As soon as I read “Back For Christmas” by John Collier (1939) I thought of Roald Dahl. Sure enough, I google both names in a single search and learn that, for Dahl, among many other male writers, Collier is listed as a heavy influence.
The ‘New Equilibrium’ is a storytelling term to describe part of the ‘denouement’, as traditionally known. It’s the part of a story where we are left with a sense of what the main character’s life is like now. This comes right after the Self Revelation sequence. The main character has undergone a change (unless it’s a sit-com) and their life will be better than before, worse than before, or just plain old different.
In any case, the audience wants enough clues to guess how life is going to turn out for them from here on in.
DIFFERENCES OF OPINION
There is often controversy about where a film ‘should have’ ended. Audiences want different things from their endings. Take Adventureland, a 2009 coming of age film. Hang out at review forums and you’ll soon notice that a lot of people think the story should have ended with the main character saying goodbye on the hill. Realistically, in the real world, he would probably never see these people again. But this is movie land, and we see a (dream?) sequence in which his crush moves to New York and they live happily ever after. The screenwriters decided the audience of this film would appreciate a happy ending, but the scene on the hill would certainly have been enough of a ‘New Equilibrium’ from a storytelling point of view. All we really needed to know was that the main character is moving on and his life is going to be completely different in New York.
This is where literary short stories deviate from traditional story structure… sometimes. Sometimes we are given very little clues about about how life will be from now on, with short stories sometimes ending at the Self Revelation moment. ‘Get in, get out’, with emphasis here on the ‘get out’. I’m talking specifically about short stories which are what I’d describe as ‘epiphanic moments’. A character makes some small discovery about something/someone. Even in these stories, if you go back you’ll be able to ‘extrapolate’ what their life will be like from now on. In short, short stories require more imaginative work on the part of the reader.
(Genre short stories work the same as longer works, with all seven steps.)
EXTRAPOLATED ENDINGS IN NEVER-ENDING PICTURE BOOKS
I’m sure the storytelling gurus consider this last step unnecessary but I include the ‘extrapolated ending’ as a final optional step in storytelling because some stories leave us with an open ending, in which case the work of finishing off is left up to the audience. Since audience members will vary on this, I like to consider it a separate step from the ‘New Equilibrium’ the author has chosen for us.
There is a very common sort of extrapolated ending in picture books — you can probably guess what it is.
It is often implied that the same adventure is about to happen all over again. Perhaps there will be a bit of a tweak. Picture books are unique in that they are the only book designed to be read at least 50 times by both a young and old audience, so this particular story structure encourages readers to think beyond the last page, and acknowledges that they’ll probably be back.
EXAMPLES OF IMPLIED REPEATS
Not all picture books are sweetness and light and routine and comforting, however. This is a fairly new trend (though was already observed by kidlit critics in 1988 — see the work of Sheila Egoff in Give Them Wings) but contemporary popular children’s books are increasingly likely to be open ended.
Famously, This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen have rather gory implied endings. (The sneaky but cheeky fish protagonist gets eaten, for example.) What would have happened if Jon Klassen had shown the little fish being eaten by the big fish? (Or more likely, inside the big fish’s stomach wondering what happened.) This would have probably been considered too much for the youngest popular audience. In short, an extrapolated ending allows children with the capacity for gore to imagine what they like, while more sensitive types don’t have to go there at all.
HORRORS AND IRREPRESIBLE BADDIES
Here’s something picture books have in common with horror films.
In Dead Calm (to take just one example), the audience is left with a sense of calm, knowing that the man and woman have defeated the sociopathic killer. But just before the end, we are given evidence that the killer is not in fact dead. The entire story is about to repeat itself, only this time it may not go so well.
Here’s the thing about horror opponents — they are mechanical in their behaviour and you can’t kill them, no matter how hard you try. Ghosts come back as different kinds of ghouls, possessed creatures show up in different, more invasive places and so on and so forth.
