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09:00 am: Wright's Writing Corner: Guest Blog--On Endings
 


 
 
Today we have a treat, a guest blog from fellow writer Joshua Young. I liked his ideas about the endings of stories so much, I thought that you all might enjoy them, too.
 
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Back a few million years ago, when we chipped all of our tools out of flint and all of our computers had dial up, I found that I had a fondness for unhappy endings. I had just driven an absurd distance to a town big enough to show foreign language films with a friend to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and was struck by the tragic ending. I felt that it took courage to make a work in which your characters suffered and didn't necessarily have everything come out alright. I thought it was stunning and, in the face of a lot of works with forced saccharine endings, it felt more real. Above all, it was different.

After a while, I took a course on modern literature. No one is ever happy in modern literature—not the kind that gets critical acclaim, anyways. Modern “literary” writing is full of unhappy people doing unhappy things and never earning redemption. As a friend said of the movie American Beauty: “I just watched a bunch of screwed-up people decide that it was okay to be screwed-up, and I'm supposed to care?” Scratch the part about originality.

Take courage off the list, too. Following the crowd is easy. And as for real? I generally read and watch (and write) speculative fiction. The movie that brought about my love of unhappy endings features, among other things, a duel between Chow Yun-Fat and Ziyi Zhang atop a bamboo forest. Realism isn't a prime concern.

So where does that leave us? 

It's not that happy endings make a work inferior. It's that plotting and characterization aren't up to par. When there's a happy ending just because, we all go, “Meh.” When there's a happy ending to a story with no logical happy ending, we're annoyed.

There's an anime series that I absolutely love by the name of RahXephon. I was watching it (or possibly rewatching, I don't remember exactly) around the time I took my modern lit course. It was RahXephon which finally put the last nail in the coffin for my love of unhappy endings.

In RahXephon, the protagonist, Ayato, finds that he is being manipulated by his family and his government, and then by the government to which he defects. He deals with things of grand importance, like destiny and fate and the survival of two universes which are unable to coexist with each other. People close to him die. But yet, in the end, there's a happy ending. RahXephon is a series which grows progressively darker and more heartbreaking with each episode, but in the end, I found myself breathing a happy sigh.

RahXephon does a few things right that a lot of other works don't do right. The happy ending in RahXephon is a relief, and not a saccharine annoyance. There are two primary reasons for this: First, the end is appropriate for the context of the series. In another series, it would not work, and, I think, this is one of the hallmarks of a good ending. It is appropriate for the work it is in, and not appropriate for others.

In a movie that is not Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy saving his father with the Holy Grail would most likely not work. In a book that is not A Wrinkle In Time, the power of love is sort of a cheesy cop-out. In both of these works, though, it fits with the theme and the plot. Indy is searching for the Holy Grail and Meg Murray is struggling to rescue her beloved father. The endings are appropriate and in keeping with the theme of the works. The works would have fallen apart if the endings were different.

Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, the characters in RahXephon suffer. Ayato's life falls apart in episode one, and over the course of the series, even though he tries to find his footing and cope with the world around him, he is frustrated time and again. He is betrayed and manipulated. World events spiral out of control—but, in the end, he finally begins to understand where he's at and what's going on in the world, and is able to make a difference.

This is when you want that happy ending satisfying and rewarding. Ayato has fought long and hard to earn his happily ever after. Indy has journeyed halfway across the world, been beaten up, betrayed, and nearly loses his father before his happy ending. Meg Murray has suffered without her father for a long time, is nearly killed by a demonic non-existence, and has to brave the identity-destroying world of Camazotz for her happy ending. Frodo suffers in Mordor and nearly succumbs to the Ring. Philip Marlowe is repeatedly caught in awful situations for the sake of his clients. Buttercup nearly marries Humperdink and Wesley is mostly killed.

It's all in the plotting and the characters. If the end of your story isn't an end that is appropriate to the work, or your characters just skate through every situation they encounter without pause, your happy ending will fall flat and feel trite. If you're mean enough to your characters, though, if you challenge everything they hold dear, if you snatch it away and force them to fight for it-- this is where we'll care, and this is where we'll sit back and breath a sigh of relief when they ride off into the sunset.

 




Comments

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From:kokorognosis
Date:March 24th, 2010 01:14 pm (UTC)
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Oops, that should link to kokorognosis ;)
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 24th, 2010 01:31 pm (UTC)
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Fixed. ;-)
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From:marycatelli
Date:March 24th, 2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
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One problem I have with many unhappy endings is that they aren't endings. Nothing gets resolved. The characters were muddling along with their misery, and the writer just happened to stop them. To be an unhappy ending, something must be concluded.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 24th, 2010 04:34 pm (UTC)
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Intersting! I have never heard anyone say that before, but to a degree you are right.

