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The Ending
lost merry
There is this Ending. It is a Twist Ending. I feel safe in saying it is The Twist Ending. If you have seen advertising for a movie or heard word of mouth that informs you OMG YOUR MIND WILL BE BLOWN, there is a very high probability that This Ending is what lies in wait for you, crouching in a dark theater, hoping you'll come within its grasp.

I don't want to spoil any movies--or indeed, any books or television shows, certainly not any long-running, mystery-driven shows about an island , so I'm not going to name names or point fingers in this post. All of you have seen shows and movies and read books wherein The Ending has appeared, corpulent and tired, its baseball cap turned to the side, sticking both fingers up its nose and hollering I R ART at the top of its prodigious lungs.

You know The Ending. Say it with me.

He/She/It/They were dead all along/in hell/heaven/purgatory all along/were manifestations of multiple personalities all along/were crazy all along/were in a computer simulation all along.


All of these variations on The Ending are really the same ending: they weren't real.

Now, I know all you postmodern kidz can go with me when I say "real" and mean "real within the confines of a narrative that is obviously fictional and there for unreal in itself, however, there are shades of real, yo" so let's not argue about who killed who, ok? The point is, you may recognize The Ending. You probably knew it when it was a kid, eating paste and pencils in the back of the class, desperate for teacher's love, wasting everyone else's time with constant grabs for attention. Back in those days The Ending went by the name of And Then I Woke Up. In a twist The Ending itself might appreciate, they're the same dude.

Now, it's gotten to the point where if I even catch a whiff of The Ending, I run the other way. It is one of the most common endings in Hollywood these days. I'd go as far as to say writers and producers are obsessed with it. And they all trot it out like it makes them new and edgy and OMG WASN'T YOUR MIND BLOWN?


Here's the thing about The Ending. It's a fucking cheat. It's like Lucy yanking that stupid football away over and over again and laughing demoniacally every single time. The Ending breaks compact with the audience. It says: everything you just watched and cared about and experienced vicariously didn't matter. You sat here for two hours and watched something whose sole purpose was to yank the football out at the end. None of the actions of the characters matter, or the characters themselves. Everything onscreen was irrelevant and unimportant, because even in the context of the film, it was not real, and no one could react to it sufficiently to solve their problems because they had no problems because they weren't real. There was no story, and most especially no threat, because this did not occur on the plane of the actual, and therefore was never subject to the rules of cause and effect. You just thought they were. You were given the tools only to HAVE YOUR MIND BLOWN, a joke shared by the producer, you, and the football.

Now, The Ending can work, I'm not saying The Sixth Sense and Fight Club didn't pull it off--but they pulled it off because something onscreen was real. The relationship between Bruce Willis and the kid, wherein the living child played psychopomp to the dead man--that was the story, not just that none of it was real ever. And this is why when Lost did it, it was horribly unsatisfying, because fully half of the story was never real at all, none of it, not death or threat or love or anything, it was all just a confusing construct with no reason behind it. And then we woke up. If it never worked, we wouldn't have to see every B-List screenwriter try it. Like any literary tool, in good hands it can be beautiful, and if it falls into the wrong hands? Doom.

And I think there has to be something going on culturally for The Ending to show up so often these days. Why do we keep wanting to play this out? Why do we keep wanting the world around us to be made unreal? I mean, in a meta-sense, The Ending is universal--at the end of every film, show, book, artistic experience, we wake up from the fictional world, shake our heads, and return to our real lives, which are often somewhat-to-extremely less awesome than the constructed world we briefly experienced. But I don't think that's it.

I do think there's a desire to suddenly depart from the everyday humdrum world, to suddenly have the curtain pulled back and find oneself in Oz, in a different story, where the rules are not the same, and all the threats and conflicts that consumed you vaporize immediately, become more than irrelevant. I think that's the whole instinct behind the current brand of Christian eschatology in this country. Wouldn't it be nice if your unemployment and unfulfilling marriage and angry children were all unreal, and you were just vaulted into a world where none of it mattered, but you, your essential person, still did. It's a kind of solipsism--the protagonist is always ultimately real, experiencing the unreal world. The protagonist goes on to the next reality, and all the bit players in his life are left behind. It's a wish fulfillment, though I'm not sure the wish is even on the level of consciousness--it's the most seductive part of that Freudian death-instinct. The world is not real, but I am. The rules of life which I hate apply to others but not to me because I am the protagonist and they are not real. Everything I see and feel and experience exists purely to facilitate my personal enlightenment and development. I am the project. They are tools.

