Although this entry discusses the endings of screenplays and short stories, no spoilers are revealed. We’ll be looking at the craft of bringing a story to an end rather than the specifics.
There’s been some disquiet over the ending of the TV version of Game of Thrones, with the consensus that it had been unsatisfying compared to the action that had gripped viewers earlier in the run. It echoes the rumbles that followed the endings of Lost a decade ago and The Prisoner in the 1960s.
Conflict is at the heart of storytelling across all media and all eras, and it’s by convention that the conflict should rise and rise as the story progresses, then end with a final resolution that ties up every plot point. Unless a writer is exceptionally skilled, it’s difficult to break away from this convention and still hold the audience.
An unsatisfying ending is usually because the writer failed to resolve the conflict, or sometimes because said conflict wasn’t strong enough in the first instance.
Let’s look at The Prisoner. The series begins when a former British intelligence agent known as Number Six is abducted and imprisoned in a coastal village, where absurd rules apply and staff attempt to nudge him into explaining why he abruptly resigned from his job.
Despite this strong initial premise, the series begins to fall into a rut. By the halfway point of the run, each episode sees Number Six attempting either to escape or to win over his captors, but failing each time in a near-predictable manner.
The final episode is consistent with the absurd rules that had been well established, but fails to answer the question posed about why Number Six had left the security services. That revelation could have been one of the greatest moments in TV history. But thanks to the erratic production, the episode instead divided its viewership.
It is entirely possible to end a piece in such an open-ended manner, as is common in some short stories, but this must be carefully done. A few years ago, I had a story published in an anthology whose stories didn’t seem to have proper endings, leaving me with the feeling that each writer was concealing a vital plot point.
However, an open ending is common in The New Yorker and similar publications. In other media, the film Teeth (2007) is a particularly good example of showing how the previous sequence of events might be about to repeat without spelling it out too much.
The bottom line is that a good ending must either indicate that the previous conflict will be resolved in some way, or an audience must have enough information to work out how it might be resolved once the narrative ends.