How Important is a Good Ending?

Day 13, and more than halfway through this extravaganza.

As with yesterday, we take a look at something so small in stories that it may seem insignificant at first glance. In reality, the upcoming topic can make or break a story, as there are three impressions you will have: first impressions, overall impressions, and lasting impressions. We will be looking at the third one, as when you leave someone’s house, what is the last things you will see? It should be the whole house, and it will sum up your experience and contrast with the beginning.

Odd comparisons on the side, a good ending is what you will be left with when finishing a story. It should appear obvious that it is what will be the everlasting force upon completion, but there are far too many examples of amazing stories shattered by abysmal endings.

For dramatic effect, why not start with something so extreme it is baffling?

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For many, Mass Effect 3’s ending is infamous for how disrespectful it is for those who have poured hours into this franchise and grew immense compassion to characters over the course of five years. Mass Effect is a game where it’s story is so well done that its mediocre gameplay (that has not aged too well) can be ignored for how immersive it truly is. Mass Effect 2 may be far more character-driven, but its darker tone and satisfying third act set it into stone as a remarkable experience as well. Mass Effect 3 may squander in some areas, but it is emotionally ripe with a plethora of sad moments. I can say that despite its excessive number of them, they all pack a punch into the gut for those who have played the first two games.

Characters exist that we shape due to choices in-game, with their development and allegiance to you solidifying over the course of a trilogy. A villain shrouded with ultimate power, but we stand ready to fight to the death. The third game is a literal race against time, and there is not enough of it.

So why is Mass Effect 3’s ending so awful? For starters, it takes away choice from the player and introduces us (in the last ten minutes) to a character with an extreme ideology which the player cannot do anything to stop. In terms of story context, this type of writing is atypical for the franchise and goes against what the main character (Commander Shepard) fights for. Every decision made throughout the trilogy culminates with three choices that ultimately feel forced and dissatisfying, and there is no impactful falling action to show the results of our action. It is an ending that betrays the fundamentals of Mass Effect and feels cookie-cutter in comparison to its more complicated themes of xenophobia, AI-relationships, and companionship. It throws it out for a backward explanation for the antagonists’ actions that was thrown in last minute, which I will explain.

The Reapers are a destructive artificial race that harvests all spacefaring races of the galaxy every 50,000 years, and this is the explanation given: In order for there to be no destruction in the galaxy between organics and synthetics, we will destroy all organics instead; it is inevitable. It makes no sense from a logical human standpoint, and it also is invalidated by the very actions of stopping an organic-synthetic war earlier in the same game.

Of course, there are many other examples of bad endings, and I will list them off here and explain exactly why they fail to leave a satisfying last impression.

  • Everyone dies. For one, this is a cheap way to end a story and may be used when an artist does not know how to end their story. Unless it is used effectively and follows a thematic suite with the rest of a story, it is also disrespectful to the audience and their enjoyment prior to said ending.
  • Everyone lives happily ever after. Unless this is a Disney film (which for it works) it comes across as a lazy way to dismiss characters for the eternity of their existence and may seem to be a way to close their development for the future. One example is in Children of the Mind (by Orson Scott Card) where everyone gets married and… Vanishes to live off love or something.
  • The hero gets the love-interest. It is interesting to see a hero gain something and reflect on their actions after a climax, but them randomly ‘getting the guy/girl’ is not an effective ending and instead comes off as sappy and unrealistic. The relationship between protagonist and love interest needs to develop within a story, and not be capped on at the end.
  • Anti-climax. If a story is phenomenal, an anticlimactic ending will make a story suffer to a far greater degree than it normally would. An ending should resolve plot-points in a satisfying way, and not cut short in a bizarre way.
  • Cliffhangers. Unless used effectively to build excitement for a sequel, a cliffhanger feels oddly disrespectful for a story that does not want to close its plot-points. While it may be a complete story with an indecisive ending (which is okay), a story that feels like two-thirds or one-third of a larger story is ultimately not a good lasting impression to leave for baiting an audience.
  • A story that stops. This may seem odd, but some stories may just end abruptly. It does not feel like an ending and is not defined like a cliffhanger or anti-climax. This may be the worst kind of ending one can do and gives the impression of “we’ll finish it later.”
  • A story that does not know when to end. If the climax of a story has taken place, falling action should be used to wrap up plot points and not continue them to points that drag on an ending for too long. If a story introduces too much past its climax, the ending will be cluttered and be a mess.
  • Oh no, he’s actually still alive! For storytelling purposes, bringing back an element which has retired is backward development, be it a character, device, or anything else. If a character is fully developed and dies, or if a character has a purpose to retire, bringing them back is a very bad decision to put in an ending.

While there can be much more endings for a story, these are some which I have seen that do not work, feel disrespectful, and dissatisfying to experience. They are amplified when put in a good story, which shows just how drastic an ending will affect one.

And with that, we come to a close today. While a weekday post, I hope you liked the longer length provided today, but tomorrow’s will be much shorter due to Cadets and the inevitability of homework. Thank you for your time, and I hope you look forward to the next twelve days.

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