That's a somewhat terrifying and sociopathic thought-line, but I think we can all look around us and see that a rather large number of people conduct their lives as though this were the truth and not just a disturbing ending to a film. I think The Ending plays into that fantasy, and when coupled with quality writing, that's why it can be incredibly satisfying to a mainstream audience. MIND. BLOWN.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is that most often, the protagonist is ripped from an interesting and exciting world, full of action and high drama, and forced to accept that they are stuck in the every day humdrum world after all, in an asylum or dead or in Kansas or whatever. If there is ever a question within the film as to whether a series of fantastical events is or is not real, the answer is it wasn't real, or at least not fantastical, Guillermo del Toro I'm looking at you. Which goes back to the old Odyssean choice--you must choose this world, every time, without fail. It's what society has to say to people who behave as though protagonism justifies anything they do and are. It's the Judgment. And seeing others get their deserts is also deeply satisfying to most people.

But it's not satisfying to me. It's And Then I Woke Up. It's a navel-gazing, narratively unfair playground cheat, and most often it's done stupidly and clumsily, with a logic that crumbles when the nearest breeze passes by. And worst, it's easy. It's not daring or edgy, it's just easy, flaccid storytelling, and I'm deeply tired of it. I would boycott The Ending, but by nature, it's a stealthy bastard, and we all have to keep up our defenses just to hold on to our damn football.

This post is the perfect explanation of why I hated a certain book that I guess I won't name in case you haven't read it and want to, although the ending makes me not recommend the book to anyone.
I finished the aforementioned book and I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. It was such a huge letdown.

Personally, I don't go in for surprise endings. I want a story to carry its self through on intricate plotting, great writing, and hidden meanings that I miss unless I read it three times after pondering through half of my mythology shelf. And then I want a fourth reading to allow me to pick up a theme or a question that the writer didn't even think to put in there, but managed to get there none the less.

If I go watch "King Lear" again, I'll still like it. If I read Jim Butcher's Small Favor again, that fight scene at the end is still one of the most goddamn kickass things ever written in contemporary fantasy. He really should quit trying to top it. That said, sometimes a cliffhanger ending can be fun. But it's not "The End", it's "To Be Continued". Which is cool.

I dunno, I thought the ending of Pan's Labyrinth was much better done than Lost. The visuals and acting made it worthwhile. I don't think it was a brave, or even interesting conceit. I'd much more have preferred an ending where it was clear that the fantasy was real, and that was that.

I liked Pan's Labyrinth too, but I do feel the not being real at the end was a cop out, and del Toro has done it more than once. He never comes down on the side of the fantastic.

And my macaroni and cheese is better done than Lost's ending.


This is something I have always wanted to know how to say. Thank you.

I find it disheartening enough at times that the world in which I live very rarely has magic or true miracles; when I go into that other world of storytelling it is devastating to be told that, oh, fooled you, there's nothing here either. It's ugly and it's mean and it's cynical and it makes me angry, and yes! -- it makes the story stop mattering, because if it was all a dream, all a delusion, then no part of the story had any point, and it's a bit like the author is laughing at you, saying, you still believe in magic? what a child. DIDN'T I SHOW YOU.

I like that you mentioned that it breaks the compact between audience and author: it does! In an unnecessary and irritating way. Grr.

When there is doubt, I always stand on the side of the magic. (Sometimes outside of stories, too, I confess.)

I always stand with magic, too.

Ug, yeah. I completely agree. I always get so angry when a story incorporates speculative elements and then yanks them away at the end. I so want to believe that there is more, that magic exists, even if it's just on a movie screen or in the pages of books, that when it's said to be just imagination or to be fake, I get extremely frustrated.

It reminds me a little of the old national lampoon silly article on how to write, which recommended that if you can't figure out how to end a piece of writing, just go with 'And then they were all run over by a truck! The End.' It means you don't have to figure out a satisfying conclusion or meaningful wrap-up. You can just -- stop. Making it so that, as you said, nothing in the narrative mattered at all or made any difference.

