Between Mass Effect 3 and The Legend of Korra, I’ve found myself reflecting on endings quite a bit recently. What makes a good ending? What makes a bad ending? But I always return to the same basic question:
At what point does a story actually end?
The most obvious answer, I think, is “when the protagonist accomplishes his/her primary narrative goal.” For example:
1. Mission Impossible 4: Our intrepid team of super-spies must prevent global nuclear war. The movie “ends” the moment Tom Cruise slams his fist down on the abort button.
2. Hamlet: Shakespeare’s mad Danish prince seeks to avenge the murder of his father. The classic play “ends” when Hamlet finally (over)kills his treacherous uncle… maybe when he succumbs to the poison.
3. Legend of Korra: The eponymous Avatar-in-training pursues two equally important objectives—a) master Airbending; and b) put an end to terrorist Amon’s anti-Bending revolution. Fortunately, she achieves both more or less simultaneously (a smart move on the part of the writers)—in a moment of extreme peril, she instinctively uses Airbending to fling Amon through a window, unmasking him and exposing his deception to his fanatical followers.
Of course, the “end” of a story does not give the writer license to stop the storytelling process. After Ethan aborts the missile launch, he still has to patch things up with his Inspector Javert and restore Brandt’s nerve. After Hamlet talks himself to death, the surviving characters still need to figure out how to fill the vacant throne and get rid of all the corpses (and whatever became of Hamlet’s old school chums?). After Korra shatters the spine of the Equalist power structure, she still has to regain control over the other three elements and hook up with Mako. A few Shaw Bros. kung-fu flicks fall flat because the hero just sort of wanders off into the closing credits right after defeating the Final Boss, leaving several such plot threads unresolved. On the other hand, taking too long to tie up every loose end risks boring viewers/readers—once the protagonist fulfills his/her desire, the audience loses its incentive to stick around.
I believe this delicate balancing act is what makes crafting the perfect ending so difficult.