Jun 28, 2012

Endings Matter

Endings are often terribly underrated. This is a particular bugbear of mine, and I keep coming back to it. I cannot stress enough how vital it is to make sure the ending is something special. I've heard the argument that "it's the journey, not the destination, which matters." That's all well and good, and I agree that the journey is also far more important than people realise. However a great journey must have a worthy ending. If a writer has to fight every page of the way to keep the reader engaged, they have to work all the harder to reward the reader with a satisfying finish.

Whatculture! posted an article the other day about the new Extended Cut DLC for Mass Effect 3, and the importance of endings. I won't go into a discussion on Mass Effect 3, but I will say that this article perfectly captures the required elements of a good ending.

Too often, people think that the end of a story is just when the final challenge is overcome. Sauron is destroyed. Luke blows up the Death Star. Superman turns back time and saves the day. That's only part of it. Also important are how the hero's experiences have changed them and empowered them to overcome the threat. What is it about the hero's journey that has made them the one who can do what needs to be done, and what does it tell us about them that they achieved their goal in that specific way?

Frodo failed in his task. He gave in to the One Ring and it was only Gollum's intervention which sealed the Ring's destruction. Evil is destroyed by evil. Sauron undone by greed just as he attempted to fulfil his own greed.

Luke trusts in the power that lies within him, seeing past how "impossible" the shot is. He puts his faith in a power few people understand and is rewarded.

Superman's love for Lois drives him to an extreme act. In direct violation of his father's instructions, he pushed his powers beyond anything he previously thought possible because even though he has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, it's not enough if it means he has to live without her.

These are what make an ending memorable and worthwhile. It doesn't matter if the hero beats the villain in a swordfight. We know the hero is going to win. On some basic, unconscious level, we understand that most stories end with the villain defeated. What matters is the method, the motivation, the intention, the cost and the reward. If the reader doesn't get these, or they're not relevant to the story up to now, the story fails. There is no purpose to an ending that simply causes the story to stop.

Let's talk. What are some of your favourite endings? Do you think they fit the description I've given here?


  1. Endings are very important, and a bad or lazy ending can leave the last thing in the reader's 'mouth' to be a sour/bitter taste. I think this was one of the problems with the ME3 endings (not to mention marketing hype that was plain wrong from the company, it coming out of no where, playing fast ball with the established canon, weird plot holes...)

    I think one of my favourite endings has to be from freeware shooter/platform game Iji. The ending changes depending on how you've gone through the game, with special endings for not killing anyone, for doing certain tasks right, for going berserk and laying waste to everything, for failing certain tasks... It can end on a dark note, but it's one that you can stomach because it makes sense.

    Bastion also has a great end. The music and art work drive it home, and there's one point where you can do an act of mercy and then something very brave. And it works. It works so well my heart was pounding away in fear.

    In a non-written media, sometimes it can be music that really makes things pop. Written endings... if it's a single book or so, I like things to be wrapped up. If it's a long series, I like a hint of what the future will have for the character now that the series has ended. I think when you've invested 3 to sometimes 10 books in a group of characters, you kind of want to know a few little things.

    1. I've found that whenever a game presents a choice of a few endings at the very end of a game, I've never actually been happy with any of the options. It's just a matter of personal taste, but so far the endings I've enjoyed most are the ones where the majority of the actual end doesn't change, just the aftermath of the other decisions you've made.

      I'm also a strong advocate of the rule that there should never be a reveal of new information or a sudden twist right at the climax. Twist endings all too often become the focal point of the audience's reaction and the rest of the story no longer matters. While sudden revelations in the climax toss the audience/player's expectations into chaos and neither allow enough time to be absorbed, or result in an ending that comes too out of left-field to feel like a natural part of the story.

      Dragon Age: Origins was my favourite ending in a video game so far.

      I've been meaning to play Bastion. I've heard so many good things about it.

      You're absolutely right about music. The 1989 Batman, the original Star Wars trilogy, they all ended with the music telling part of the story, and it worked so well.

  2. Hi Paul, I think good endings are essential and they need to do just what you described - show how the hero has been changed by the adventure. Harry Potter is another good example of this kind of ending - Lord of the Rings was a good example too.

  3. Hi Paul. I'm afraid I'm quite tired right now, so I apologize in advance if this is incoherent.

    First, I love the word "bugbear" and am very happy to see someone using it.

    I loved that Frodo failed. That sounds terrible, but it made the ending so much more interesting. I mean, poor Frodo, but the whole point is that it's hard, and it's so hard he can't even do it. He almost did it -- he got it there, and that was a damn fight -- but he couldn't do the rest. That makes him so much more interesting.

    On endings, I was so excited when Voldemort killed Harry -- NO, NOT BECAUSE I WANTED HIM TO DIE. Because I thought Rowling would never do that to her hero, that she wouldn't have the heart to do it, even though I thought there was a good chance that's where the story was going, and it would be tragic. I was kinda disappointed when there was an out on that one, once she took the story there.

  4. I love a good ending! The ending can make you put the book down (or turn the movie off) either feeling incredibly satisfied and redeemed, or completely disappointed and wronged. A bad ending destroys the entire book/movie. I can't think of a favorite right now, but I'm sure I have a few.