PARABLES, FAIRYTALES AND PARABLE-SPOOFS
Those really old fables and Charles Perrault fairytales offer a moral lesson after the new equilibrium in which we extrapolate that this particular character is not going to make the same mistake ever again… and neither should you.
The “Ripped Pants” episode of Spongebob Squarepants does the same thing, with a musical outtake instead of the didactic paragraph, in a spoof of a parable about recycling the same joke.
STORY STRUCTURE OF DUCK CAKES FOR SALE
Duck Cakes For Sale from 1989 is an example of the circular story, in which the picture book ends, but we suspect exactly the same thing is going to happen again, because the main character hasn’t had a self-revelation. Like a Chekhovian short story, picture books often elicit the revelation from the young reader; the character remains unchanged, much like a sit-come character. Continue reading “Duck Cakes For Sale by Janet Lunn and Kim LaFave”
OR WAS IT A DREAM?
If you’re a fan of both Breaking Bad and Malcolm In The Middle you’re sure to appreciate the spoof ‘leaked’ alternative ending of Breaking Bad, which involves Bryan Cranston in bed with his Malcolm In The Middle wife, Jane Kaczmarek. Hal wakes from a dream, in which he recounts the basic plot of Breaking Bad. Lois comforts him and blows it off as pure fantasy.
At the end of this scene, the audience is left in no doubt that Hal has simply had a dream — a ridiculously funny dream given the day-to-day routine of Hal. But then the camera pans to the right, and we now see the hat Walter White wore when in character as Heisenberg. This parodies that trick, often used in magic realist picturebooks, in which a character goes away on some amazing journey which couldn’t possibly happen in real life. Then something happens to bring the character back down to earth — variations on ‘waking from a dream’ — and on the final page, often wordless, the observant (and sometimes not so observant) reader sees some artifact which has been brought back from the fantasy realm.
Of course, young children haven’t necessarily seen this done before, and are likely to be mighty impressed by this narrative trick.
Maria Nikolajeva points out that although frowned upon in creative writing class, this dream ending is alive and kicking in children’s literature.
Children’s books with ready solutions bind the child’s imagination and free thought. It is treachery towards the modern sophisticated child reader to offer a “rational” explanation at the end. “And then he woke up and it has only been a dream.” We should not think that this ending is a thing of the past, for we remember it from Alice In Wonderland. It is repeated in much later texts, and one discovers it somewhat reluctantly in Mordecai Richler’s prize-winning book Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang (1975) and in a many even more recent texts. Critical and creative authors find such resolutions very unsatisfactory, and regard the open ending as the only possible way of appealing to modern young readers.
— Children’s Literature Comes Of Age, Maria Nikolajeva
Most recently I saw this used to good effect in The Polar Express, in which the boy is left with a sleigh bell that only children can hear.
DREAMS, QUESTS AND GENDER
Strange as it may seem, few dream narratives involve girls, that is, the nature of the dream quest is seldom unquestionably female and not possible with a male character […]
Fanny and the Birds/Fanny och fåglarna (1995), by Margareta Stromstedt and Tord Nygren, depicts the character’s transformation, but unlike into the jaguar of Not Now, Barnard, this transformation is not into a huge and fierce beast, but into a little frail bird (does this reflect the authors’ idea of male aggressiveness contra female gentleness?).
– from How Picturebooks Work by Nikolajeva and Scott
Conversely, girls are consistently fictionalised as being more imaginative and reflective than boys. Girl orphans who fantasise about their absent parents (from The Great Gilly Hopkins to Tracy Beaker). In diary novels, girls write down their deepest desires, fears and fantasies while boys write about what happened. Here’s an example from Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess by Meg Cabot. With ‘princess’ in the title and a pink and yellow cover, this book is clearly aimed at a girl audience:
OK, Dad’s never specifically said he’s an archeologist, and Aunt Catherine doesn’t like it when I ask questions about him, but I’m pretty sure that’s how he and my mom met. She had to have been the pilot on one of his expeditions. That’s probably why my dad can only communicate with me by letter.