I say to a degre because some tragedies do conclude at the point where the main goal of the character fails...but I can definitely think of stories that fit yoru description.
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From:marycatelli
Date:March 24th, 2010 08:07 pm (UTC)
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Those are the ones that require the qualifier "many". 0:)

Certain SF publications to remain nameless are those that actually inspired my thoughts with certain depressing but unconclusive endings.
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From:axiem
Date:March 25th, 2010 01:03 am (UTC)
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What bothers me is the simple lack of endings in general. In far too many books and movies, the climax happens , the heroes save the day, and then--

It ends.

Personally, I like endings that give me a sense of where the characters will journey next. A sense that what I'm reading/watching is more than just the story of the big bad, but the story of the characters, and how the big bad makes them change. You can't do that if you just end it.

A lot of people complained about the ending to the LotR movies for being too long. On the contrary, I suspect people are so trained on incomplete and unsatisfying endings that when a good, full ending that brings true resolution to the characters while acknowledging the pain they went through shows up, they don't know what to do with it.
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From:brni
Date:March 24th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC)
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The end absolutely needs to be appropriate. Personally, I find that unmitigated happy or unhappy endings tend to leave me flat, unless that's where the story really needs to go. I prefer to see endings that fall somewhere in the bittersweet range - some redemption in the descent to hell; some breakage in the ascent to heaven.

LotR has a happy ending, but not so much for Frodo, who has sacrificed a bit more than his finger to save the world. Serenity ends with our heroes overcoming incredible odds and saving the Verse and redeeming the villain. And burying their friends.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 24th, 2010 04:40 pm (UTC)
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You had me until the last example. Nearly everyone I know HATES the ending of Serenity. If fact, it is often used as an example of not correctly setting up what you wish to have happen. (The death of a major character off stage for no reason is one objection.)

What Serenity did badly, others have done well. Wash's sudden death I didn't buy. The storytelling did not convince me--I felt the hand of the writer breaking into the story--but Das Boat, which has a very similar moment, really impressed me!

There are unhappy endings I like...I love the movie Gallipoli, for instance, even though...well...Ack!

But I do agree with you that bland endings, without a touch of contrast to them don't seem believable either way.
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From:brni
Date:March 25th, 2010 08:50 pm (UTC)
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Heh. Perhaps I just have a soft spot for Firefly...

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From:cdenmier
Date:March 24th, 2010 04:03 pm (UTC)

Eucatastrophe

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While I dislike unhappy endings, you're right about saying "Meh" to cheap happy endings. As a reader/viewer, I want the characters to earn it.

Of particular fun, I think, is the concept of "eucatastrophe" that is done so well in Lord of the Rings. As a writer, it can almost become a game: how dark can I make things get and still believably have it all turn out for the best in the end?

There is more than a hint of the Divine in eucatastrophe and therefore it's something that is naturally appealing; we all want to hear that the darkness we see in our world exists that some greater good may yet come. To be able to show that in a story gives people not only a happy ending but a sliver of an answer to the problem of evil.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 24th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)

Re: Eucatastrophe

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>eucatastrophe

This is what I love, too! But, as a writer, it can be quite difficult to find an option that is surprisingly better than what is expected. Surprisingly worse is not so hard.
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From:cdenmier
Date:March 24th, 2010 05:00 pm (UTC)

Re: Eucatastrophe

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"Surprisingly worse is not so hard."

Ha!
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From:juliet_winters
Date:March 24th, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC)
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I took an Asian lit class in college and I do remember their great stories are all about the unhappy endings, at least as we Westerners would view it. There is no triumph without a great cost.
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From:marycatelli
Date:March 24th, 2010 04:26 pm (UTC)
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A triumph with a great cost is a happy ending.

Now, Ivan Morris's The Nobility of Failure is about the love of Japanese heroes who simply and totally failed. That's an unhappy ending.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 24th, 2010 04:43 pm (UTC)
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It is so true!

Anime is sometimes cheerful nowadays, but Japanese movies used to all end sadly. Even Chinese Paladin Three, which is so delightfully cheerful, has an unhappy ending tacked on in the last ten minutes.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
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From:kokorognosis
Date:March 24th, 2010 05:31 pm (UTC)
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I suppose I should have mentioned that I'm not opposed to the odd unhappy ending, or bittersweet endings. I'm more arguing against rampant unhappiness as good lit ;)
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 24th, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)
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That was what I thought you meant. ;-) Crouching Tiger is still good. ;-)
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From:mynuet
Date:March 24th, 2010 06:51 pm (UTC)
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The way I sum it up is: The ending doesn't have to be happy or tragic, just satisfying.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 24th, 2010 06:56 pm (UTC)
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Given a choice, I'd rather a happy ending...but there are tragedies out there that I like. I think the ending has to be better...more well-written...for me to enjoy the sad ending.