Though, I could do with the literal "they were run over by a truck" ending a bit more in Hollywood movies, as it would be better than "But it was all a dream" or what have you...Actual closure (though rather random and pointless), just sparing us the realities of what happens after something like that.

I wonder what you think of the ending of Ashes To Ashes in that context because it's fairly clear to the intelligent viewer all through the final season and in important ways the (regarded by many people as) lead character is not real to the extent that the other regular cast are.

I've never seen Ashes to Ashes but have heard about the end.

However, I feel that it's a different thing when it's clear all along, when that's what the story is and it's not about MIND BLOWING. Though still possibly part of the same cultural paradigm.

And then, contrariwise, there's the twist done well which gives more meaning to what happened earlier: where things that you read in one way you can now see worked on more than one level, and gave clues to the twist that are now satisfied. And importantly, when the twist doesn't negate everything that happened before and end the narrative, but when instead, now knowing the twist, things continue to happen that are affected both by the earlier part of the narrative and by characters' knowledge of the real situation after the twist has been revealed. I think both of those things are part of why The Sixth Sense works, too, and why I like the twist in Diana Wynne Jones' Hexwood.

I love that kind of twist -- and it's really delicious to go back and read the book again, looking for the seeds sown along the way to unknowingly prepare you for what's to come. I always love that sudden click of "oh, now I understand!". I also love that in a series, when you find that something that happened several books ago was actually setting the stage for this thing, and everything fits together and it is GORGEOUS. The writer's part of my brain can practically taste it, and is often too pleased to be jealous (the jealously comes later, after exulting at the twist for a while).

I've noticed a proliferation of The Ending, too, and it's been driving me quietly bonkers. Thank you for expounding upon it in such a real and descriptive manner! You've been much more articulate than I could've.

That was the interesting thing about the first "Matrix" movie - they got that part out of the way, and then went on to something else ... although it's debatable whether or not the "something else" was interesting on its own.

For some reason a number of people I knew were not-so-quietly rooting for the real world of those movies to be another simulation, to be revealed at the end of the third movie... I quietly thought they were crazy.

...I think you've just articulated to me exactly why I'm uneasy with the "it was only a dream/hallucination/simulation" endings of like nine hundred otherwise entertaining fantasy stories. So, thanks.

Not to mention, it often is a playground cheat. Storytellers use it when they've backed themselves into a corner and nothing except divine intervention or "and then she woke up" can save the protagonist/make sense of things.

I do like it when stories deal with dreams/hallucinations/simulations, and make it clear from the beginning that they're doing so, and do so with a degree of nuance and flair. I think that actually adds fuel to my irritation when dreams, ect. are used cheaply and dismissively.

Weird, that's my face staring at you from your livejournal icon!

(I totally don't mind. But i definitely looked twice!)

I think this is partly why I feel like I can't judge this season of Doctor Who until after tomorrow. Because whatever happens tomorrow could have this kind of whole rewriting into And Then I Woke Up, and I really really don't know how I'll feel about that, or whether something else will have been achieved along the way that otherwise justifies it.

I really hope they don't go there, because the reason Lost upset everyone was because they whipped out The Ending at the last second and it made no sense. SF also has the Reset Button, which is pretty much the bratty cousin of The Ending, and DW has done it too often.

Huh. I never saw the ending of Pan's Labyrinth as being solidly on the side of the real. Agreed on all other points though. The thing that kills about Lost in particular is we all spent rather more than 2 hours getting fucked over by that storyline. Then again I generally don't watch TV so this could be the norm for all I know. *shrug*

I was actually referring to del Toro himself, who in the Orphanage and other films also comes down on the side of the real as opposed to the fantastic. It's crossed out because it's not a perfect accusation. There's issues with PL, and there's always Hellboy.

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In light of this post, how do you interpret the ending of _Gur Veba Qentba'f Qnhtugre_? (rot13 for the sake of others -- I know you've read it and enjoyed it).

I don't know, I didn't think it wasn't /real/ at the end of that book, just that she left.

Thank you! The Ending (which I see as three occasionally blurred Endings, actually -- Just a Dream, That Guy Was Imaginary, and He's Really Dead) has gotten way overused in horror movies in recent years, and for ever Salvage or Reeker (both of which were solid, if cheesy), there are dozens of High Tensions, My Bloody Valentine 3Ds, and Soul Survivors. There's also the generally reliance on The Twist (something that goes way beyond M. Night Shyamalan), which I hate even more, because too few creators seem to be aware that a good story should transcend its own twist (see The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable compared to Signs and The Village).

