Ending expectations

And lo, I have returned as prophesied promised (though maybe a little later than I intended). I had a really great weekend though, even if I don’t practice Judaism anymore.  It was enough to see my family and have a nice night — plus I had a friend come home from med school for the weekend. But yeah, you don’t come for stories about my life (yet), so I’ll get on with today’s subject. Also, remember, we are now in full craft mode. I’ll be talking about real stuff from now on, and today’s topic is special. But only because it’s the first one. Hell I don’t know, maybe it’ll be special for other reasons. I’ve barely even started it yet. But do know that I am basically pulling these topics out of thin air, depending on what I’m thinking about at the time.

Anyway, our subject is endings. I was watching Breaking Bad last night (just like you were) and something hit me — I couldn’t think of a TV show that was wrapping up quite the same way. I mean, you always expect any kind of story to tie up all the lose ends in a appropriately dramatic (or satisfying) fashion,  but how often does that payoff actual happen? More often than not, you get to the point where “it’s about to go down” and it’s not quite what you hoped for. Sure, it’s good — but there are some problems with it. Maybe things were wrapped up a little too nicely, or maybe you thought the biggest conflict was never fully addressed. Either way, there’s a nagging voice in the back of your head murmuring “I wish it had ended better.”

FALLING DOWN AT THE FINISH LINE (BECAUSE YOUR SHOELACES CAME UNTIED AND TRIPPED YOU)

DAMN IT!

DAMN IT!

It’s a shame that so many stories end that way, but there’s a reason for that: endings are fucking hard! You have to take this giant, sprawling beast of a story and wrangle it into something tame. And I don’t mean tame in the sense that the ending has to be lame (yes, that’s what tame means), I mean tame in that everything needs to be wrapped up. An ending (a real, final ending) shouldn’t have any dangling threads. Of course there are exceptions to every rule (you’re leaving some small mystery up to reader interpretation), but tying an ending up is the kindest thing a writer can do. That also means leaving a mess behind is the biggest dick move a writer can make. Either way, just because a writer knows what the right thing to do is doesn’t make that thing easy.

Knowing that, it’s also hard to blame writers for screwing up an ending — but when a story starts ending as amazingly as Breaking Bad, it’s hard not to feel a little cheated. For the sake of comparison, I’ll use another one of my favorite shows that happens to be ending , too: Dexter. For all the years Dexter has been on, it has been a wonderfully tense show from the get-go. Dexter was almost exposed as a serial killer in many seasons, and even when (SPOILERS) his sister, Deb, found out, the show had an interesting new problem to explore without breaking Dex’s cover. But as the show approached its ending, I realized something. That tension no long had anything to do with Dexter being a serial killer. In fact (SPOILERS), if Dexter does end up arrested, it would be for harboring his criminal girlfriend, Hannah.

And how stupid would that be, if Dexter ended up in jail for a reason that didn’t involve murdering 100+ people? And up until last night’s episode, I thought the show was wasting that powerful tension that had propelled the show for so many years. I felt like the writers were going to blow the ending, just because it wasn’t ending like Breaking Bad, with the main character’s secret revealed to all the important characters. But then, just as Dexter (SPOILERS) realized he didn’t need to kill anymore, I realized the show wasn’t about the slick sociopath anymore. In fact, the whole last season was trying to tell me that, but I was too distracted by my frustration to see the truth in front of my face: Dexter’s ending is about him getting over the obsession that plagued him for the show’s duration. His dark passenger was disembarking. And that brings me to my next point.

THE BEST ENDING ISN’T ALWAYS THE ENDING YOU WANT

The only time you can be sure the unexpected ending was a bad one.

The only time you can be sure the unexpected ending was a bad one.

