How Much Do Endings Matter?

Deadwood
RIP Deadwood

Recently a feud of sorts has developed between George R.R. Martin, author of A Game of Thrones, and Damon Lindelof, the mastermind behind Lost. When Martin was asked if he felt nervous about ending his series, he answered that he feared “pulling a Lost.” When Lindelof learned of this interview, he lashed out on Twitter, understandably miffed that his show has become synonymous with disappointing endings.

This exchange prompted me to consider a point of crucial importance to all writers. Specifically, how much do endings really matter? If a story is otherwise excellent, can a poor ending bring the whole thing to ruin? Conversely, can an outstanding ending elevate a mediocre story to greatness?

David Milch, the eccentric creator of Deadwood, has shared his belief that stories should not be defined by their endings. His groundbreaking western, the critically acclaimed Deadwood, was canceled prematurely after only three seasons. In a move that aggravated many fans, HBO ended the series without a proper sendoff. The final episode concludes with a cliffhanger, introducing new developments which would never be resolved.

Nonetheless, Milch has stated that the lack of a resolution should not devalue the series as a whole. In fact, he argues that way too much importance is attributed to endings.  Milch’s perspective is laid out in an article by TV critic Roger Catlin:

“The whole idea of an ending as something being its source of meaning is something I find problematic,” [Milch] says at the outset… he rails against “the idea of an end of a thing as inscribing the final meaning.”  Endings that supposedly “fixes the mark and meaning of any experience is one of the lies agreed upon that we use to organize our lives,” he says. A bigger lie, he says, is that “we were entitled to a meaningful and coherent summarizing of something which never concludes.”

Is Milch correct?  Is too much weight given to endings?

Some have argued that the ending of Lost was so bad that it ruined everything that came before it. While I have been vocal in expressing my disappointment with the Lost finale, I wouldn’t go so far as to say than it negated the great storytelling that preceded it. Is such a thing even possible?

What do you think? Are endings really that powerful? Or are they not as significant as commonly believed?

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MG_Silverstein
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MG_Silverstein

I know this is an older post, but I like that it was retweeted because it is intriguing.

I think endings really are that powerful. In my experience a good ending can elevate the entire work, and a bad ending can destroy it. It really is that simple.

Wade Wilson
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Wade Wilson

@Tom aka Dusky 
I agree 100%.

Wade Wilson
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Wade Wilson

In my opinion, as a reader/writer, the ending is the best part of the story. Lack of anything redeeming in a conclusion can make the entire body of the story feel utterly pointless. Films that felt completely wasteful upon finishing that I have seen- Looper (worst time travel story ever), the Grey, and Old Boy, the latter being one of the worst, most revolting and pointless stories I have ever encountered.

Wade Wilson
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Wade Wilson

@Abomination 
For me, the appeal of Lost was being right there with the characters in terms of the mystery. When they left the island, then went back and got into all that time-travel bull5h1t, it ruined the show for, me not to mention to reveal at the end of season five. The aspect of the time travel element I felt made the proceeding story feel very transparent, and it killed the mystery for me.
All in all, the show was really just a profoundly convoluted re-imagining of Verne’s the Mysterious Island, as plot devices seem used in nearly identical ways, including the ending.

Wade Wilson
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Wade Wilson

@Antonio del Drago 
When I write, I think up a great conclusion first, and then devise how to get there…

feyelvenwarrior
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feyelvenwarrior

An ending is just one of three main basic parts to any story. To say that it is unimportant is probably too general or final. A bad ending in a book or a movie can determine the success or failure with the public. We can all probably name something that was ruined by a bad ending. I loved the first six books of the HP series but was very disappointed by the Deathly Hallows. The Sopranos kept me anxiously awaiting the next episode every week for years while it played but the last episode (and season for that matter) failed miserably to deliver. 

It could be that certain writers tend to build our expectation for an epic event to transpire but decide to derail at the last installment to create what they think will be an interesting plot twist. This is a fatal error. For all of you aspiring authors out there allow me to offer a small nugget of advice. You can tease your audience for a relatively decent amount of time,– but you better deliver. If you do not I think that readers often become spiteful or disgusted. I have more than once almost felt betrayed by the author who seemed to intentionally mislead me and for no other reason than their own whim or that of their agent. Think carefully of your endings writers.  

UnionJane
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UnionJane

Endings carry an important place in a story because it’s the last final taste a reader gets before closing a book. If any part of a story could be pinpointed as most reflecting a writer’s style, I would identify the ending. Consider the literary ending–like 1984–packed with surprise, but succinct. That’s George Orwell all over, as opposed to say, an entertaining ending, as with the so-called deux ex machina of Huckleberry Finn. Endings are equally important to what takes place before them. 

