Friday, July 22, 2011

Do Endings Matter?

As you know, I didn't love how Harry Potter ended. That said, I was quite satisfied with it. Does it matter whether Harry lived or died in the end? Not particularly, at least not to me. Does it matter that there were flaws or lapses in logic? Nope. It was an amazing story with amazing characters who did amazing things. Not being blown away by the final installment didn't ruin that for me. I don't regret reading it and I got what I wanted from the series. J.K. Rowling could have had Ron flip on a boombox, blast Alice Cooper's School's Out, and kill everybody, and I still would have been satisfied. It wouldn't have changed the fact that for over 10 years, and for six+ books, I was riveted.

When Lost ended, I wrote about my feelings on satisfying endings. (There are no spoilers for those who want to go back and read it, but you'll notice that I do manage to talk about a certain epilogue.) In fact, another J.J. Abrams production is what got me thinking about endings in the first place. I was already playing around with whether endings really matter after seeing Harry, but then I saw Super 8.

I loved it. Like, loved it. It was basically every movie you've ever seen rolled into one, but somehow still managed to be fun and original. And the kids - the kids! They were just great. Anyway. When I went to express this love to my fellow geeks, I was met with shrugs and "yeah it was OK." Shocking! I didn't understand this "meh" attitude, especially from people whose opinions I respect on these matters.

Then I realized their problem. They had this desire to be satisfied. Like with Cloverfield, we don't really get to see the physical threat in Super 8 too often. For a monster movie, the danger is sort of beside the point. It's easy to compare that to Lost too. Pretty much all of J.J. Abrams' sci-fi works can be summed up with: "There's a monster. People are dealing with it. Focus on how they deal. Don't worry about that monster."

It's sort of infuriating when people say they "wasted six years" watching Lost. I feel bad for these types of people. Were they not still tuning it every week? Were they not coming up with theories and having fun and waiting to see what would happen next? How does one episode ruin that experience, as if it never mattered? If anyone was expecting logical answers in the end, then they missed what the show was really about - people reacting to crazy shit happening to them. Sure, the last episode was a bit of a cop-out, sort of confusing, and full of cliffhangers. That basically describes the entire series, so in my opinion, it was a pretty fitting ending.

But to many, it was unsatisfying and I suppose I understand that to an extent. For me, monsters are cool, but I'm way more interested in human nature, so in my opinion, storytellers like J.J. Abrams are perfect. Yes, I want the threat to be real and not metaphorical. Yes, I want to see some action. Yes, I need a plot to follow. But no, I don't need everything neatly wrapped up, or know where that monster came from, or even what it looks like. J.J. delivers on all of these points. (It's not like he's M. Night Shyamalan, who fails at plot, character, and endings.)

So, I ask again - do endings matter? Of course. As writers, you need to reach a conclusion that's in keeping with your story and that will satisfy your readers (there's a reason Ms. Rowling didn't just kill everybody). But, as readers, how much do they matter to you? Will an unsatisfying ending ruin an experience you otherwise enjoyed?

Oh, and see Super 8 if you haven't already. You'll want to hug it.

16 comments:

  1. I've read Margaret Atwood's short story "Happy Endings" so many times for class now that my view on endings is completely colored by it. Basically it points out that all endings other than death are superficial. Which is true, I suppose, but really that doesn't make for a very good ending.

    My favorite endings are the ones that wrap up the loose ends in a satisfactory but not necessarily overly neat way, and endings that you can see the characters moving on from. I don't mean "oh this author had better write a sequel!!!", but that the reader can picture the characters going on and living their lives. I don't need to be shown that, but I like it when I get the sense that it's possible that they live on beyond the story we've been given.

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  2. This is a tough question. There's a part of me that wants all the questions answered, with all the loose ends tied up in a nice little package. And I think some stories deserve that kind of ending, but not all.

    I don't know. I can't put my finger on it, but some stories work better with somewhat ambiguous endings where others just fall flat. It's not a genre bias, either. I really liked the end of the last season of Veronica Mars, and you'd think that, for a mystery fan, all those unanswered questions would be annoying.

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  3. I don't think an ending has to be happy, which is often people's definition of satisfying. For me, and ending needs to "match" the rest of the book. Even if it doesn't tie everything off, I want it to reflect everything the book has been about-- themes, characters, plot, all that. Harry Potter wasn't my favorite ending, but it concluded things well enough that I could handle it. And like you said, it didn't ruin my enjoyment of the rest of the story (though I have had endings do that to me before).

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

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  4. I always thought endings were what happens when the characters achieved their goals or the conflict is resolved. In "The Giver", Jonas decides to show his town all the memories he's been given. And in the movie "The Incredibles", Syndrome is defeated and the family moves on with their lives. I can see where people are upset at the Harry Potter epilogue, but for me, knowing that she won't write another Harry Potter book ever again, it was a nice way for JK Rowling to say "No more books. Here's what they do with their lives."

    I always thought of a story as a segment of a character's life. So whatever conflict the reader is introduced to, whatever goals the character wants to achieve, their resolution marks the end of the story.

