When my mom reads a book, she goes to the last few pages to see how it concludes before starting from the beginning because she doesn’t want to become invested in it only to find that it ends badly. Of course, an ending being good or a bad is subjective. We tend to be programmed for our stories to have a happy ending, but does the ending have to be happy to be good?
We often hear the criticism about movies having “Hollywood endings” where everything is tied up nicely–or in the case of blockbusters, the heroes engage in a huge battle that concludes with them besting the villain. Studios seem to think that audiences are unable to handle anything but a fairy tale ending where the characters live happily ever after, even though the original fairy tales had resolutions that were anything but happy.
Some of the most compelling endings to movies were ones that were bittersweet or ironic. Butch and Sundance went out in a blaze of glory knowing that their guns were empty of bullets and there was no escape. Thelma and Louise similarly had no alternative but to drive over the cliff. The reporters investigating the life of Charles Foster Kane never discovered what “Rosebud” meant, even though the audience was clued in with the final shot. Michael Corleone took over the family business despite his desire to separate himself from the gangster life.
The Twilight Zone was famous for its twist endings where many times a flawed character would get a comeuppance or the situation was resolved in a manner that reflected critically upon human behavior and the ills of society. In these cases, the ending reflected on the theme of the episode–without that very specific ending, the whole point of the story would be lost.
Rod Serling himself scripted the original film Planet of the Apes, which ended with the iconic reveal of the Statue of Liberty, indicating that Charleton Heston was actually on a futurist Earth rather than on a distant planet. This was different, though no less ironic, than the conclusion of Pierre Boulle’s source novel in which the lead astronaut character actually did travel to a far-away “monkey planet” and returned to Earth to discover that apes had now taken over (hundreds of years had passed due to space travel and the theory of relativity). A final twist was revealed that the characters who found the story as a “message in a bottle” floating in space at the beginning of the book were indeed apes, and they laughed at the ludicrousness of humans having advanced technology.
But can a twist ending work simply because it presents something unexpected? Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes took a cue from the novel and planted Mark Wahlberg’s astronaut on a completely different ape-run planet, only to return to Earth to discover that the Lincoln memorial now featured a familiar chimpanzee face. This ending made no sense in the context of the story and left the audience confused. M. Night Shyamalan made a career from his twist endings to films such as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, both of which changed the entire perception of the films once the twists were revealed. But people were less enamored with the aliens in Signs being defeated by water, the fact that The Village was actually set in present day, and that what was happening in The Happening was that trees were poisoning people. These twists didn’t work because to a certain degree, they all felt like cheats.
An ending can be downbeat, tragic, or leave the protagonist from reaching his goal and still be satisfying. Romeo and Juliet has survived centuries as a well-loved tale, and yet concludes with the title characters (teenagers at that) dead. Braveheart‘s William Wallace is eviscerated, yet audiences loved the film. Ahab’s obsession over the whale brought about his watery death, yet Moby Dick is a classic. There are many other examples of non-happy endings that work, and an argument can be made that these endings can be more powerful than if everything turns out perfect at the end.
What makes an ending satisfying is whether it is earned. Too many Hollywood films are resolved with a shootout, or in the case of Marvel superhero flicks a sky battle. That might be eye candy and offer some heart-pumping excitement, but all too often it’s emotionally empty. Far too many times the writer realizes this and tries to make it personal for the lead character by putting the hero’s loved one (usually the girlfriend) in jeopardy. However, this emotional stake is tacked on rather than naturally developed in the course of the story. In other words, it’s a plot device and happens randomly at the whim of the storyteller.
An earned ending is one that is inevitable. When the protagonist makes the decision at the end of act one that propels the course of the story in that particular direction to tackle the overall conflict, it must lead to a specific resolution–even if the conclusion is one in which the main character does not live happily ever after.
In order for an unhappy ending to work, there has to be emotional payoffs. For instance, the hero sacrificing himself for others to live is a valid reason to kill off the protagonist; but if the hero simply died in an unexpected car wreck, the audience would be angry because the accident would come out of nowhere and feel unnecessary to the story. On the other hand, if a character’s fatal flaw lived up to its name and brought about the protagonist’s downfall because he couldn’t learn to rise above this personality defect, then that is valid and reflects a theme of the story. If the audience experiences a catharsis by going through a tragedy on screen or in print and coming out with a lesson learned, then experiencing that story is worthwhile.
Theme is more important than plot in storytelling. What the author is trying to say about humanity is a better reason for an ending to exist than because the plot dictates it. Stephen King’s epic tale The Dark Tower ended in a way that many people hated. The conclusion was unexpected, but also felt unresolved in the fact that the story was left where it began. However, if you examine what the entire series of books was about, it’s clearly stated numerous times that the mystical force Ka is a wheel–everything revolves back to the beginning. So given this, the ending is exactly as it should be. But King threw in one more twist in that this tale is about alternate dimensions and various realities, so that characters that his constant readers grew to love over the course of seven books who perished by the end of the last installment did find their happy endings even while Roland the Gunslinger continued his perpetual quest for the eponymous tower. Perhaps this was a cheat, but it was one that could happen naturally in constructs of this particular story.
By contrast, the recent film The Witch featured an ending that felt unresolved even though the last scene apparently tried to reflect on a theme. Unfortunately, due to random deaths and fates of characters that were left up in the air as well as the final scene that existed with no setup, the entire movie seemed pointless. That is a lesson to learn in any storytelling–your audience will follow you to the very end and take any twists you throw at them, but if the ending is unsatisfying because it doesn’t provide the emotional closure, make a strong statement, or transpire due to an organic sense of inevitability, then the entire story falls apart.