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.

An Unexpected Fall Break

I don’t typically talk much about my personal life on this blog. The blog is about writing, and I want to keep it that way, and not digress into the kind of parasocial voyeurism that pervades so much internet and television these days. However, I did want to drop a quick personal note today.

I’ve been absent from the blog and my other usual online haunts over the past week or so. Mere days into the busy start of the school year with three school-aged children, we had COVID make its way through the family. We’re all vaccinated, but I was still pretty effectively sidelined for a couple days, and the kids had to stay home from school.

I’m now on the other side of it, feeling fairly functional—only occasionally short of energy and a bit more easily winded. Everyone else is recovered or mostly-recovered. I’m thankful that we all had relatively mild and short-lived symptoms. I probably had the worst of it, and I really have nothing to complain about when considering what some people have gone through with this illness.

After what felt like an interminably hot and humid August, this weekend I got to enjoy air that feels cool enough to qualify as autumn weather. I went for a walk in the woods with the kids. I sat in the back yard with the monumental 865-page Ambergris omnibus hardcover. The cicadas are in high form, buzzing their raucous farewells to summer.

The parkway near our house was populated by only the most determined joggers and bikers in the mid-day swelter of a week ago, but in the cooler weather it now seems to have spontaneously germinated clusters of people like mushrooms: adults with their dogs and their children in strollers.

This week I feel like I’ve been given the opportunity to slow down; to watch and listen and “be present” (as trite as that phrase sometimes feels these days); to experience a series of peaceful moments, like little Norman Rockwell paintings. Maybe it’s a touch of altered consciousness, thanks to cold medications and COVID brain fog. Whatever it is, it feels like a nice break.

I’ll be back to the usual blogging soon. Back to Razor Mountain and the writing stuff. I’m already itching for it. I guess I’ve become a bit of an addict over these past couple years.

Writing Advice from Lemony Snicket

I recently reviewed a book by Lemony Snicket called Poison for Breakfast. It’s a delightful little book that has much to do with writing and stories, and as such, Snicket manages to sneak in a little helpful writing advice for authors.

Here are Lemony Snicket’s three rules for writing a book:

It is said that there are three rules for writing a book. The first rule is to regularly add the element of surprise, and I have never found this to be a difficult rule to follow, because life has so many surprises that the only real surprise in life is when nothing surprising happens.

The second rule is to leave out certain things in the story. This rule is trickier to learn than the first, because while life is full of surprises, you can’t leave any part of life out. Everything that happens to you happens to you. Often boring, sometimes exhausting, and occasionally thrilling, every moment of life is unskippable. In a book, however, you can skip past any part you do not like, which is why all decent authors try not to have any of these parts in the books they write. But few authors manage it. Nearly every book has at least one part that sits on the page like a wet sock on the ground, with the reader stopping to look at it thinking What is this doing here?

Nobody knows what the third rule is.

And as a bonus, advice for writing a good sentence:

Almost always, shortening a sentence improves it. A nice short sentence feels like something has been left out, which helps give it the element of surprise.

Genuinely helpful writing advice, or confusing nonsense from a silly book about bewilderment? I’ll leave it for you to decide.

Writing: The RPG™

In the halcyon days of the mid-2000s, the exploding popularity of alternate reality games got a lot of Silicon Valley types excited about the power of games to motivate people. For a few years, investors were happy to throw money at any product that included the word “gamification.” A handful of useful or interesting products came out of that wave of gamification, like StackOverflow and the StackExchange network it spawned, but a lot of attempts at gamification just slapped points and badges on drudge work in the vain hope that people would suddenly love it. Those products all sucked, and mostly disappeared.

Still, the idea of gamification isn’t completely useless (probably). I’ve browsed the ARG scene in years past, strictly as a casual observer, not a front-line puzzle-solver. In the best cases, it’s an interesting vehicle for storytelling, and it can be pretty amazing how effective a small group of people are at solving a problem when they’re all having a good time and feel like a community. I read Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, and while I didn’t exactly come away believing that gamification can fix all the world’s ills, I think it can sometimes be useful as a way to self-motivate.

So anyway, that’s why I sometimes think about treating real-life writing as a role-playing game.

Character Creation

Do you want to play Writing: The RPG™? You can! All you have to do is follow these easy steps that I’m making up on the spot. Get yourself a couple pieces of paper.

  1. Select a character name. This can be your real name, or a pen name, or the name of a friend who has a better name than you.
  2. Select a title. This should be something cool like Iron Pen, Word-o-mancer, or Page Slayer.
  3. Select your starting class. This is a general category of writing or writing-related stuff. Writer, Editor, Blogger, or Reader are all good classes.
  4. Select your starting sub-class. This is more specific than your class: Sci-Fi Writer, Short Story Writer, Fashion Blogger, etc.

Character Growth

Your character levels up by gaining experience points. You start at level 1. To gain a level, you need to get as many experience points as (your next level) x 2. So you need 4 XP to level up to level 2, and 6 XP to level up to level 3.

To gain experience, you have to  do stuff related to your classes.

  • A basic, unexceptional amount of work is worth 1 XP. This might be something like writing 1000 words or a short blog post.
  • Completing a task for the first time gets you a First Time Achievement, worth 2 XP. This is stuff like “First Thousand Words Written,” or “First Blog Post,” or “First Short Story.” You also get an achievement for the 10th time and the 100th time. After that, you’re an expert and you don’t get experience for doing that thing anymore.
  • Completing tasks that are very big or very difficult gets you an experience bonus: 5 XP or 10 XP, depending on how big and monumental you think it is. Finishing a novel or having your favorite author retweet you might fall into this category.

Writing: The RPG™ supports unlimited multi-classing. You can add as many new classes or sub-classes to your character as you want to. To add a class or sub-class, you have to complete a related task. You can’t get the Editor class until you’ve edited something. (Like really edited. Edit a chapter of your novel or something. Just fixing a couple sentences doesn’t count. This is serious business.) If you want the Blogger class, you need to post a blog post, and if you want to subclass into Fashion Blogger, that blog post better be about fashion, dangit.

What’s the Point?

There is none. It’s just a silly game. But maybe it’s a silly game that could actually motivate you to do something you kind of already wanted to do anyway? That’s what gamification is supposed to be good for, after all.

What do you think? Can we come up with more rules? I hearby release Writing: The RPG under a Creative Commons public domain license (no doubt giving up my chance to make millions from a half-assed afternoon blog post). Leave a comment with your additional rules, modifications, complaints, or erotic fanfic mash-ups down below.