Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Art of the Ending

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Life is a journey, not a destination," and yet in stories we yearn for that good ending, the destination, the full summation of the journey we've just been through in order to put it all behind us.  What Emerson was saying was that in real life, this isn't possible.  There is no one destination because your journey is ongoing.  However in films, television, or books, the story does not continue beyond the destination, therefore we are afforded the luxury of neat and tidy Hollywood endings.  I think this is why we, as consumers of stories, are so harsh on the endings of a story.  If the ending does not satisfy us, we complain about it, and more times than not we're never satisfied with the destination of the journey we've just been on.  How many people prefer The Empire Strikes Back to Return of the Jedi?  I think it's funny, how we so often want those Hollywood endings in our real lives, and yet in storytelling, we tend to find the journey more fascinating than the destination.  This is what I'm examining here today.  The art of the ending.

Why do we tend to gravitate towards the journey when we secretly long for the destination, and why is it when we finally reach a destination, we are dissatisfied?  I think the reason we enjoy seeing other people's journeys play out, whether it be in books, films, or TV, is because of just that, it's other people's struggles and not our own.  It gives us that sense of escapism or a different emotional experience that we cannot get in our day-to-day lives.  By getting involved in the lives of others, it allows us to leave our own lives for just a few moments of every day and to be someone else for a brief period of time.  I believe this is why we gravitate towards the journeys of our favorite fictional characters, and part of the reason we favor the journey over the destination is simply because we do not want it to end, but I think the real reason has more basis in our own reality.

When we embark on our individual journeys in real life, there's always another destination to reach, therefore our stories do not end.  I think this is why, when we're given the opportunity to embark on a journey with a definitive destination, albeit in a fictional realm, we jump at the chance.  It's that human desire to have an ending, for everything to be wrapped up all nice and tidy with a neat little bow, that makes us want to embark on a fictional journey.  However, here's where fiction and reality collide.

Once you've invested yourself in a fictional journey you have your own elevated expectations as to what you're wanting out of the destination when you reach it.  We have our own ideas of how we want to see a fictional story play out, and when the story doesn't play out the way we wanted it to, we arrive at the destination and think, "What a rip-off!"  The same way we might arrive at a real life destination only to realize that there's only another journey awaiting you.  This human inability to never have the destination match up with our lofty expectations, is why I think we prefer the journey over the destination.  It's the reason why, when we watch a murder mystery, we feel it's all over once the killer's revealed.  There's nothing left, the journey was the search for the killer, and now there's nothing but an empty, hollow feeling.  Of course, this now leads me to ponder the question, how do storytellers create destinations and endings that are worthy of the journey and do not let down the audience?

Honestly, I do not think that there is an answer to the above question.  People will always find something wrong with anything.  We have too high expectations and the real world often can't live up to them.  Storytellers are human, they are not otherworldly aliens who can magically make everything perfect.  This is why I think the Hollywood ending is a load of crock.  Now, don't get me wrong, I love a happy ending, and that's not what I'm talking about when I deride the Hollywood ending.  What I mean by the Hollywood ending is an ending that does not feel worthy of the journey that we've just experienced.  In other words, the Hollywood ending is an ending that has come out of left field in order to give the illusion of perfection.  However, as humans, we know that we are imperfect and therein lies the rub with the Hollywood ending.  It feels false and unearned.  So to answer the earlier question, how do storytellers create destinations and endings worthy of the journeys we're asking audiences to go on?  It's simple, we follow the facts.

Part of being a storyteller is being a detective.  You've created these characters, come up with these great original ideas that give twists and wrinkles to a storyline, and you've crafted one heck of a journey, then there comes the question:  How do I end it?  This is the question that has ruined more films, TV shows, and books, than I can count.  A fictional story's ending has to feel as if it spins naturally out of the journey that came before it.  If you've created all of these complications and whatnot to the story, you have to resolve those issues logically and not with the simple wave of a magic wand (however it is easier to make a happy ending that is also logical if you do include magic in your story in some way).

The thing is, you have to think, if this was real life, how would these things play out, and that's where you'll reach destinations that are ultimately the right ones for your story.  These destinations may not always feel good, in fact, they may actually hurt, and that might have been the intent of the story.  There's a reason we have the bittersweet and sad endings, it's because life can be both of those things, but life can also be happy and filled with hope.  Just because an ending is happy or hope-filled, it doesn't mean it's a Hollywood ending, it just means that the ending earned that happy ending through its journey.  If you're a writer and you want your ending to be happy, then you need to work on the events of your story.  If you've included things in your story that take off into dark territories, then you're more than likely not going to end happily, unless you work realistic scenes of redemption into the story, only then can you arrive at a destination that is the one you desired.

Personally, as a writer, I tend to just start writing and I go wherever the journey takes me.  The destination may be one that's sad, or it may be one that's happy.  The bottom line to a good, artful ending, is that it has to feel earned by the story.  When an ending comes out of left field and broad sides us, that's when we call foul and favor the journey over the destination.  The goal for storytellers to strive towards, is to let their stories lead them where they need to go, rather than trying to meet their own preconceived destinations.  I must continue to do the same things in my own writings.  If we can do this, then the consumers of these stories will find a destination that may not be the one we desired, but is the one that feels right.  It's like the ending to The Dark Knight.  Would I have written a big, Summer blockbuster like that where we ended with our hero taking the wrap for a slew of murders and on the run from the police?  No, but that was the destination that felt the most logical, was the most realistic, and therefore it felt earned, which is why I still get shivers down my spine when I see that finale.  As a matter of fact, I will leave you all with that perfect, bittersweet ending to The Dark Knight.  Cheers!

No comments:

Post a Comment