plot-threads or unknown quantities. It’s the revelation that “the butler did it” or that the ghost was really Old-man Wilkins. Generally, a Big Reveal needs a lot of set up. You need to pose the question or have the mysterious events already going on, more often than not you need to have had it in mind from the very start. It’s a lot of work but a good reveal is a fantastically satisfying thing to read leaving your audience thinking “I knew it was him!” or “I’d never have guessed!”
The Mystery – This is the direct and polar opposite of the Big Reveal. While the Big Reveal answered all the questions The Mystery asks more questions than it answers. It leaves readers wondering, gets them thinking, let’s them draw their own conclusions.
The Deus ex Machina – The “god out of the machine” whereby all problems are fixed by a hitherto unmentioned person, object, event or thingy. Basically it’s just sloppy story telling. Don’t do it. I don’t care that Shakespeare used it at least four times, you are not Shakespeare, you cannot get away with this sort of shit.
And thus we reach the end of this blog post, but not the blog itself. How will I end it all after such a discussion of endings? I will end it with the immortal words of Jim Morrison, who once said “This is the end, my only friend, the end.”