Meanwhile, Greg Heffley of Wimpy Kid fame is an equally unreliable narrator but in quite a different way. His unreliability comes from misunderstanding or sardonically judging reality to be worse than it actually is. It doesn’t involve detailed fantasies.
If few dream narratives involve girls, perhaps this is because we permit girls the capacity to dream and fantasise. Boys, on the other hand, have to always be going on some quest, and if that quest is metaphorical, well let’s just turn it into a dream.
1. CHEKHOV DID NOT OVERWRITE
You’ll hear Chekhovian advice in every writing group ever.
In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because,–because–I don’t know why.
One would like […] descriptions to be more compact and concise, just two or three lines or so.
Take out adjectives and adverbs whenever you can.
2. OFTEN THE HERO DOES NOT CHANGE
There’s this basic rule of storytelling that the main character has to undergo a character arc, but that does not apply to short stories.
The connection between hero and world extends from the hero’s slavery throughout his character arc. In most stories, because the hero and the world are expressions of each other, the world and the hero develop together. Or if the hero doesn’t change, as in much of Chekhov, the world doesn’t change either.”
Notes From: John Truby. “The Anatomy of Story.”
Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change. Chekhov was generally pessimistic about the possibility of change. This is more true to life than other forms of storytelling, for example any movie coming out of Hollywood today — audiences are there to see a character change.
Even when the characters do change, their changes fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict.
See also: Character Transformation In Fiction.
3. CHEKHOV WAS HUGELY INFLUENTIAL
Chekhovian is now a word. Examples of Chekhovian writers:
- Henry Green (English) — who likes to ‘gag commentary’ (give even fewer reasons) than Chekhov even did.
- Katherine Mansfield (New Zealander) — early in her life she admired Ivan Turgenev but after discovering Anton Chekhov she cast Turgenev aside. Sure enough, her best work was written after her discovery of Chekhov. The Garden Party, for instance, has a distinctively Chekhovian ending.
- Raymond Carver (American) — influenced by Chekhov and Hemingway, who was himself influenced by Chekhov
- Beth Henley — modern American playwright
- James Joyce (Irish)
- George Orwell (American)
- Strunk & White — who wrote the grammar guide emphasising simplicity
- Matthew Weiner — because his characters in Mad Men fail to change and that’s the whole point, unlike most other novelistic TV series. “1960 Sterling Cooper is the manor house in “The Cherry Orchard,” a besieged institution about to be swept away by the new order.” — John K.
4. CHEKHOV CHANGED THE NATURE OF ENDINGS
And knew exactly what he was doing when he said, “Either the hero gets married or shoots himself […] Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.”
Chekhovian endings tend to emphasize the continuation of conflict, not its conclusion.
When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.
One story even states: “And after that life went on as before.” While this feels like a ‘non-ending’, what it is, is a truncated ‘New Equilibrium’ stage.
They are subversive endings, designed to undercut our expectations.
These endings force readers to examine our conceptions about life and human nature.
The novel, and perhaps even more so, the short story does not provide philosophical answers, and Chekhov was fine with this state of affairs, saying that stories only need to ask the right questions.
Chekhov, and his descendants, may have together influenced children’s literature, including picture books:
There is a growing tendency for picture book endings to be left open, and more often than not, they pose questions to which there is no easy answer. Often the themes are what Egoff calls ‘the darker side of human experience’, as if authors wish to insist that the security of childhood be shattered as soon as possible, or maybe inferring that it is fiction anyhow.
— Clare Scott-Mitchell, Give Them Wings, 1988.
See also: Short Story Endings
5. CHEKHOV’S GUN
This storytelling term came from a piece of writing advice he issued once:
One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
6. CHEKHOV’S SIX PRINCIPLES OF A GOOD STORY
According to Chekhov:
- Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
- Total objectivity
- Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
- Extreme brevity
- Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
7. CHEKHOV DID NOT REQUIRE A CLIMAX
As well as truncating the ‘New Equilibrium’ part of a traditional narrative, Chekhov often omits a Self-revelation phase.
