Monday, March 26, 2012

Assembling Endings

Every narrative, every story has a beginning, middle and end. Through the author's artistic vision for the piece the reader experiences scripted emotions, perceptions and thoughts as the writer intends but there limitations.

A recent story that has brought into question series endings as well as artistic vision has been the whole Bioware/Mass Effect 3 ending that has managed to go from an industry specific topic to national news and even spurred Forbes to begin analyzing the industry. This is really interesting because it is an argument of artistic expression versus respect for the property for fans.

More on artistic vision next time but for right now we'll focus on the concept of the ending.

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The entertainment industry is no stranger to 'bad endings' in movies, tv and writing. Every person can recall a multitude of narratives that failed due to the writer's choice in crafting the ending.

Examining the concept as a whole there are many stories that can succumb to 'bad endings' but are these part of artistic vision or are these elements subject to change? Regardless of whether it's artistic license or something that is open for debate, there are certain elements that need to be considered.

When an author chooses to convey their vision to others they need to consider the threads of each piece and how they flow.

Each element that is introduced in a narrative be it a character, a detail or an event these become elements, threads, of the story that continue forward throughout the piece. The viewer has a unique perception of the story and while the writer can attempt to foresee what those perceptions will be, it is important to note that the audience may focus on elements that may be insignificant to the writer.

Ex. If the writer introduces an engraved handgun that was given to the main character by a brother in the first couple of chapters, the readers will expect it to come into the story as some point before the close. This may be a detail to the author to create a sense of heritage but to the audience it is unconsciously an element that will play a role. This may come as another detail, it may come as the use of the weapon but there will be an aspect of this 'thread' that will return with implications.

Most 'bad endings' are not a result of leaving too many threads loose but frequently the result of Deus Ex Machina or breaking off the threads rather than tying them off.

Deus Ex Machina literally means - "God Out of the Machine." In short this means where the writer creates a perfect solution to the problems that arise in the story. This perfect solution is generally an unexpected abrupt event, character, ability or object that appears out of nowhere.

In some instances Deus Ex does have it's place for writers but for the audience these instances still feel contrived and cheap.

Breaking off threads usually incorporates Deus Ex for the threads or simply creating ways of eliminating the threads without a sense of closure. A number of series rely on this method when the writer wishes to make radical changes to a series. The writer desires to change the car the main character drives? The writer creates a radical scenario where the old car is eliminated and a new one needs to replaces it.

While this may be an applicable means to make changes in a story or series the primary key to using it effectively is in the pacing. If the threads are broken too quickly it will will appear out of place and once more it will cheapen the experience from the audience's perspective.

The final option for a writer to assemble the ending of a piece is for the writer to actually leave some of the threads untied. This is a common practice for writers to leave openings for sequels or other story opportunities.

This approach is used the most frequently to great effect providing the appropriate threads are tied in the conclusion.

Crafting a narrative is a delicate balancing act. The beginning is constructed in such a fashion to hook an audience and introduce all of the threads but the conclusion is the final moments of the piece. The last thoughts the audience will have of the work and the parting impression that will stay with them. If the conclusion doesn't strike the right chords, tie off the right loose ends in an appropriate fashion, the audience will perceive the entire work with that connotation just like the Mass Effect series.


DonnaGalanti said...

P.W. Great post and I took James Scott Bell's conf. recently on Novel Structure and he talked about this very thing - Deus Ex Machina. It is a balancing act to find that perfect solution and all the parts of our novel can contribute to it - all those threads have to create the full coverage at the end or else it all unravels. Why writers have so much angst I suppose!

Julie Musil said...

Oy, I just had to completely rewrite the final 30 pages of my wip. BUT...the bright side is that I think I created a much better ending. Who knows, we'll see after it's been through the revision meat grinder. Great post!

PW Creighton said...

Donna, that's so very true and we've all seen stories where it's an amazing ride but it falls apart in the end because of those missing threads or Deus Ex.

Julie, I feel your pain, as I'm certain every author does. Even the ending to Nightfall was redesigned to have better impact while remaining true to the original concept. As they say, "The first sentence sells the book, the last sentence sells the next."

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