The Sci Fi Classroom Week 6: Endings

October 20, 2013

Adam: Well, Ben, we’re at our final week of The Sci-Fi Christian Classroom, and appropriately enough, the subject of this week’s class is endings.

Ben: I have to say, I’m pretty bummed that we’re at the end already. This has been a fun feature to write with you

A: Likewise, sir.
So, most writers will tell you, endings are probably the hardest part of any any book to write, second only to beginnings.
Go too short, you leave readers feeling unresolved. Go too long, you risk boring them. Do a generally bad job, you can ruin the experience of the entire book or series that proceeded it.
I think this is why many writers create the ending first, then write to that. That way you know where you’re going and whether the ending will be strong enough – all without wasting time writing everything leading up to it. I know that my strongest short stories are written in just this way.

B: I would agree endings are difficult for authors to nail, though I do find myself wondering if we overrate them a bit. In some stories, they are of paramount importance – everything that happened before in the narrative leads up to the point of the ending and its strength greatly impacts the overall story.

However, that’s not always the case. For example, I’ve been reading a lot of Neal Stephenson’s stuff this year. To be honest, his endings aren’t always that great. They tend to be either abrupt or forgettable. In the case of my favorite novel by him, Anathem, I could describe in great detail most of what happens in the novel but I struggle to remember much about how it ended. But to be honest, that’s really not that big of a deal when it comes to his books. They’re far more about ideas and causing you to think than they are the climax of a narrative.

Perhaps this discussion recalls the tension of the journey vs. the destination we explored a few weeks ago when discussing the poem Ithaca

A: Interesting thought…. Though if I remember correctly you were making a good argument for destination that time…. Meh. I’m too lazy to check right now.

The ending of Lord of the Rings is among my favorites – not only the neat twist of how the ring is finally destroyed, but also the final chapters of the hobbits return to and cleansing of the Shire.
I know old PJ chose to leave that out of the film, but I always think of this of one of my favorite portions of the book. It shows how much all the hobbits have changed – how they left so green and inexperienced and came back ast these intelligent, powerful warriors. The contrast is startling.
It didn’t so much annoy me that PJ chose to leave that out, but the reason he gave – simply that he didn’t like it.
“We didn’t have room” I can accept. Didn’t like?
The ending(s) in the movie, I actually thought were some of the strongest in the entire nine plus hours of the film.
“I’m glad you’re here with me, Sam, at the end of all things.”
The scene that’s guaranteed to make me sneak out of the room claiming to have something in my eye is the moment when the four hobbits bow to Aragorn and he returns, “You bow to no one.”
Then the entire crowd kneels to them….

Excuse me….. eyelash or something…

And of course, the Grey Havens were a beautiful scene.
Finally, I was glad they got it right and ended with Sam’s simple, profound line the same as in the books – “Well, I’m home.”
I know there was a lot of criticism of too much conclusion in “Return of the King,” but I just wanted to say “Come on, you can’t chop all that down to five minutes.”
It’s hours and hours long… give the audience time to say goodbye.

B: I completely agree about Lord of the Rings. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to think of a more perfect ending. As you mentioned, Sam’s final line “Well, I’m back” is so succinct and perfect. It gets me every time.

I also agree that it’s a shame we never got to see the Scouring of the Shire on film. Indeed, it’s an extremely important part of Tolkien’s overall message. People forget – or, if they’ve only seen the films, never realized – that LOTR is a tragedy. Yes the heroes win but they win at a deep cost. Obviously the Elves leaving is a big part of that, but the Shire being destroyed as a consequence of the Hobbits standing up to Saruman is heart breaking.

At risk of digressing too much, I see Scouring as being a direct callback to the encounter with Tom Bombadil in Fellowship. I believe Bombadil is Tolkien’s ideal – a pacifist untouched by war. The fact that this ideal can’t be realized – at least in Tolkien’s philosophy – is something he saw as tragic. What the Hobbits experience when they return home is the consequence of this choice. It is necessary but tragic.

Though, I shudder to imagine how audiences would have reacted to the scene. As it was, there was a great deal of complaining about the ending of Return of the King being too drawn out.

Whether Scouring should have been included or not, that sort of reaction reveals a lot about how our culture approaches narrative – especially in the case of film. We want our big action moments, we want the excitement and battles and then we want to be done. Very few people want a narrative that challenges them to think and forces them to pay attention as an active participant of the story, rather than just being passively entertained.