If he does this, he does so in order to make the reader have the epiphany his protagonist fails to have.
He did this more in his later work.
He did this because an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.
Unreliable narrators are particularly useful for achieving an epiphany in the reader.
Poetic justice — or the punishment of characters who do wrong might be one solid difference between stories ‘for children’ versus ‘for adults’. This is not because children’s authors don’t want to create stories in which bad behaviour wins out, but because adult gatekeepers are squeamish about giving those stories to children, lest they side with the naughty characters and consider them role models.
If you enjoy spending your one precious life reading one-star reviews of picturebooks on Goodreads, say, you may have noticed a few similarities in the types of books that get parents all riled up. One of those things:
The baddie does not get punished. He gets away scot free! This is a very bad example to children, who will learn from this story that doing bad things is okay.
Parents only have a problem with unpunished heroes, however. If the young reader is asked to identify with a character and that character is basically an asshole, and nothing
So, given that the readers of picturebooks are very young, and that picturebooks are very often read right before bed, children’s authors do not have the extensive fallbacks of:
- Community service
- Bodily harm
- Serious injury
- Torture followed by death
at their disposal.
But what if picture book authors would like to somehow punish their baddies, in this culture where retribution feels increasingly outdated? (Scandinavian prisons are not about retribution; they’re about care and reform, and we all know we should by running the world like the Scandinavians.)
If you’re a writer creating narrative for an adult audience you have the option of exploring the true nature of (in) justice — how it is not always poetic; bad behaviour is more often rewarded than punished, and how does that change the world? How are we supposed to live with that fact?
Here is the creator of BoJack Horseman, a cartoon for adults, on the concept of punishment in storytelling:
[We are conditioned by narrative to believe] that if we are good we will be rewarded, and if we have good intentions, that will lead to good actions. And if we are true and brave and loyal and kind, then things will work out.
I’m interested in the ramifications of believing in that. And I think that’s another reason why Hollywood is interesting, certainly for me because the show is about how the people who create these stories are the people who are affected by these stories.
JUSTICE AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT
The idea of retributive justice is a concept learned very early by children, though we probably shouldn’t call it that. I remember my own daughter at about two or three years old, banging her own knee on a table, then crying with some fury. She believed the table had done that to her out of spite.
Psychologist Paul Bloom has shown that retributive thinking appears very early in the lives of infants, even before they begin to use language. Infants are delighted when they see the “bad person”—a puppet who has snatched something from another puppet—beaten with a stick. Bloom calls this an early sense of justice. I prefer to call it the internal Furies that inhabit us all, and that are not securely linked to real justice. The infants’ idea looks like a version of the lex talionis: an eye for an eye, pain for pain. It’s not hard to imagine that the crude idea of proportional payback has an early, perhaps an evolutionary, origin. It is a leap to call this an idea of justice, and I think we should not make this leap.
CHANGING ATTITUDES TOWARDS PUNISHMENT FOR CHILDREN
In recent years educators and parenting experts have started telling us that punishment doesn’t work when it comes to modifying children’s behaviour. Techniques around behaviour modification change from one generation to the next and is of course mirrored in children’s literature.
Take parents and children. Parents often feel that children have acted wrongfully, and they are outraged. They want to protest the wrong, and somehow to hold the child accountable. But they usually avoid retributive payback. They rarely think (today at least), “now you have to suffer for what you have done,” as if that by itself was a fitting response. Instead, they ask themselves what sort of reaction will produce future improvement in the child. Usually this will not be a painful payback, and it certainly won’t obey the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye.” If their child hits a playmate, parents do not hit their child as if that were “what you deserve.” Instead, they choose strategies that are firm enough to get the child’s attention, and that express clearly that and how what the child did was wrong. And they give positive suggestions for the future, how to do things differently. So, loving parents typically have the outrage part of anger without the payback part—where their children are concerned. This will be a clue to my positive proposal for democratic society.
