Sunday, September 25, 2011

Endings are hard

As a radio producer I've often struggled with the difficulty of ending stories. It's easy to start a story. People often say just start at the beginning, but there are plenty of different places to start .You can start with an idea, an event, a character, an example, or any number of different elements 

Ending, on the other hand, is difficult -- because in reality stories don't end. You can end an argument or a thesis by stating the conclusion at the end. But that's not a story. One of the only honest ways to end a story is by using the cliche "only time will tell." Because when reporting the news we're often coming in at the beginning or the middle.

Ultimately, it will take years to know whether that new pilot program, art project, environmental regulation, medical advance, or other change will be judged kindly by history. Even if we're starting to see positive results today, we don't know what will happen next... and that's the reason I find myself laughing so often at the trite endings I often hear in news stories (because the trite and vague ones are often true) or at the phony-sounding endings that try to draw conclusions from the insufficient facts presented in the story.

It's not something I've had to think about as much as a blogger, because I've decided that (at least as a tech blogger) it's enough to just lay out a series of facts and stop writing when I feel I've presented enough. But these aren't stories. I struggle as much as anyone with figuring out how to end narrative stories. 

But I've been spending more leisure time with fiction recently, and I've found a few interesting approaches there.

One of the reasons I tend to enjoy TV shows more than movies these days is that I like the idea of fictional narratives that are open-ended... like life. Movies tend to have contrived endings that tie everything up in a neat bow. But even when a story comes to an end in a good TV program, it's really just the end of a chapter, and you know another chapter is coming next week... until it doesn't.

Unfortunately show sometimes get canceled before they have a chance to wrap anything up. This too is like life. You don't always get all the answers you're looking for before you move on, but it's still a deeply unsatisfying experience to watch a TV show that's been canceled, knowing that you're going to be left with unanswered questions when you work your way to the end.

Hulu recently started showing episodes of Charlie Jade, a TV show produced about 6 years ago that ended after one season. Most of the major plot lines were tied up by the end, but the writers had clearly planned a second season because there was a big reveal at the end that would have left fertile ground to keep exploring. I suppose in some ways that might be a truer, if less satisfying ending than one where there's nothing left to explain.

Because let's face it, what happens after you bring down the big corrupt organization, win the big game, or defeat the bad guy? Life doesn't end with happily ever after... things keep happening.

Every now and again I find myself frustrated with all the work I have to do and I daydream about early retirement. But it's not like I'd sit still forever. Sure, it'd be nice to read a few dozen books without work to distract me, but eventually I'd go stir crazy and try to find something else meaningful to occupy my days.

Earlier this year I read Lev Grossman's The Magicians. It attempts to take the idea of a world where magic exists to its logical extremes. Sure, in the Harry Potter books students have to go to school and take classes in order to learn how to use magic, but in The Magicians, the process of learning magic is far harder and more complicated than learning languages, algebra, or how to drive. Anyone can do those things, but it takes a ridiculous amount of hard work, both intellectually and physically, to get things right in Grossman's world.

Given how hard he makes it seem during the first half of the book, I was almost disappointed with how natural it seems to become for the characters as the story progresses beyond their school days. By the end of the book I wasn't sure I was looking forward to a sequel at all -- although Grossman made it clear that the story wasn't over -- whether you ever read a second book in the series or not.

That probably had as much to do with the fact that the protagonist was a jerk as it did with the conclusion of the story though. It's kind of disconcerting to read a story through the eyes of a character you don't like, even a you come to sympathize with him throughout the course of the story as he's hit by various highs and lows and seems to learn and grow a bit as a person.

It turns out The Magician King, the second book might be a much better story than the first. I say might, because I honestly can't decide. But instead of taking the difficulty of magic to its logical extremes, it takes two other things there: the idea of living with the knowledge that magic is real and the idea that stories really don't end.

Without giving away too much of the plot, one character struggles desperately to learn all the things learned in the first book without the aid of a magical university, while the other learns that the story doesn't end when you get to happily ever after -- but if you keep looking for more adventures you might have to deal with the consequences.

This book, which I finished last week has an excellent, if maddening ending. It leaves you wondering what happens next... and again kind of has me hoping that there isn't a sequel, because I don't think it's necessary. There are a million possible ways the story could continue to unfold -- just like real life.

I found myself enjoying The Magician King more than I'd expected I would and a large part of that is that it answered the question of "what comes next" after the first book in a way that felt real... and difficult... and painful. I'm not sure it was a fun book to read, but as a thought experiment it worked quite nicely -- even though it presents a world I'm not sure I'd want to live in for a lengthy period of time.

One of my favorite TV programs had two pretty great endings. At the end of season 5 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, there was an ending with a bit of finality to it as the show left its original network and ran the risk of permanent cancellation -- but even the death of a major character which completed a story arc didn't answer the question of what the world would be like after that death.

The series did come back and two seasons later there was another conclusion -- this time with a much more open nod to the idea that anything is possible next. It's not surprising that the producers eventually decided to continue the story in comic book form, but even if they hadn't the story would have continued in the minds of many fans because there were so many places for the story to continue going.

Anyway, this is just something I've been thinking about a lot thanks to the aforementioned TV programs and novels I've been consuming recently (and I'm not a fan of passive consumption where you don't at least take a little time to shout at the author or do a little thinking when you put down the book or shut off the TV)... so I don't have any real good point to make at the end of this particular blog post. I just wanted to leave a note pointing out that good endings are tough... because unlike reality, stories that have authors and readers inevitably have to end somewhere... and they usually end on unsatisfying notes.

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