A: Do you think that’s one of the weaknesses of video game storytelling, and part of why it’s so hard to engage in strong storytelling within an MMO? Namely, that there’s no truly clear ending or finishing point that you’re working toward?
I’m reminded of this excellent story I heard on the awesome “Snap Judgment” podcast:
It was produced by Roman Mars of the also-awesome 99 Percent Invisible podcast.
Basically, it’s about a MMO experience where they did experience an ending… after the world was going to be closed and folded up.
It’s sad and haunting and also a bit… anticlimactic (and even more sad and haunting because of it).
It’s like MMO designers don’t have the luxury of being Bill Watterson or “Homicide” or “Breaking Bad” on TV. That is, they end it at their best before it declines into pathetic crap.
What do you think would happen if an MMO had a time limit as part of its appeal?
“It will be here for five years. Then it will be gone forever. We promise.”
Would that draw or repel? Could they even get it off the ground commercially…?

B: I think that’s an interesting idea regarding the endings of MMOs. However, while it might solve one problem it would create a host of others. One of the essential features of stories is the ability to revisit them. It seems the limit you’re suggesting would remove that aspect of storytelling, which would once again make MMOs a less than ideal form of storytelling.

A: One last thing… another game: Give me your favorite and least favorite ending in Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Any medium. I’ll also give mine. (Lord of the Rings excluded, as I assume it probably tops our favorites).
Here, I’ll start it off:
Favorite: I’m actually going to have to go with a more recent read of mine – “Hyperion.”
If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and go for it. It’s “Canterbury Tales” in a way, with each member of the party telling a story on their way to a pilgrimage to a mysterious, deadly creature called the Shrike. When pilgrims are called to the Shrike, one will receive their desire, the others will die violently.
Each story contains amazing twists and imagery – one of the early ones from a priest still makes me cringe (in the best way).
The ending comes before they reach their destination, in the best tradition of “journey tales” and you don’t mind that it doesn’t resolve in that volume.
In fact, I have yet to read the next book for the reason that it ended so well.

B: Good choice with Hyperion. I love most of Dan Simmons’ novels but that is one of my favorites.

For my answer, I’m going to cheat and give you one from four major categories – TV, novels, movie and video games. First with TV, it’s only a couple weeks old so I’ll spare the details, but I thought Breaking Bad’s ending was a textbook example of how to end an extended narrative. The precision of the writing was absolutely perfect. Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to think of a single way they could have improved it.

My choice for novels is the ending of the Chronicles of Narnia. I know some people don’t like Last Battle, but whatever you think of the story of that particular volume, its ending is the perfect close out for the series and one of the most moving pictures of eternity ever written. Just thinking of it sends chills down my spine.

Another moving ending but one far less well known is in the indie movie Ink. I’ll avoid details on this one since most people haven’t seen this one, but it’s an ending that makes you think big time while also pulling at some major heart strings. Even if you guess the twist – or are watching the movie a second time – it’s no less powerful for knowing the secret.

Finally for my video game choice I’m going with The Last of Us. Yes, it’s another recent one but this game is the hands down best video game narrative I’ve ever seen. The ending on it not only equals the story that came before, it elevates everything to a whole new level.

A: Worst: It has to be the “Dark Tower” series.
Yes, I realize it might be heresy, but I just wanted to yell at King after that one.
“I spent HOW many pages? And you just did WHAT?!”
All I have to say to anyone who hasn’t reached the end: When King suggests stopping, do it.

B: I don’t blame anyone for disliking the ending to the Dark Tower, but I have to disagree with you. I loved it. I thought it was absolutely perfect for the series. Plus, it amuses me big time that King includes a disclaimer leading up to it.

For my choice for a bad ending, I’m going to go with 3001 – the conclusion to Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series. I love 2001 – both the book and the movie. Unfortunately, the sequels never come close to its excellent. The first two are ok, but the final book takes the series to depths of ineptitude you never before thought possible. If you want to see me in full on rage reviewer mode, go check out the book review I recorded earlier this year when I read the book.

A: All right, I think that brings us to the end. Thanks again, Ben, and thanks to all of you who followed all through the class.

Everyone, Let us know if you have a suggested class you have for us to take next time.

Class dismissed.

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