Of Princes and Endings

An Unsatisfying Ending.

So, a few months ago I finished playing Prince of Persia 4.  The game-play was awesome–and beautiful. The writing was quirky and fun. The voice-acting, excellent and believable. The music, gorgeous.

The ending, frankly, sucked.

Granted, a French company made the game, and the French have a penchant for bleak endings, but the ending was highly inappropriate for the story–and here’s why.  (Spoiler alert)

The game starts when a desert-wandering thief encounters a Princess running away from her father and his men.  The thief teams up with her to fight those after her–and then gets sucked into the story. It turns out there is a Dark God bent on taking over the world. He used to be trapped–but now he is working his way free from his prison. Why? Because the princess Elika died and her father called on the Dark God’s powers to bring her back to life in exchange for its freedom.

The entire game we are fighting dark monsters and racing around solving puzzles and healing the darkness-corrupted lands to weaken the Dark God’s power. The boss-battles are against the Dark God’s minions–or servants–including against Elika’s father. And then the ending battle is against the Dark God himself to trap him again.

Only the “ending” doesn’t end there. Because Elika has to die in order to trap the Dark God again, (thereby returning the world to the way it was before her father resurrected her), the thief, now in love with her, goes crazy with grief and then–in order for the game to actually end–you have to go cut down the tree-seal on the Dark God’s prison, take that power and then resurrect Elika with it, thereby UNDOING EVERYTHING that you worked so hard to do in the game.

The last dialogue is Elika asking, “Why?” and looking up with horror into the thief’s face as the Dark God’s power sweeps over the land.

(End spoilers)

As far as endings go, perhaps they did everything “right”.  The story goes full circle in the little mathematical equation:

(beginning set-up (romance-subplot (middle)))

Everything is tied up “neatly”. Resurrection to resurrection; first no romance, then romance, then betrayal and lack of love.

However! Because the ending undoes everything the player has done in the game, it leaves the player feeling like they just wasted all of their time and effort.  Resurrecting Elika was also a really stupid thing to do. The entire game we know her love of the God of Light (she is a priestess), and we know what she is fighting for and what her happy ending would be.  Her happy ending IS to save the world, even if it takes dying for it.  The thief is stupid, dense, and an idiot if he thought for even a moment that she would love him if he undid everything she fought for.  Dying is not a tragedy here–undoing everything she died for is.

A Satisfactory Ending.

Editorial tradition states that in order for an ending to have impact, the Plot’s and all subplots’ resolution must happen in as close to the same scene as possible, like so-

(<–Plot (<–subplot (<–subplot (<–subplot (middle action & further complication)))))

Where that last tightly-packed group of  ” ) ” are all the plot- and emotional arc- threads coming together to land an ending.  However, if you will notice, the vast percentage of the book is spent building something and only a very small percentage of the book is spent resolving or tying threads.

One of my now all-time favorite books is Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.  When I first read the book, however, I found the ending editorially satisfactory–but highly unsatisfying.   In fact, the only way I became satisfied with the ending is by rereading the book several times to picture what Howl’s side of the story really is and see all the other threads briefly hinted at but missed in the very beginning. It took becoming ill years later, downloading the audiobook, and listening to it multiple times in order for that to happen.

Yet still even now, whenever I reach the ending, I’m upset there isn’t more.  I don’t think that’s just Complaining Fan syndrome.  It’s happened enough times where, for lack of a better way to put it, an author sticks her ending true gymnastics-style with no misstep, following the formula that “everything needs to be resolved in as few scenes as possible for the Highest Dramatic Effect”. Yet what it really feels like as a reader is that we got to spend so much time with the characters before and now we’re rushing to leave them.

How is that satisfying?

A Satisfying Ending.

I recently read Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale.  I was surprised to discover that her ending looked more like this:

(Character plot (family plot (romance subplot (mystery subplot (middle) mystery’s false ending) mystery end) family false-end) family&romance end) character end)

There were two red herring endings in her book, meaning the resolution was not all solved in one scene or one chapter the way Howl’s Moving Castle and many other books try to do.  Granted, many people who expect everything to be nice and neat might be driven crazy that they didn’t get a tidy package with a string tied into a bow.

Yet her ending meant we could spend more time with the characters. The resolution actually felt resolved instead of rushed-through and hastily tied-together.  By the time I got to the last page, I was happy. Or rather, I was satisfied, sated.  I made a complete journey with the characters instead of  a hasty goodbye once we see the destination on the horizon.

Granted, in short stories and novellas, leaving the reader once the reader knows what the ending should be– is okay. But for novels?  Is that fair to the reader?  Are writers and editors out of touch on what a satisfactory vs. satisfying ending truly is?  Are we too reliant on formulas that produce high drama in exchange for high satisfaction? Or am I alone in this? Am I the only one who wishes authors would dispense with formula and let us spend as much time with characters at the ending as at the beginning?

What are your thoughts? Agree? Disagree?

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8 responses to “Of Princes and Endings

  • Joe Vasicek

    Yeah, I didn’t care much for the ending of Howl’s Moving Castle either; it kind of came out of nowhere and was over before I knew what had happened. I liked the movie much better.

    Regarding endings, I think that it all depends on the type of story that’s being told. A more plot-based story needs to wrap up quickly, because after the main thread is resolved, there much of anything there to hold the readers’ interest. Something that’s more character-based or relationship-based could stand to draw things out a bit longer. Either way, the real problem isn’t the formula itself, but trying to twist the story to fit the formula instead of the other way around.

    • Laura

      Hmmm. Do you have a good example of a plot-based story you’ve read where when you got to the end you felt completely satisfied?

      • Joe Vasicek

        Star Wars IV comes immediately to mind: after they blow up the Death Star, there’s just the quick reunion in the hangar bay and the throne room scene before the end–not very long at all. And in Wolfhound which I read just recently, after the final battle, everything gets wrapped up by a couple of quick conversations in sickbay, which for that story works quite well.

      • Laura

        Is Wolfhound part of a series? Or is it a standalone?

        Star Wars IV I think is satisfying because we know it’s not really the end, there’s more coming with the characters. But if that movie had been the one and only–would it have been satisfying do you think? Formula-wise, the ending was executed perfectly, but had it been standalone, would it have been as satisfying?

      • Joe Vasicek

        It was originally intended as a standalone, and it was popular enough that they turned it into a massive media franchise, so yeah, I’d say so. As for other examples, the best place to look would probably be in the thriller genre, with authors like Crichton and Ludlum. I read a good one by Eric James Stone called Unforgettable, and while it was satisfying, I wasn’t really clamoring for a sequel at the end.

      • Laura

        Hmmm. Interesting. I guess I just can’t think of a personal example where I’ve got to the end and thought, “This is enough.”

        Nevermind–I’ve thought of one, but I make up for the lack of “more” by rewatching it so I’m not exactly sure if that counts.

  • Charlie Holmberg

    I’m not entirely sure about that ending… guess I’d have to play the game and see for myself. 😉

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