On a side note, one exception to always choosing this world would be the British version of Life on Mars (before the change in Ashes to Ashes).

right, though in Life on Mars he's essentially choosing death, which is a different kettle of fish. (In the West, if it's the afterlife it's not fantastic.)

This is really well-written, and very well thought out. It puts into words what a lot of people, including myself, have had difficulty relaying. The Ending is tedious and obnoxious, but as you stated an easy-out. I cannot count the number of films or books that I've read where I've seen the ending coming a mile away. I tend to finish these things just in case I'm wrong. Often I'm correct, and I lose respect for the creators each time it happens. The story could be beautifully written and portrayed, but when it twists I tend to lose a grasp on the story, and I let it fumble to the floor.
Often times this leaves me with a stack of unfinished books, and films because I've invested so much of myself into the imagining - the making it real to me, that I'm afraid of the ending. Afraid it will be something that lacks due complexity and taste.

No one wants the bland textures of The Ending, but somehow it always sneaks its way onto our plate - like a bit of lima bean that no one wants to eat (not even the dog).

I agree 100% when it's the twist ending, but there are a few times where it's the whole story and that works (Waking Life is the only example that pops into my head right away, but I know there are others).

I hate hate hate The Ending. I make exceptions for Guillermo del Toro and movies where no one told me that there was going to be The Ending and don't make sense with or without The Ending. That's right, A Tale of Two Sisters! You are full of the crazy!

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Yet another point, I believe, in favor of live theatre. I'm thinking about the various shows I see, and I think there is much less use of "the ending" in the theatrical settings vs. books/movies/TV. (In fact, the only musical I think of with "the twist" might be Chicago).

This is something I was discussing with a friend the other day: you don't see the level of idiotic violence in live theatre that you do in film, simple because it doesn't work on stage. You can't have a guy with a gun spraying bullets and kicking and doing all sorts of unnatural stuff on stage.

Our family has gotten to the point where we rarely go to movies (but we're at the theatre almost every weekend -- tonight is a Marx Bros. Musical, and tomorrow night is the Rocky Horror Show.)

In reference to "you must choose this world, every time, without fail"— I came out of Tim Burton's Alice asking whether anyone ever stayed in Wonderland. My dad and I couldn't think of any work that involved a person visiting a fantastical world that didn't end with them going back to their "real" lives at the end. And most of the works I could think of had child protagonists, which makes You Must Always Go Home dovetail nicely with Coming of Age.

It's possible I need to read more, or I'll think of something when I'm not paying attention to the question.

It sometimes sucks when the ending comes first.
You have to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube to get to it.

This is one of the reasons Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death is such a great film - it doesn't come down on the 'and all that stuff was just an extended hallucination caused by the head wound he got in falling out of his plane!'

For me, the best "twist" ending I've ever seen is Citizen Kane- it emphasizes how hollow the whole notion really is.

And it STILL makes you care: the imagery, how the score almost makes you cry at that point (you surprised I'm a HUGE Bernard Herrmann fan?): it wrings drama and emotion out of the moment. (People forget how entertaining that film is; it gets held up by its BESTEST FILM EVAR reputation and people expect Berlin Alexanderplatz or something, when c'mon! It had dancing girls!)

*uses the one icon of his that relates to something Bernard Herrmann worked on*

Oh dear, You weren't by chance, thinking about tomorrow's Doctor Who finale in the back of your mind while you wrote this, were you? I was thinking about it whilst reading your post. Moffat seems to have written himself into a corner with The Ending as the only way out.

I was mostly thinking about Lost, Shutter Island, etc.

This explains my very instinctual, aggressive response to stories that have the Sudden Twist that turns everything On Its Head. Exactly this:
The Ending breaks compact with the audience. It says: everything you just watched and cared about and experienced vicariously didn't matter. You sat here for two hours and watched something whose sole purpose was to yank the football out at the end.
is how I felt everytime this happened. Football. Yanked. Me feeling stupid for caring. So thank you for enlightening this.

As for The Ending done right and turned on its head yet again, have you ever seen Life on Mars?


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