John Yorke reminds us that there really is no distinction between a real person and a fictional person when it comes to reader opinions on how ‘avatars’ should be treated:
[Characters] are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us.
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
Jeff Kinney created a very popular character who is basically an asshole a lot of the time, and although Greg Heffley is not actively punished by retributive parents and Trunchbull-archetype teachers, natural consequences tend to kick in for him. Here’s Kinney’s philosophy on punishment in children’s fiction. Like all popular contemporary authors, he’s wary of writing ‘morality tales’:
I think [readers] like to see somebody behaving badly because [they] know you can’t really do that. And you also like to see somebody punished for behaving badly,” he says. “My books are not morality tales but they allow kids to see their own lives through this character; what could happen if they made certain choices.”
— Jeff Kinney, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid
Kinney uses natural consequences and an unreliable narrator to great effect. But what about all those other stories with clear, unambiguous baddies? How are we meant to tie those off nicely, if punishment doesn’t work, and is more and more often seen as unfair?
Here are a few case studies in poetic justice, from picture books which have sold really well. It would be worth looking at the most recent picture books too, because these are a few years old now, and this part of culture is changing rapidly.
SOLUTION ONE: FORCE AN EVIL CHARACTER TO EAT SOMETHING DISGUSTING
Julia Donaldson knows just how to punish her baddies, avoiding the criticism of immorality, but without going too far. Donaldson is indeed a master of knowing what will be sell well. Continue reading “Punishment In Children’s Literature”
You may not remember dreaming after you sleep, but you’ll encounter many dream sequences in books.
Isn’t it cheesy to rely on dreams? Don’t rational readers know that dreams cannot predict the future — that dreams are the scrabbled outworkings of a brain tidying itself up?
Dreams, daydreams, visions, prophecies, processes of memory… all of these count as ‘dream sequences’.
Why do authors make use of dreams in fiction? Continue reading “Dreaming In Films And Literature”
Narrative closure is not necessarily the same as thematic or ideational closure.
— Per Winther, The Art of Brevity, Closure and Preclosure as Narrative Grid in Short Story Analysis
- This holds true even though for certain stories the two types of closure will seem inseparable.
- Modern stories (20th C rather than 19th C) tend to bring the story line to a logical end point but point beyond the text itself to further developments, forcing the reader back into the text to ponder the meaning. In other words, modern short stories reward re-reading.
- We might call the closure of plot a ‘narrative closure’.
- We might call the other kind of closure ‘hermeneutic closure’. (Hermeneutic basically = interpretive.)
- Susan Lohafer came up with a similar set of terms: Physical Closure, Immediate Cognitive Closure and Deferred Cognitive Closure. Physical Closure refers to the end of a sentence, a paragraph, a story itself. Immediate Cognitive Closure refers to that feeling you get as reader when you understand the surface meaning of a text. Deferred Cognitive Closure happens some time later when you realise more fully what the story was really about.
- Hermeneutic closure tends to be deferred/delayed.
See also: Short Story Endings
If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.
– Orson WellesThere are no happy endings.
Endings are the saddest part,
So just give me a happy middle
And a very happy start.– Shel SilversteinI don’t think a happy ending should be one of the requirements of a children’s book. Kids want their books to reflect reality. They know that the bully doesn’t always get his comeuppance in the end.– Robert Cormier
CASE STUDY: THE ENDING OF BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA
At the end of this story, Leslie dies while swinging on the rope to Terabithia and Jess blames himself for it. Luckily Jess’s father helps him accept Leslie’s death and convinces him that it’s not his fault and to hold onto Leslie’s friendship to keep her alive. Jess returns to Terabithia, but builds the titular bridge, and takes his sister with him, offering her the title of princess.
Quite a few critics have objected to the fact that Katherine Paterson’s novels do not offer young readers any hope. Paterson has refuted criticism by saying that “there is no way that we can tack [hope] on to the end of the story like pinning the tail on the donkey.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
Do children require happy endings?