But if you define that as satisfying...yeah. ;-)
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From:wenchpower
Date:March 25th, 2010 02:13 am (UTC)
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(Hi--I never post here, but I occasionally post on John C. Wright's journal because I'm a politically conservative Catholic aspiring sf writer, so I tend to find a lot to like in his posts. ;)

I've written precisely two happy endings, and both of them are more bittersweet than anything else. I see this as a flaw in myself as a writer. Much like C.S. Lewis writing Screwtape but unable to write his angelic counterpart, I find it much easier to write down to characters choosing to remain trapped in their cycles of misery than to write up to characters escaping said cycles. (Not to compare myself to the greatness that is C.S. Lewis, but you know what I mean.) I wish I could write a good happy ending that doesn't seem trite, but I'm not there yet.

While on the topic of anime, the fact that I tend to write about cycles of misery may be part of why I love Revolutionary Girl Utena so much (and WOW, what a well-done happy ending!), although the way that every cel drips with homoeroticism is likely to be a stumbling block for many people . . .
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 25th, 2010 02:27 am (UTC)
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I think happiness is much harder to do well than sadness. I've had this opinion for a long time. This doesn't mean that ever sad ending is done right, just that I think it's easier to get a bittersweat ending with a good punch to it than a happy ending that doesn't seem too sweet.

I've been a huge Revolutionary Girl Utena fan for years. Even ran a roleplaying game based on it once. (In which the duelists turned out to be young Greek gods who wanted to overthrow Zeus's reign. Touga was Ganeymede.) John played a cool, Japanese, super-swordfighting girl who ended up marrying Hades.

Akio was Eros.

Edited at 2010-03-25 02:28 am (UTC)
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From:bradrtorgersen
Date:March 28th, 2010 04:39 pm (UTC)

Tragedy that moves us

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I agree that the ending of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was not only moving and appropriate, but practically inevitable given the way in which the careful, beautifully subtle romance between the two protagonists was orchestrated. You could feel the "tragedy" mounting, and you wanted to look away. But it was a gorgeous tragedy, and it somehow affirmed something deep inside of us.

I think that's what makes great tragedy soar, especially on the movie screen. Technically, the ending is a "down" ending. The hero does not win. The hero dies. There is great loss. Etc. But somehow that "failed" ending ends up being curiously uplifting because it has affirmed for us a basic or otherwise quiet truth? Not sure I know how to put my finger on it.

I liked the movie "300" for this reason. We already know the ending before we see the movie, because we know how history played out. But the death of Leonidas and his Spartan warriors somehow doesn't seem like a failure. They died, yes, and as we know from history, the Persians marched forth and very nearly conquered Greece. But it was the way in which Leonidas and the Spartans died -- in the movie and in reality -- that makes the ending work so well. It is a "victory" in the midst of a defeat?
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 29th, 2010 03:35 pm (UTC)

Re: Tragedy that moves us

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Well put.

One movie like that that I love is Ikaru, the Japanese movie. It ends with the death of the main character...but he also acheives what he wanted to acheive. It made me cry so hard...but I loved it.

Good tragedies are beautiful...downer ending are actually somewhat different from good tragedy. (Sounds like an idea for a post sometime...the difference between tragedies and negative endings.)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:April 1st, 2010 08:15 pm (UTC)

Re: Unhappy endings in Asian love stories

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I wanted to comment on an earlier thread but couldn't.

I've seen it opined (maybe by Jessica Amanda Salmonson?) that there's a bias in all Confucian-influenced literature toward unhappy endings to love stories. She connects this to the urge to have a proper ending where virtue is rewarded and vice is defeated.

You're supposed to love your parents and your clan enough not to succumb to the lure of romance. In the end, romance will always fail you, because it goes against the good of society and filial piety. So if there's an unhappy ending to a love story, virtue has triumphed and vice has met its fitting end. Even if the object of your love is to marry your beloved and bring the clan 14 children, you're still rebelling against the clan, and will be punished by the natural order of things.

I don't really like this idea, but it fits the evidence.

It also explains why there's all these happy endings when it turns out that you were secretly betrothed by your parents to this person you've just met. In that case, the natural order of things is on your side. (Or against you, if you don't like the person you were betrothed to at birth.)

This also extends to war stories, because heroes are often going against the natural order of things in some way, even when they're doing good. It's like how the Japanese villager who went to the emperor to protest taxes in a famine year was dooming himself to be executed along with his whole family, even though the emperor and the village are grateful. So heroes in certain situations have to die at the end, or the order of the universe will be disturbed. (Or people will get uppity ideas.)

Of course, both Chinese and Japanese literature was subject to censorship of various types, so the government was in a position to shut down anybody who wrote an antisocial, gods-displeasing ending. Western lit, during most of its history, was more like "Don't advocate killing the king, and we won't advocate killing you."
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 2nd, 2010 01:57 am (UTC)

Re: Unhappy endings in Asian love stories

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Fascinating!

The thing about love here is perfectly reflected in Chinese Paladin Three in the love affair between the goddess's descendant and the Daoist priest.
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