Writing a good ending is hard. Damn hard.
Last night I put another dent in my backlog of unfinished video games by completing Red Dead Redemption. The game was one of the more entertaining titles I’ve played in a while, sort of like Grand Theft Auto in a Wild West setting, and it actually had a pretty strong story, one that I was interested in seeing the end of. The game weaves an solid story about John Marston–a reformed outlaw strong-armed by the government into hunting down his former gang associates in order to protect his wife and son, who are in custody. It questions whether people can change, whether people do evil by nature or by choice, whether we can change the world around us for the better, and whether people who have done wrong deserve a second chance. Admittedly, the story is sometimes ham-fisted when it comes to addressing these issues, but it’s effective nevertheless, and I found myself interested in this world and its characters, and I wanted to see how their story ended.
Unfortunately, my thirty-odd hours spent in the territory of New Austin as an avenging cowboy ended on a decidedly sour note.
Please note that, though RDR has been out for about 3 years now, this post will contain some major spoilers. So, if you haven’t played it and you want to avoid having the ending ruined for you, now’s your chance to leave.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, on with the show.
At the end of the story, John Marston, his mission completed, returns home to his farm to find his family waiting for him. He begins to build his farm back up and carve out a better life for his family, one where his son won’t have to make the terrible choices he and his wife did. It seems as if Marston found a happy ending at last, until the government agent who had been acting as his handler, Ross, decides that there’s one last outlaw who needs to die: Marston himself. Marston gets his family to safety, but is gunned down by Federal agents outside his own barn.
Up until now, the ending is fine. Throughout the endgame, the player is given a feeling that the other shoe has yet to drop, and John Marston’s death is foreshadowed rather well at various points in the game. But it is at this point in the narrative where things start to fall apart.
Cut to years later; the player is now in control of John’s son, Jack. Jack is a grown man, and his mother, Abigail, has died off-screen in the intervening time. As Jack, the player can continue to travel the world and complete any optional objectives not completed as John. However, there is still one last story objective remaining. As Jack, the player can hunt down Ross and avenge his father’s death. Jack confronts Ross, Ross dismisses his betrayal of John, and the two have a gun duel. When the player wins, Ross dies, Jack holsters his gun and turns toward the screen. Freeze frame, end title card, end credits.
And that’s it. We get no resolution to any of the questions posed by the game. We don’t find out if John ever achieved any kind of redemption. We don’t find out if, through his deeds and sacrifices, he made life better for his family. We don’t find out if Jack became a better man than his father and managed to avoid the pitfalls of his father’s life, which was John’s main goal during the events of the game!
What. The. Hell.
All of this brings me back to my main point; ending a story well is very difficult. It may well be the most difficult aspect of storytelling; it’s certainly one that I’ve struggled with as a writer. But in many ways, the ending is the most essential part of a story, and if the ending fails, it can utterly ruin everything you’ve worked for up to that point. A flubbed ending leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth, and they’ll walk away from your story dissatisfied.
Literary theory has long compared story structure to the act of sex. Scholars have even gone so far as to use the word “climax” to describe the high point of both experiences. But if a story follows the structure of sex, then a bad ending is the equivalent of only one partner finishing, wordlessly getting dressed and going into the living room to watch reruns. Regardless of how amazing the experience was up to that point, the bad ending puts a damper on the entire thing.
At the heart of any story, there is a tacit contract between the storyteller and the audience: in exchange for the audience investing their time and energy into following the story, the storyteller will deliver a return on the audience’s investment. But a bad ending doesn’t deliver on that contract. A bad ending is one that either fails to answer the questions the story had posed, or answers them in an unsatisfactory way, such as killing off the key cast members in a “rocks fall, everyone dies” fashion. Either way, the audience comes away with the distinct sense that the storyteller has wasted their time, and this is just unacceptable.
Now, that’s not to say that an ending has to be happy, just that it has to provide answers to the key questions of the story; the ending of The Prestige is utterly soul-crushing, but the audience members come away with all the answers they could want. And an ending can be intentionally vague in some respects, provided the audience gets enough answers to walk away satisfied; films like Blade Runner and Inception have developed cult followings in large part because of questions they didn’t answer (Is Deckard a Replicant? Is Cobb still dreaming?). And just because a story has a good ending isn’t an indicator of its overall quality; as much as I’ve bashed Twilight, the endings of both the books and the movies do provide answers to all the pertinent questions raised during the course of those stories. And Stephen King, an author whose work was a major influence on me, is notorious for writing unsatisfying endings to otherwise great books, so the reverse is true as well.
So, fellow storytellers, take note–give your audience a satisfying ending. It doesn’t have to be happy, or answer every question, or detail the fate of every minor character, but it needs to give your audience enough resolution so they can walk away feeling like your story was worth the time and effort it took to get through it.
If your story is full of questions that you don’t have the answers to, edit your story. Or at the very least, don’t reference the unanswered question in your title.