In Defense of Endings

I have a co-worker who loves anime and manga. Once, several years ago, he was in the bookstore, perusing the manga, and a boy sidled up to him. The kid was practically vibrating, he was so excited to tell him about the best manga ever: Naruto. My co-worker was all-too-familiar with Naruto and explained that he was not interested. But the boy insisted. Repeatedly rebuffed, he refused to give up. He was certain that this series was great, if only the dumb adult would listen. He pointed to one of the spines, some ten or twenty books into the series.

“Here,” he said. “See where the covers change color? That’s where it gets good.”

My co-worker, exasperated, threw up his hands and said, “I’m not going to read twenty books just to get to the good part!

The War on Endings

In the traditional story breakdown, the ending is one of the three parts of the story. It comes after the beginning and the middle. Or does it?

Today more than ever, media is business as well as art. And it is competitive. All the big gatekeepers are in competition not just with each other, but with all the little indie artists out there, from self-published e-books to rappers on SoundCloud to short films on YouTube.

Big media companies love a sure thing, or as close to one as they can get. Conveniently, after decades of mergers and acquisitions they also have warehouses full of old IPs and characters from all their previous successes. They are happy to use and re-use it, playing on nostalgia or even just vague familiarity. And even with brand new IP, they love to milk their stories and characters until they’re dry, desiccated husks.

More Star Wars, more Marvel, more Game of Thrones and Stranger Things and Lord of the Rings!

These modern mega-media empires are incentivized to make everything as episodic and ongoing as possible. Endings are bad for business. They want to sell more tickets, more monthly subscriptions, more merch. They want a multi-generational fan base. In short, they want the story to go on forever.

But stories aren’t meant to go on forever. They’re meant to end.

Engines Need Fuel

What drives a good story forward? What gets us excited and makes us eager to find out what will happen next? Well, Lincoln Michael would say that there are many different engines that can power a story.

Often the engine is about characters and their goals. They’re seeking something. Sometimes it’s mystery and discovery: something we want to find out. Machael suggests other options, like form, language and theme. However, all of these engines have some similarities. As we dig into them and begin to understand them, they get used up. The patience of the audience is a finite resource. Familiarity breeds contempt.

A character with a goal drives the story forward. They run into obstacles, they have successes and setbacks, and we root for them. But eventually, they have to make progress, whether that be success or failure. Eventually, they need to achieve their goal or have it slip out of their reach, or we get bored. Likewise, a mystery can only remain mysterious for so long. The clues have to lead somewhere. The red herrings have to be revealed eventually, or we’re left in a stew of uncertainty and frustration. The detective has to find the killer.

There are ways, of course, of stretching out that resolution. Perhaps the character fulfils their goal, only to discover a newer, bigger goal. Perhaps the original villain turns out to be just another henchman of the real villain.

These kind of tricks can only take you so far. The engine of the story eventually runs out of gas. You might be able to refill it once or twice by escalating into some exciting new territory, but if you go too long without a satisfying resolution, it all starts to fall apart.

What About Episodes?

Episodic stories might seem like the escape hatch. After all, the police procedural catches the killer at the end of the episode, and next time there will be a new case, right? But it doesn’t really solve the problem at all.

Episodic stories have two options: they can carry baggage from episode to episode, or they can wipe the slate clean every time. If they carry things forward, building larger arcs beyond episodes, then they wind up with the same problems of escalation as any other story. They need arcs, and they have to build toward endings. But if they wipe the slate clean, they run into an even bigger problem.

Episodic stories with no larger arc are cartoons. Often literally, but sometimes only figuratively. The world and the characters become static cardboard cut-outs. They can be played for laughs or drama for a while, but there are only so many times we can laugh at the same jokes or wonder “how will they get out of this one?” These are the zombie remains of real stories, still going through the motions, but utterly devoid of life.

Are Endings Really Necessary?

No. For all my complaining, I’ve watched some of those shows. I’m actively reading several stories with no ending in sight. That’s fine. We can still get joy out of those things. Hell, Hollywood is banking on it.

It’s really just a missed opportunity. A good ending elevates the beginning and middle. A bad ending can ruin a good beginning and middle (which is why we collectively get so incredibly mad when the ending is bad). A story with no ending at all? We’ll never know if it could be great. It’ll just fade away slowly.

All of my favorite stories have endings. So really, this is just a plea for you to cater to my tastes.

Give your stories endings. Give them the opportunity for greatness.

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