Soapbox: Knowing How It Ends

…is very important. Very, very, very important. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It bears repeating.

There is a prevalent disease in modern storytelling (books, TV, and movies all included), one that is a product of the times. While audiences have become more demanding of their entertainment, and more discerning in their love of good characters, it’s resulted in stories that are pushed out the door too quickly. Creators are giving us fascinating characters and intriguing premises for the first hundred pages/hour/season, that somehow fall flat when it’s time to tie up the ends.

It’s because that story was hustled out to you with such urgency, no one took the time to pin down where it was all headed.

Was the first season of Lost one of the best things to ever grace a television screen? Yes. Yes it was.

Was anyone at all satisfied with the finale in season 6? No. Not hardly. But could they have been? I maintain yes. There was a lot of potential in that finale, that simply didn’t ring true because the audience just hadn’t been properly groomed for it.

If the writers had known how it was going to end when the plane first crashed on the island, they could have crafted marvelous foreboding elements that would have left a large portion of the audience with a big ol’ grin on their faces while tears streamed down their cheeks. But the truth was, they only had one season of material when they began. They didn’t even know what Sawyer’s letter said when they shot the scene in the pilot of him staring at it.

Now, I understand television is probably the most difficult timeline to write for, when it comes to story creation. Their deadlines are pretty cruel. However, because as consumers we’ve grown so used to obtaining our fiction in that medium, I think it’s started to affect our overall level of allowance for bad endings. After all, as a consumer, how could you possibly know if the end of something will be good when you start reading/watching it? (Unless you’re one of THOSE people who read the back pages first…and if you are, SHAME ON YOU.)

But this is inexcusable in writers, particularly writers of books. We have the most generous schedule for our particular style of creation, but so many of us just come up with a fun idea and throw it out there. And when it’s miraculously popular, we go make a follow-up. And another, and another – and our readers come back to say “The first one was best. They kind of went downhill after that.” That’s devastating to hear! Wouldn’t it be so much better to hear that the last book in a series was best?

It ought to be, I think. Great endings are at such a premium these days, savvy story consumers hoard them like acorns for the winter – to pull out and re-experience during months of “there’s nothing good out right now.”

But how do you get your own work counted among those special acorns?

It’s not easy, but it is basic: know how it ends straight from the beginning. While you’re crafting your brilliant opening, think long and hard about how you ultimately think the story will end. You don’t have to pin down every little detail – stuff will inevitably change along the way – but generally, you should know what your major plotlines are for the series. What major issues your character(s) will be dealing with, so that each book you write develops the next phase. That way, when things are resolved in the finale, it will feel correct, because you’ve prepared your audience for just that. They will have been led on this journey you crafted, and while you may have thrown them some twists and turns, revealed surprising vistas and maybe even some potholes, you haven’t thrown them off cliffs or had their car attacked by pterodactyls and carried off. They’ve experienced a fictional journey on a road you paved – ideally a road engineered to give them the most intriguing ride through the imaginary landscape you invented.

This, to me, is the real goal of storytelling. Making something a total stranger can lose themselves in, for however long the story lasts. And it all hinges on the ending, whether or not they’ll want to take that ride with you again.

Ganbatte, writer-san.

/cast iPod [Muse – Map of the Problematique]