The hard part about being a member of the audience is the sense of entitlement you feel about the story you’ve become a part of. If you’re invested enough into it, you’ll even start predicting how story events will play out. What’s more, if you’re really invested, you’ll start getting upset when the story doesn’t play out the way you expect it to. The thing is, that’s just personal bias getting in the way. After all 1) you’re not the writer and 2) no matter what you think, you don’t know the characters like the writer(s) do. If you’re a writer yourself you’ll understand, but if not, let me explain it to you: writers have a very intimate connection with the characters they create. To them, those characters might as well be real. They actually live in the writer’s mind, however odd that sounds.

“But no one is talking about character’s, dumb ass! We were talking about the story!” Well, any writer worth their salt will tell you that characters drive a good story, not the other way around (usually/almost always). Maybe that’s also why some endings can confuse viewers/readers — because they’re not approaching the story from the right angle. Going back to Dexter, I was guilty of that. I thought the show’s gimmick (Dexter being a serial killer) was going to stay the focal point of the series until the very end. But what I forgot was that Dexter is a character, and character’s change. When characters change, so do their stories, and once I realized that fact the final episodes became much more enjoyable.

Now, it is entirely possible for someone to completely “dick” (that’s a professional writing term) the ending. It probably happens all the time, and it’s usually pretty easy to identify. Still, the warning signs of a “dicked” story are often present long before its ending. So when a story, almost out of nowhere, ends in what you think is a steaming pile of garbage, keep the following in mind. If you’ve been enjoying this story and the ending doesn’t live up to what you expected, don’t jump to conclusions. Take a few days to mull it over. Re-watch the final episodes in a different mindset. People are so prone to gut reactions these days that they forget to trust the people who have entertained them up until that moment of disappointment (the ending). It’s often better to give the writer the benefit of the doubt, and you might even gain a new appreciation for the story and its creator(s) in the process.

I’ve pretty much said most of what I need to on endings, but I wanted to take some extra time to address another auxiliary problem about endings — specifically science fiction ones.

SHOW YOUR HAND, REALIZE IT’S BEEN FULL OF UNO CARDS ALL ALONG. YOU’RE PLAYING POKER.

I think I have a straight?

I think I have a straight?

A writer has to achieve many things by the time a story has finished. They have to introduce and develop compelling (not necessarily likable) characters, weave them into an interesting and complex story, and wrap that story up in a satisfying way. And for a list of only three things, that’s still a lot of work to do. It involves exploring character backgrounds and interactions, keeping the audience on their toes, and a list of other things that is pretty varied and fluid.

If you think that’s hard then you should feel for us sci-fi/fantasy writers. You see, not only do we have to do all the stuff I talked about above, we also have to work in explanations of all the weird stuff that’s thrown into our world. Frankly (and some of you may disagree), I think it’s a lot easier to stage a story in a world everyone already knows. It takes out a lot of the foundation building genre writers often have to do. And that isn’t to say plenty of non-fantasy/sci-fi writers don’t have to worldbuild (plenty of stories take places in unfamiliar places), because they definitely do! But more often than not, the kind of world building sci-fi/fantasy writers do concerns some pretty odd concepts (magic, FTL travel, aliens) that can be hard to wrap your head around.

So what does this have to do with endings? Well, my point is sci-fi/fantasy writers can have a much more difficult job to do. Sometimes a science fiction or fantasy story reaches its end without a lot of weird things happening. This requires either a deft hand on the part of the author or a very specific kind of story. But a lot of the time, most of the weirdest stuff goes down in the story’s final moments. Certain concepts need to be explained and there isn’t always a lot of time to do so. Sometimes it can feel like playing poker with the wrong set of cards (see, now that UNO joke makes sense). You can still get a winning (and legal, sort of…) hand, but it’s a lot more difficult.

So when so much rides on the ending of a story, it’s especially important for sci-fi/fantasy writers to write well. Otherwise you can easily end up with both disappointed and raging former fans.

What the hell is this, small glowing child? I thought I was killing giant robot squids.

What the hell is this, small glowing child? I thought I was killing giant robot squids.

That’s all for now everyone. I’ll have another post up within the next couple days about another subject which is to be determined. Take care.

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