The Matrix series of films is one of my least favorite stories. The first film hooked me, but a lame ending and unresolved plot devices left me very bitter that I’d invested time watching it. As much as I might enjoy a book or film, the impression is leaves on me has everything to do with how it ends. If I like the ending, I will probably re-watch/read it often. If I don’t like the ending, it will usually get an unfavorable reaction and I’ll never read it again.
It’s so important. Many times while reading the final book in a series, I’ll get this sinking feeling that things are going to end very poorly. Not just for the characters I’ve invested my time and emotions in, but the story line as a whole. About halfway through A Memory of Light, the final book in the Wheel of Time series, I started to get that feeling.
Now, have no fear – no spoilers here. But as I contemplated that the ending might be very unsatisfying, it got me thinking about just how important the ending is to a story. For a story to be thought of as great, it must absolutely have a satisfying ending. That is, one that rewards the reader for their investment in the story.
I’m happy to say that when I finished A Memory of Light around midnight yesterday it was wholly rewarding for my time investment. But it got me thinking why?
The reason I hated the ending to the Matrix series is because Neo and Trinity, our heroes, die for nothing. Wait, you say. Neo’s death rescued his people from the machines by rescuing the machines from a rogue program taking over their life support system. Sorta, I guess. If that’s how you see it, fine. But that’s not what the creators of the film say they did. Their ending was one where good doesn’t win over evil, because there is no good and evil — there’s only the cycles of life.
Cloverfield is another story that left me feeling I’d wasted my time. The main character rescues his lifelong love only to die under a pile of crumbling buildings at the end? Every other character’s death is meaningless. They don’t die accomplishing anything unless it’s that two of them don’t die alone.
Some say, “Well that’s real to life. Things don’t always end well.” If I wanted real to life, I would watch the news, not read a fantasy story. There’s enough craziness on cnn.com to entertain me with real to life stories.
So, what is a satisfying ending? It doesn’t mean that the story ends with everyone living happily ever after. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the heroes make the best decisions. But there needs to be something that results from their struggle. If the characters struggle for nothing, it leaves a very hollow feeling in my gut. A feeling I don’t want to experience.
When I read “The end”, I want to be able to close the book, smile, and set it on my shelf knowing I will revisit it again like an old friend. I’m willing to go through their struggles if there’s a payoff.
Which made me think of my own writing. The ending to the Godslayer series is already embedded in my mind. The ending to Soul Yearning was one of the first things I dreamed about when the story started to form in my heart. I don’t write without knowing how the story ends. Because for me that’s what everything else is leading toward. An ending that makes me smile when I dream up the story. I know everyone doesn’t write that way, but it would be so hard for me to write not knowing that what I was writing would end in a satisfying way.
In my opinion, A Memory of Light satisfies. When I closed my audiobook app and took out the headphones, I smiled, knowing that I’ll listen to it again someday. So, how important is the ending to you? As a writer, do you have the ending already planned out when you start writing?