There are three endings that have been kicking around my brainspace this week, each shouldering the burden for a different medium. The movies have John Carter as their representative. Books are spoken for by Victor Pelevin’s The Sacred Book of the Werewolf. And the internet is alight with discussion of Mass Effect 3; and although I don’t have first-hand experience with the franchise, boy do people have opinions, enough so that it’s on my mind as well. Not only is each ending different by medium, they’re different by the inspired reactions. And I kind of suspect there’s a lesson to be carried away here.
Exhibit A: John Carter. It might be a little early as I type this to get into spoilers, but let’s be honest with ourselves, nobody is expecting a surprising ending, and nobody in charge of the production really wanted to give us one. It’s an adventure romp, an actual big-budget sword-and-planet film the likes of which I’d never expected anyone to finance (and, sadly, which I now expect won’t be financed again for a while), and as you’d properly anticipate, they’d love to have this become a franchise. So, we have an origin story, we establish main characters, and at the end of it all there’s this hopeful presentation of the idea that now John Carter of Mars would be a great franchise to keep on rollin’. It’s so charming and puppyish: it’s an ending that wants to be a beginning, the vain hope to keep telling stories in this world. It’s pretty sad to compare that to the actual box-office numbers going on around it.
Exhibit B: Sacred Book of the Werewolf. Comparably, Pelevin ends his book as befits a literary standpoint: he ends the story of A Hu-li as it naturally completes itself, with no such expectations of sequels or further “adventures.” It’s closure that leaves you with a few questions, but clearly ones you’re meant to answer yourself. And this makes me sad. Not that I think there should be expectations of sequels; that would rather spoil the point of the book, and undercut its morose beauty. But I enjoyed spending time with these characters, the language, the satire. Personally, I wound up with that greatest of feelings when something you’ve enjoyed has: the bittersweet sadness that it’s not going on any further, the lingering presence of the characters, that intellectual afterglow of lying on the couch on a weekend and just thinking about the characters and any remaining questions. I like that much better than finishing a book and saying to myself, “phew, glad that’s over with.”
Exhibit C: Mass Effects. And now I get to the ending that I experience only as hearsay. Mostly via the magic of the Internet, though yesterday I did get some level of collateral damage on the topic. Long story short, a co-worker decided to rant through his dissatisfaction with the ending by coming over and targeting me, as “writer-guy,” on the pretext of talking about how you should never end a game. And I see a lot of that online, too: claims that the character choices mean next to nothing, the heroic endings of the prior two games are undercut by the crapsack ending of the third, dramatic tonal shift, and so on. Most interestingly, it seems that some have accused the game of trying to kill the franchise, making it unappealing to experience sequels and the like. Vicious closure. Somewhat the reverse of John Carter, really.
So you can take various lessons from these endings. One does what is expected but its intended effect may not matter thanks to other factors. Another is pretty much spot-on, and the third is… well, I’m not sure of authorial intent but it sure does seem as though it’s not making dedicated fans happy. All have different ideas of closure, and different levels of success in achieving whatever closure they want. These are interesting lessons that I intend to take into account…
…as soon as I actually end something. It’s bizarre, actually. I’ve never written fiction longer than a short story, so I have no experience ending a book. I run long campaigns, but the one that sort of came to a natural end is now half-resurrected, the players wanting to revisit it now and again — and all the others have failed to end. (Even the one that could have ended with one more session, the players standing there next to the end-boss as we completed the last session.) The only things I can think of that I’ve given closure to were Werewolf: The Apocalypse (and to lesser extent, Changeling: The Lost, which I finished twice) and even then I didn’t do act as a creator. I was more of a director, and the writers did the bulk of the heavy lifting.
I think I know closure when I see it. Can I craft it, when it’s time? Personally? I don’t know. It is a question that will probably stick with me until I get a definitive answer — and the only definitive answer will be “yes.” “No” is too easily confused with “not yet.”