The End is Nigh…

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Nigh on impossible to get right, that is!  OK, all (terrible) puns aside, I thought it might be good to talk a little bit about endings. That is, after all, the ultimate goal of any writing project, is it not?

I’ll be honest, and say that the idea for this post has been partly inspired by the huge controversy surrounding the ending of Mass Effect 3. Now, I’m not going to go into a huge thing about it, regurgitating opinions about gamer entitlement, artistic integrity, or complaints setting a ‘dangerous precedent’ in regards to the whole ‘creator/audience’ relationship. What I will say is that I didn’t have such a big problem with how the game ended; in fact, I can’t really see how it could have ended any other way. 

But I digress. 

The Unknowable

As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that the reason that endings are so difficult is that I don’t think – as a species – we are really designed to accept them.

The rapture that never happened

Remember this? I was all set for The Rapture, then I realised I had to wash my hair. This billboard was found by Mike Fisher

Ultimately, there is only one ending we will all face, isn’t there, and the exact details of that are impossible for us to comprehend. So how then, can we create a satisfying conclusion to a narrative?

Well, looking at the classic three act structure, the ‘conclusion’ of a piece isn’t so much an end, as a return to an equilibrium. Act one sets out the equilibrium, at the end of which an obstacle is introduced that upsets it, act two deals with the consequences of that, and as I say, act three reaches the point where hopefully, equilibrium is (more or less) restored. 

Of course ‘restoring equilibrium’ doesn’t sound very satisfying does it? Which is why perhaps, a lot of ‘endings’ can feel hollow, or leave us wanting more. Sometimes this is deliberate, especially when talking about a series of books with the same characters, on-going storylines and what have you, but to me, that can feel like a bit of a cop out. 

On Its Own Two Feet

Ultimately, I think a story should be able to stand up on its own, and be self contained. This is hypocritical of me I know, since I don’t think I’ve ever written any longer piece of fiction that hasn’t resulted is some sort of sequel or follow up.

I know this is tough. On the one hand, you can follow the rule ‘get in as late as possible, get out as soon as possible’ to give a definitive end to a piece. This may leave some unanswered questions however, which may hint at a follow up or ongoing story. On the other hand, you could make an effort to tie up all loose ends, but this can result in ‘too much ending’, of which a good example would be Lord of the Rings. 

How do you get that middle ground though? An ending that ties things up succinctly, without screaming out ‘Come back for the sequel!’, and have it satisfying? I’ll be honest, I haven’t quite figured it out yet. 

Part of me wants to say ‘it isn’t the destination, it’s the journey’, but that feels like an excuse for a weak ending. I think about the one project that I feel like I have given a definitive finish to, which doesn’t scream so much as whispers ‘Come back for the sequel’, and about how it ends. And how does it end? Well, it leads us nicely onto…

Deus Ex Machina

And if you’re resorting to this (I’m looking at you, Battlestar Galactica – Matt), then you’re not doing it right, are you? I’ll be honest, the ending that I have – as it stands right now – is quite weak, and has elements of Deus Ex Machina, which has never sat quite right with me. However, it’s because I kind of painted myself into a corner with the direction the story took, and while I’m not someone who strictly abides by the ‘good guys win, bad guys lose’ dynamic (which anyone knows considering how slash happy I am with my characters), if I’d left out any element of Deus Ex Machina, the story wouldn’t have any resolution at all, which is probably worse. 

I’m not offering any solutions here, am I? Maybe because I don’t really have any. I try to avoid or ignore the ending to a lot of my projects, not so much because I fear completion, but because I don’t know how to write satisfying conclusions. So I throw the floor open to you. What are your experiences and opinions on endings, and how to write them?

  • Matt Roberts

    I heard a great piece of advice on the I Should Be Writing podcast (although I think Mur Lafferty was quoting someone else’s advice whose name I can’t remember).

    Write ten endings. Just a sentence for each. The first three/four will come easily; a bunch in the middle will probably be a bit silly; but when you really start digging deep to get the last few, they will be satisfying and hard to predict.

    That’s the theory anyway. If nothing else, you have a choice then, and it’s an exercise that frees up the mind a bit, allowing you to come up with silly things as well, rather than sweat it out over the one perfect ending.