On Endings

This is a conversation between myself (C) and a friend (B) over email. We worked together on a comic a few years ago and recently caught up.

B: How do you feel about the state of endings in storytelling these days? Just watched mockingjay 2 this week, and the ending has been quite a discussion point with my sisters, friends and random internet people. Discussing We Need to Talk About Kevin [ED: I told him I’d recently finished reading it], I’m reminded of what a really good ending feels like. Read an article today about Orphan Black, in which the interviewer responds to ‘we have a story planned for 2 more seasons then that’s it’ with ‘noooooooooooo’. The amount of remakes and adaptations flooding screens big and small and the wave of nostalgia capitalism, where every idea is a brand deal to be wrung out until all the joy has gone, seems to have almost entirely eradicated the craft of actually planning an ending. Its more oh shit we got cancelled better kind of wrap everything up in a shoddy manner, on to the next tiny empire of nostalgia. Good characters and good relationships and good ideas and concepts and some diversity seem to have a tiny foothold, but what about endings? Thoughts?

C: The state of endings: honestly, mainstream media stuff will always drag things out past a logical or reasonable ending point. The smaller shows and movies – Avatar is a good example – with smaller audiences will always have a dedicated story with some kind of ending. It’s the greed of a larger corporation, whether that’s Random House, Twentieth-Century Fox or Netflix – that will drag something out. Another example are popular manga, this happens a lot to them. Death Note is a classic example, and Attack on Titan – you’ve heard of this right? The show/manga about giants attacking a medieval version of humanity holed up in a gigantic layered fortress of a city? Started small, became massively popular, then the story which was originally 20 volumes is suddenly 100. I would say good creators always have an ending in mind, one that they work towards, because unless they’re super dedicated to the story they’re telling, they don’t want to keep doing the one project for the rest of their lives.

That said, there’s a balance to be struck between ending a project, ending it well, and ending it within people’s expectations. You will always, always get those asshole people who are upset that anything they like ended, even when it ends naturally and well (this happens more with comics and TV shows than anything else; format expectations come into play as well), and frankly, they’re not worth listening to. Better a good ending than a thing which drags on and on until it becomes a parody of itself or no longer relevant (The Simpsons). A good TV show pilot will have a storyline which can be kept going for years (like Star Trek – continuous space exploration is about as perfect a concept as you can get) if it becomes popular, or can be wrapped up quickly if it fails to get the numbers. It’s when a thing – a movie, a book, a comic, a TV show – has a dedicated narrative that needs to be told within a certain timeframe that you get tensions between popularity, pacing, money, viability and resolution. Despite people thinking they never want a good thing to end, they implicitly expect it to (because that’s what narratives do, they always end) and when it doesn’t, they get uncomfortable and upset. It’s far better to argue over a bad ending than to agree that something became crap after a particular point in its storytelling. I think I had a point somewhere in that ramble…
B: Yes, to some extent the article is right, the pressure and comfort of open ended finales is a really shitty storytelling tradition to be the norm. I kind of feel like openings are totally awesome at the moment, there are some fantastic throw you into it, or build the world, or just come in in one persons perspective, intros, i’m in. But endings, I feel like I’m really resistant to the settling down undertones that pervade almost every ending. The little quiet epilogue where everything is all nice after that action climax. Mad Max ended really well, with work to do and stuff set up, not necessarily for a sequel but as a world and characters that exist before and after the story. Suffragette avoided the irritating political historical drama trend of ending with a victory and silencing the ongoing struggle. There are some good examples, but too often there seems to be an intention to wind things down, to offer comfort instead of a challenging catharsis.
C: An ending does need to signal something settling and finishing; otherwise it’s not truly an ending, right? But I get it, resolutions to EVERYTHING is trite and lazy. It’s inherently satisfying to the audience: people generally don’t like to be challenged whilst consuming something they consider light entertainment. That is a general statement though. Obviously people’s expectations depend on the kind of thing they’re consuming. I think maybe what you’re describing is the way lazy endings return everything to the status quo? Nothing’s really changed – a thing happened, everything’s wrapped up, some stuff changed, but now the new status quo has been reached and everything’s hunky-dory again. That irritates me too 🙂 And yeah, it can be reductionist and lazy. If it’s a fluff movie, purely for mindless entertainment, I wouldn’t expect any better, but some of the more “serious” films could be braver in that respect.
B: It always reminds me of my fundamental issue with the word revolution, because it’s fun and empowering to spin around and feel like you’re part of big change, but then you end up back where you started lol. Perhaps I’m just expecting more than is reasonable of ‘light entertainment’, but I also see the massive effect the available options have on my younger siblings, so part of me just wants to hold it to a higher standard, because it matters. As an pretty privileged adult, I can snoop around the margins, I can pay a bit more to get something obscure or see something at a niche venue, but the widely distributed stuff is the majority of what our cultural myths are reflectively built upon, and that is impactful.
C: Yeah, the thing about revolutions and resetting the status quo is that in a lot of ways….that’s what happens? Like that’s just how life and humans tend to operate. BigchangeoohexcitementomgCHANGEwowYES…..aaaaaand let’s chill and have some normal for a bit, even if it’s a new normal. Maybe that’s how we cope with change and how it informs the way we tell stories, and maybe it’s inadequate, but we can only do so much 🙂 Perhaps the quality of the ending is not in what the ending IS, but in how it’s handled. Does it make sense, is it satisfying, is it thoughtful, is it reflective, is it true to the events which preceded it, is it true to the work overall, and if it isn’t any of those things, why not? Do those things matter to an ending? Maybe judge it on a case-by-case basis.
And mainstream stuff DOES form cultural myths, for sure. Mainstream stuff gets to a wider audience, so while I would love the diversity and excellent story-telling that’s happening in the fringes to be brought forward to the mainstream – and films which become cult films end up doing that over time which is in itself a fascinating phenomenon – I agree that challenging the big projects, the big studios, the big decision-makers is something that needs to happen. The small guys with big hits – I’m thinking Pixar with Toy Story was one, they weren’t owned by Disney at that point, and Reel FX Studios (admittedly distributed by 20th Century Fox) with The Book of Life (have you seen it? It’s fantastic!) and pretty much anything by Studio Ghibli – will always emerge with something that shifts the landscape during any given time period. I think movies now are very different to movies fifty years ago, and movies in fifty years’ time (if we’re not all dead from global warming) will be different again. More diverse for sure. Here’s hoping.
[Our conversation also veered into gender representation in narrative media, alternative sexualities, our favourite Netflix shows and how much we love KorraxAsami]
[B is working on some comic goodness over here.]
[You wanna see how well I end something, buy my books once they’re out.]
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