[Alan Garner] states that a writer must not offer readers solutions or happy endings, but instead make use of something he calls “the method of the open hand” where readers must discover for themselves what the writer has to show. It was the publishers who requested that The Moon of Gomrath (1963) be given a “happy” ending instead of an open and disturbing one.
– from Children’s Literature Comes Of Age by Maria Nikolajeva
I do not necessarily claim that young readers need happy endings. Rather, they are conditioned to see conventional endings, which in our Western tradition happens to be a happy ending, reestablishing the characters in their power position.
– The Rhetoric of Children’s Character by Maria Nikolajeva
Death by Newbery Medal: A Phenomenon
There is a Slice of Life story about childhood and coming of age. The main character has a best friend (an animal, another child, or a family member) who is a source of joy, wisdom, and understanding in their life. This friend is often frailer, more unworldly, or otherwise more “special” than The Protagonist. Bonus points if the character is cute or adorable.At the end of the story, this very special best friend is abruptly killed off, usually in a clear-cut case of Diabolus ex Machina. A favorite trick is to have the death happen entirely off-screen. The more horribly poignant, the better.All this is generally accompanied by lots of “end of the innocence” angsting from the main character, along the lines of “That was the day my childhood ended…” Really, it’s just the author’s way of having a child suddenly make the jump to adulthood via a single defining tragedy.The Newbery Medal is a prestigious award given to American novels written for children. To win one, it helps a lot to use a story like this. The British equivalent is the Carnegie Medal, which has a similar reputation.
– TV Tropes
Fairytales, Weddings & New Relationships
The “happy endings” of Hollywood films link them with the world of fairy tales, which are often about the achievement of perfection. Fairy tales frequently end with a statement of perfection, like “and they lived happily ever after”. Fairy tales bring the shattered family back into balance, back to completion.
Weddings are a popular way to end stories. Marriage is a new beginning, the end of an old life of being single and the beginning of a new life as part of a new unit. New beginnings are perfect and unspoiled in their ideal form.
Striking up a new relationship is another way to show a new beginning at the end of a story. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart makes the difficult Resurrection sacrifice, giving up the chance to be with the woman he loves. His reward, the Elixir he brings away from the experience, is his new alliance with Claude Rains. As he says, in one of the most famous tag lines in the history of the movies, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
– The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
Endings of Carnivalesque Stories
In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power. However, the very idea of carnival presupposes a temporal limitation. The child, who has been allowed to leave the security of home and experience breath-taking adventures, is taken back, and the established order is restored. This is what we sometimes call a happy ending. As Pat Pinsent demonstrates, excessive “coincidences” in children’s fiction, which sometimes irritate mimetically minded critics, should not be considered artistic flaws since they are part of this restoration of the initial order.
– Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature
(In general, though, coincidences are okay at the beginning of a novel but not as a way of tying up the end.)
The Tyranny Of The Happy Ending from Salon
Earn Your Happy Ending from TV Tropes
Bittersweet Endings from TV Tropes
Beth Doesn’t Always Die In Little Women from BookRiot
It’s impossible to say anything about television endings without first drawing a sharp line down the middle of two very different narratives:
- The continuing series, of which successful stories can run perhaps 10 series.
- The novelistic, limited series which runs for perhaps 5 or 6 seasons at most.
The storytelling in each looks quite different.
THE STRUCTURE OF CONTINUING TV SERIES
A complete story is made up of 7 stages:
- NEW EQUILIBRIUM
These are the terms used by John Truby, who is a Hollywood movie guru. TV writers use a different terminology.
TV writers in the United States call the BATTLE the ‘worst case’.
BBC writers call it ‘worst point’.
The essential difference between a complete TV drama and an ongoing series: In an ongoing series such as Coronation Street, Eastenders, Batman, Superman, Flash Gordon and everything else like it, each episode ends at the BATTLE.
Be it TV or film, a complete story is a complete story. The main difference may simply be budget allocated, but even that difference is disappearing as high budget TV gains in popularity and in quality.