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  5. THANK YOU! When Lost ended, I got in a pretty heated debate over the finale with a nerdy male friend of mine who basically did the whole 'I can't believe I wasted 6 years of my life' thing. Granted, this guy is basically Roman from Party Down's psychological doppelganger: logic and minute plot details were always going to outweigh thematic depth and character development in his reading of the show. This is a problematic way to approach pretty much any work in any genre or medium, and if you can't see the forest for the trees, you are missing out on a number of rich and satisfying experiences.

    And yes, Super 8 WAS a totally huggable movie! :)

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  6. I've seen authors get bad reviews based strictly on the ending of the story. That bothers me. If the journey was good getting there, that should be sufficient reason to applaud it.

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  7. I actually love the Harry Potter epilogue, which I've stated here before and won't bother rehashing. That said, there have been endings and plot developments that have ruined books/tv shows for me. Gilmore Girls is the big one. The 6th season (and 7th, even though I didn't watch it) kind of tainted the whole series for me. I can go back and watch the earlier seasons and still love them, but then the bitterness of what could have been sets in. I can't think of a stand-alone book where that has happened, though, and I usually give up on open-ended series half-way through because they start to seem repetitive.

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  8. I loved Super 8 to death, right up until the ending. I thought the ending was a total cop-out, let's wrap this up and everybody gets a hug. The build-up of the plot was great, the kids were amazing, but the ending honestly felt lazy to me. And I'm not even sure why they included the dad, since he did next to nothing. Maybe that was the point? I still liked the movie, and I would watch it again, but it's not going to find a home on my dvd shelf. I liked Cloverfield a lot more.

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  9. I'm afraid I fall solidly in the camp of throw the book across the room (and consider burning it) if the ending's bad enough. Even an ending that's a little off, or plays 'aren't I a smarty pants' on the author's part can really annoy. From my perspective, the creator has an obligation to the audience to come up with something insightful, something synergistic, if you will, and deliver it over the course of the work with at least a call back on that point delivered in the end. I can see your point, though. Claiming that 'six years were lost' is taking it a little far.

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  10. This is pretty much exactly how I feel about ending! My dirty little secret with endings is that books often fulfill what I want to get out of them before the ending and sometimes I don't finish. Contemporaries are definitely like that, probbaly because they are more single-book contained arcs than many other genres. So while I do enjoy reading about the frantic road trip to find Margo in "Paper Towns" and the momentous Wes/Macey Kiss in "The Truth about Forever" they are not crucial for me because I've watched the characters evolve for a whole book and I feel like they're going to be ok. Similiarly once Po and Katsa got together I had a sense of easing of tension, it didn't matter so much if they got their bad guy, because our Heroine had evolved and fallen in love and the "Will they/won't they?" that had been building all book was resolved.

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  11. Bad endings don’t necessarily ruin anything for me, except when they significantly change some earlier part of a story I loved. For example, in Lost, I was furious that Sayid was with Shannon in the church. Nearly his entire character development was centered on his relationship with Nadia, yet his perfect ending is with Shannon, who he knew for only a few weeks? This is an insult to anyone who liked his character because it disregards essential elements of who he is. It didn’t matter that all of the main characters weren’t there or that Christian had to spell out what was going on for Jack; that’s just bad storytelling. If an ending is going to have a plot hole, the writers should at least respect key story elements. When Battlestar ended, obsessed fans (like me!) were disappointed not because of its plot holes, but because it was comparatively much weaker than the rest of the show. At least I can say the ending of BSG “made sense” (quotes sooo required). So, yes, I agree that "the journey, not the destination, matters" more in storytelling, as long as what made the journey so special doesn’t have its legs swept out in the end.

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  12. Hmm... now, I'm curious as to what you'd think of my review of Super 8. I've linked to it in my name in case you want to have a look.

    I do think endings matter. Often, though, I think people find endings unsatisfactory because they didn't clue into what the work was actually about. I think this is an issue with Super 8. If you watch 8 thinking it's a monster movie, you're going to be disappointed at the ending. But it's not a monster movie. It's a movie about a boy and his father and the loss that they suffered and how they figure out how to get through it. The monster part is just the vehicle for that story. -That- story has a superb ending.

    I'm a destination person as opposed to a journey person, so, if I don't like where I arrive, I will be upset.

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  13. Like size, endings matter. Let's just be honest. They dont have to please everyone, but there does need to be some level of resolution in my opinion. That being said, I love a good mystery ending: Inception, Lost. It leads to some good conversation:)

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  14. Wahh! I loved LOST, and Harry Potter. I liked both endings. Mostly because in my mind, everyone has this idea that endings are supposed to be happy and make sense and wrap everything up in a neatly tied package and then we can go home understanding everything. But that's not what endings are about!
    Endings in life are never like that! We never really understand every little detail. Things rarely end happy and STAY that way.
    What we have are a series of realistic RESOLUTIONS. Not endings. It's resolved, and you can be satisfied that that particular story is over, but there are threads that aren't answered because those threads lead to other stories in the future that we may or may not ever see.
    Just like life. :)

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  15. What pushes a story from good to great is the ending.

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  16. I saw Jeffery Deaver speak once and his point was that folk don't read a book, put it down and say 'what a great middle'. It's the ending that matters. Okay, he's writing genre fiction, but I want a book's ending to satisfactorily bring things to a conclusion and/or smack me in the face with a (credible) surprise.

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