Between Mass Effect 3 and The Legend of Korra, I’ve found myself reflecting on endings quite a bit recently. What makes a good ending? What makes a bad ending? But I always return to the same basic question:
At what point does a story actually end?
The most obvious answer, I think, is “when the protagonist accomplishes his/her primary narrative goal.” For example:
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol: Our intrepid team of super-spies must prevent global nuclear war. The movie “ends” the moment Tom Cruise slams his fist down on the abort button.
Hamlet: Shakespeare’s mad Danish prince seeks to avenge the murder of his father. The classic play “ends” when Hamlet finally kills his treacherous uncle and succumbs to the poison in his bloodstream.
The Legend of Korra: The eponymous Avatar-in-training pursues two equally important objectives–a) master Airbending; and b) put an end to terrorist Amon’s anti-Bending revolution. Fortunately, she achieves both more or less simultaneously (a smart move on the part of the writers)–in a moment of extreme peril, she instinctively uses Airbending to fling Amon through a window, unmasking him and exposing his deception to his fanatical followers.
Of course, the “end” of a story does not give the writer license to stop the storytelling process. After Ethan aborts the missile launch, he still has to clear his name and help his teammates wrap up their character arcs. After Hamlet finishes his big soliloquy, the surviving characters still need to figure out who will sit on the vacant throne and clean up all the corpses. After Korra shatters the spine of the Equalist power structure, she still has to regain control over the other three elements and hook up with Mako. A few Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks fall flat because the hero just sort of wanders off into the closing credits immediately after defeating the Final Boss, leaving several such plot threads unresolved. On the other hand, taking too long to tie up every loose end risks boring viewers/readers–once the protagonist fulfills his/her desire, the audience loses its incentive to stick around.
I believe this delicate balancing act is what makes crafting the perfect ending so difficult.
[Originally written June 29, 2012.]