And although it’s humorous, a traditional argument has meaning packed into the ending, the big wrap up to what you’re trying to say (the dreaded 3×5 system). That being said, endings are difficult to pull off, which is why I think we seem some that are just awful, the stuff of first drafts. Maybe it’s all relative.

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

Thanks for sharing your insights, Jane!  I agree that endings play a major role in defining a writer’s style.

Igor Mordos
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Igor Mordos

One of my favorite endings came not from a book, but from an anime. Cowboy Bebop’s final episode with Spike Killing Vicious then dropping dead himself (not before making a pistol with his hand and saying “bang”), followed by Yoko Kano’ s emotive “Blue” being played as the view slowly lifts heavenward and eventually into space (as if we were watching Spike’s ascent into paradise) was powerful and evocative. I myself like to work from end to beginning with my own stuff. As I’m sure most would agree, characters and stories that want to be written- write themselves. A powerful conclusion demands a powerfully building climax to it. A sad conclusion demands a tragic building climax. By working in reverse, I find it easier to add meaning to an ending. It also allows for a lot of leeway to explore any number of sub-plots, themes, moods, etc. These all give added meaning to the ultimate conflict resolution. So yes, endings are important I feel (as a place to start.)

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

Hey Igor,

I usually begin writing my stories right where they start – at the beginning. However, for my latest project (which is getting huge), I began with a really intriguing ending, and then devised the story leading up to it. To my surprise, the story ended up being much better developed and more focused than my previous efforts.

Julia Barrett
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Julia Barrett

I agree with the three above comments. Endings do matter. Call me crazy, but I will often read an ending first and then decide whether or not to buy a book. If the ending is quality, I assume the road to that ending will be quality. I have yet to be disappointed and I’ve been reading for a very, very long time.
Lost? Hated the entire premise and thought the ending was TSTL. I agree with George R. R. Martin – I imagine he wants to give his series a very satisfying ending, something we can really sink our teeth into and relive in our imaginations. Yes…please!

Sarah M
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Sarah M

I’ve often been disappointed with the endings of books I’ve read. Coming up with a good ending doesn’t seem to be too easy.
If it ruins the entire story for me depends on the reasons why I dislike it. And on the room the bad ending takes.

Harry Potter was ruined to me by its ending but that was an entire book I didn’t like. I’m not unhappy with it because good triumphes in the end but with the totally contrieved way this is happening. Characters who make heroic sacrifices should have to carry the consequences and not be saved by some contrieved event.

Especially series often seem to suffer from bad endings because the stories get too big for the author to resolve everything important. But introducing something completely new and ignoring everything that has been established isn’t a good way to “solve” this.

I can deal with bad beginnings much better than with bad endings because the ending is what I’m waiting for while reading and I want it to be satisfying in some way.
So yes, endings do matter a lot to me.

Abomination
Guest
Abomination

Yeah, Lost was a train wreck. But I didn’t like the series to begin with, so the ending didn’t really change anything for me.

But let’s get something clear: there’s a difference between an unresolved ending and a bad ending.

The end of Farscape season 4 was epic, and even without the resolution in Peacekeeper Wars, would have stood as one of the best series endings ever.

However, if an ending is actually bad, does not make the rest of something bad in my view. If a story is good most of the way through, it’s still good most of the way through no matter what happens of the last few pages. I’ll still enjoy most of it. I’ll be pissed off, but the majority of the work will remain unspoilt.

Classic examples in books: Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter epilogue

Both of those examples had resolved endings, but they were pretty crappy ones. Still didn’t ruin the rest of the series for me.

At Dusk I Reign
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At Dusk I Reign

I think endings are the most important part of a book, movie, or television drama. If they’re poor I always feel cheated, like I’ve been promised a trip to Disneyland but have ended up camping in a muddy field, sharing a sleeping bag with some flatulent relative I despise.

I tend to sympathise with writers who work backwards, imagining the ending first and then figuring out how the characters are going to get there: if there’s no proper conclusion I don’t see the point of going on the journey. Of course, it may be an age thing; the older I get the less patience I have and the less I’m enamoured with ‘Good Stories Well Told’ which chase their tails and disappear up their own fundament.

If a TV series ends in a disappointing fashion because of outside influences, I can live with that. If it ends in a disappointing fashion because the writer/s couldn’t be bothered to think up a proper conclusion then I believe they deserve all the grief they get.

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