Don’t you just hate it when a book or film has so much promise? Interesting characters, a rich setting, well-paced plot, really pulls you in and engages you… and then the ending just falls flat on its face? There’s little I find more disappointing than a bad ending. Sometimes it makes you regret having spent the time getting involved, other times it makes you pace and rant about how it should have gone. But no matter how you react, a poorly ended story is really a tragedy. Today I’m going to go over a few categories of what I consider to be a “bad” ending. I’m sure there are books and films that use these endings in a way that works, but virtually any time I come across them, I am upset and would rather it be otherwise. Traditionally in a list like this, I’d provide examples of media which fell into the given categories, but since we’re talking about endings, it seems like I’d just be asking to spoil something and upset people. Each of these are annoyingly present in SFF, and I’ve read or seen at least one example of each. Get your grumpy-caps on, as I go through a list of 5 ways to never end your story.
1. Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies – This is probably my least favourite form of bad ending, because it just reeks of laziness, or realising that you’ve written yourself into a corner. This is the ending where, as in the name, some catastrophe happens which just wipes out either the heroes or the antagonists. I’ve seen it done that a weapon malfunctioned, I’ve seen a whole host of natural disasters and once famously in a work of hard military science-fiction, had a character turn out to be Count Dracula and murder everybody. In virtually every case where some non-plot related element suddenly and comprehensively ends the story, I’m left wondering what failure on the part of the author led them to dodge the need to actually resolve their story.
2. It Was Only a Dream – You find this equally poorly thought out ending more in television than novels, but believe me, it’s in print plenty as well. This is when some or all of the major plot events turn out to be a dream, or a hallucination, or a vision, or really any form of experience besides reality. It may be used as a twist after a number of protagonists die, to bring them back, or to end up spending time acting as though the villain had won so you can give a nice ‘made you look’ to the readers, but when this happens, I can’t help but feel as if the entire time spent reading the part that didn’t happen was just wasted. If it actually ends this way, I pretty much regret the whole experience and it can be enough to make me not want to read the author or watch the writer/director anymore. If you want us to buy into your story and identify with what is going on, saying ‘actually none of this happened’ just makes you a jerk.
3. The Deus Ex Machinegun – Really this is more of an alternate slightly more proactive version of rocks fall, everyone dies but deserving of its own category. Rather than end the story by putting paid to everybody, we instead put a character in an impossible situation and then a sudden, unexpected, very contrived event occurs which magically solves the problem. The hero discovers a power they didn’t know they have, the bumbling comic relief is suddenly revealed to be the powerful wizard, the giant eagles arrive at the volcano. Whatever the occurrence it is sudden, unexpected, and arbitrary, and it just cuts through whatever the obstacle was in the way. It is, to me, a sure sign of sloppy writing or a desperate need to fix an accidental screw up without actually trying to go back and repair the damage. If someone or something is already around that can simply and effortlessly solve the problem, why are the protagonists bothering and why should we care?
4. The Butler Did It? What Butler? – Now, I like a twist as much as the next guy. A really well designed and executed twist ending is one of the best things in a story. That said, sometimes the twist was completely unpredictable and unexpected. This is especially egregious in mystery and thrillers. Part of the draw of these genres is the viewer or reader getting to pay attention to what’s going on and try to figure out whodunnit. But when the twist is something you literally had NO CHANCE to see coming? When the killer is a character we’ve never even seen before, when the unexpected revelation implies nothing about the events that came before? Then you have created a bad ending. The good kind of twist is one where, armed with this new and shocking knowledge, you can go back over what you’ve just read or seen and suddenly be picking up on all the subtle clues and hints that had been left to signpost the twist. If it’s actually just random and there was no way you can know, you’re failing the genre as much as your consumer.
5. All of This Has Happened Before, All of This Will Happen Again. – A common trope in a lot of SFF is the attempt by a protagonist to overcome their fate. Cases of individual fate aren’t what I’m talking about here. I instead reference the scenario wherein events are either, within the story, or where the story comprises once around the track, repeating over and over. It’s often the case that some particular thing needs accomplishing in order to ‘break the cycle’ and it often takes multiple attempts to pull it off. But sometimes, the ending of a story is that they failed to accomplish what was needed, and the cycle continues on despite their best efforts. This is supremely disappointing. There are theoretically an unlimited number of versions of the story where they fail, where Neo is not the one, where Rand loses the last battle. None of those stories are worth experiencing because they are all identical. What we care about is the one where things change. We care about the affirmation of our free will, and our ability to actually impact the world around us. A story where -this time- it will be different and they’ll make the change and break free is great. A story where they try and fail is just depressing and once again makes you wonder why you bothered experiencing -this- version instead of the infinite identical failures. It’s a saying in fiction that if the story we’re seeing isn’t the most interesting part of the character’s life, you should be showing us that instead.
That brings us to the end of my list. There are plenty more ways a story can end badly, but these are the few that most disappoint, most make you wonder why the storyteller even bothered if they couldn’t manage to put a good ending together to resolve their plot. What do you think? Do any of these ending styles really grind your gears? Is there a spoiler-free example of a novel or film whose ending just ruined the whole thing for you? Do you think I’m an idiot and all of these are great ways to end a tale? Sound off in the comments underneath the post and let me know!