If it’s a commercial station you’re watching, writers know where the breaks must go. The BATTLE scene will occur right before the final ad break. The final segment will of course give us the SELF-REVELATION and the NEW EQUILIBRIUM.
So was I frustrated by the ending? You bet. But I was supposed to be. I realized that was the only way the show could have ended, by not ending. Some have argued that Tony really was whacked. The last scene was told largely from his perspective. If someone shot him in the head from behind, everything would simply go black.
But I think the open ending was all about the fundamental technique of the show. Every character and action in that diner was both everyday normal and full of dread. Tony had become a king trapped in a state of nature, death on all sides, and it could come from the littlest nobody. At any time. That’s the life he has sown.
Farewell Sopranos, the king of drama. You were big drama and small drama; big story and small story. Most of all, you were professional writers at the top of their craft. Thank you.
When I was talking to HBO recently, I told them about a big learning experience I had thanks to the finale of The Sopranos. A lot of people didn’t like the ending, but I thought it worked. It’s not just that it was anti-climactic. It was anti-conventional. It played against expectations, but it worked in a sense that was satisfying.
There are four classic endings to a story:
- purely positive
- purely tragic [Breaking Bad]
- positive with irony where the character gets what s/he wants but pays a big price [a.k.a. pyrrhic victories]
- tragic with irony where s/he loses everything but s/he learns something [Big Love]
Those are the classic tonalities of endings.
Q: But The Sopranos ending isn’t really any of those, and it’s still satisfying.
Right. I thought about the ending with them sitting in this restaurant, and I realized there was a fifth possible ending, which is what I came to call “exhaustion.” That means that the characters have been emptied out completely, and the writer has exhausted their humanity. There’s nothing you don’t know about them. Everything is known, including their dreams. That was it.
All those characters in The Sopranos were exhausted, and it was satisfying. You realize you know everything. You got to know these characters like you never have with somebody in your own life. That’s exhaustion in the strict sense of the word.
The Sopranos taught me the fifth ending, which is only possible in the long form—long novels or a hundred-episode series. Exhausting characters takes a lot of storytelling. If a film exhausts somebody, then the character wasn’t that complex to begin with.
I would say Mad Men ended with the fifth kind of ending, too, not because there was nothing more to know about Don, necessarily — a secretive character by nature — but because there was nothing more to learn about that whole world.
Robert McKee on ‘exhausted characters’:
What about The Wire, which didn’t try to do that so much with characters, but with Baltimore?
That would be another way of looking at exhaustion, which is that you emptied out the potential of the setting. I think those characters from The Wire still have lives to live after that and have potential for change, but you’ve come to know that world so much that Baltimore is exhausted.
A classic example of writers not knowing that they reached the level of exhaustion is Dexter, because he was emptied out and wasn’t going to change by the end of season four or so. But it was making money, so they made new serial killers and put the emphasis on the antagonists, but Dexter was an exhausted character, and it got stupid.
The Walking Dead
For months AMC has been beating the drums for the so-called “last” Rick Grimes/Andrew Lincoln episode. And as it came time to hunker down for Sunday’s “What Comes After,” speculation ran rampant on how our leading man would exit the zombie apocalypse.
Would he remain impaled on that rebar spike and simply bleed out? (Too easy).
Would he become zombie-chow for the two hordes of walkers coming his way? (Too lame).
Would Negan somehow escape and kill him? (Too convenient).
Would he realize his dream of an ideal society was crumbling and simply ride off into the sunset? (Too undramatic).
Or would he, as gamesradar.com had listed among its scenarios, be accidentally killed by little Judith after she somehow got ahold of a gun? (Too horrifying).
- Discovering the Art of Television’s Endings from FlowTV
- 10 Movies And TV Shows Where The Characters Probably Died 5 Minutes After The End, from io9
- And Then What? 5 Maddeningly Unresolved Plots from LitReactor
- Film Endings and TV Endings are similar in many ways.