Downer Endings: The Novel’s Answer to the Hollywood Ending!

I’ve been jamming tons of text into my eyeballs lately, flash fiction and short stories, novels and craft blogs.

I also told you how I really feel when I wrote Things I’m Sick of Reading About in September. In it, I railed against stories that lack a proper ending. TL;DR If you misuse authorial power so blatantly, this is you:

“My writing bores me. You finish the story, peon!”

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in real stories; stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Stories that leave the audience satisfied, rather than befuddled, upon reaching the end. When someone writes a story with no end, I wonder, did they have a purpose in writing at all, or did they just want to waste my reading time? In 100% of apprentice writers, 99% of journeyman writers, and 95% of masters, the inconclusive ending flops.

So I stand unapologetically pro-ending.

Next question! Given that an ending must exist (assuming you buy my unconvincing and ill-backed opinion), what kind of ending shall we have?

A few nights ago, I dusted off the artifact-vault and uncovered several marked-up copies of “Breaking the Oath”, a workshop manuscript about an ogrish brute who falls in with desperadoes driven to banditry by a draconian duke. After taking an old farmer’s life, the event torments him until he finally makes a stand and quits the gang. His mates bar his exit, and so forced, he destroys them. Covered in battle-wounds, the ogre limps from the warhammer-crafted charnel scene and collapses in the highway, where the evil duke’s men capture him. He awakens in the duke’s dungeon, a compulsion band around his neck. Just when our “hero” thought he had won free, he’s forced into the duke’s service against his will.

At that point, I ignored the substantive issues I found in the clean copy on my hard drive — I’m not so short on ideas I need to reprocess my vault dwellers — the critical feedback’s what interested me. Of course, I’d only kept the feedback of people I’d actually respected. My peers thought my ending sucked.

My fate worse than death still left the protagonist alive, possibly able to change his fate, where they thought that after all the evil my protagonist had committed, death could be the only freedom he’d find. One went so far as to say my ending was a “Disney Ending”.

Wow. Okay. Didn’t realize a climax where the hero kills two dozen men he knew by name flew at The Mouse, but let’s put the extreme case aside. Sure, in Hollywood, we have the story, setup, Act I to Act II vault, mid-Act II gamechanger, Act II to Act III falling-out between Main-Character and Love-Interest/Notable-Second-Character, and finally resolution and happily-ever-after. Roll credits.

Yeah, it’s forced, it’s cheesy, it’s a copout. Real literature would never force endings to conform to specific emotional profiles!

Well, actually, if that specific emotion is sadness, poignancy, or regret, then yeah, it does. Especially new writers trip in this divot. How many workshop manuscripts did I read where a mopey protagonist stumbles through life, accomplishes nothing, and then the story ends, bleakly, because ART!

These deserve our loathing more than Hollywood Endings. Here, take a look at two stories of my own that fall prey, “Elfsbane Tea” and “A Jalt’s Tooth“. In both, I refuse a meaningful end to characters who could have found it in themselves to continue their path meaningfully. In “Elfsbane Tea”, I not only refuse a happy ending, I flirt with no ending at all, but at least Barrett has a reason to be shaken up. My message in “A Jalt’s Tooth” seems to be, “Yeah, it’s nice to have dreams, but some of us just plain suck, and you’re one of them.” Hilarious, since I just lambasted Wreck-It Ralph for the same message. Do as I say, not as I do, because I know I’m guilty of this shit too, guys. Oh man, am I guilty!

When I finished pre-writing for “Ephemeral”, I’d charted a sad ending for Uphir too, but as the end approached, I stopped and listened, and the characters wrote an ending that accomplished my thematic goals, but threw enough hope to Uphir to keep him afloat. Remembering the feedback I’d received on “Breaking the Oath”, on my read-over following the first pass-through I thought: “This has to change.”

But then I thought, “Why? I’m the writer, it ends how I say!”

The Hollywood Ending’s got a purpose. After the Hero’s Journey is complete, the hero ought to get some kind of reward. Imagine if during the final battle against Grendel’s Mother, she’d crippled Beowulf’s arm. Beowulf returns home to discover that all the women at Heorot contracted a case of the uggos, all the mead had soured, and no one remembered his name or his deeds.

“Then I tore Grendel’s arm off and beat him to death with it.”
“Sure you did, here’s some coppers.”

Robbed of wine, wenching, gratuitous manual dismemberment and death-by-clubbing-with-own-limb-giving, his very name and his heroic accolades, Beowulf dies in obscurity, the only mark of his passing a shallow grave on the moors beyond Heorot.

The hero gets no reward.

What sort of message does that send?

“Hard work goes unrewarded?”

“Don’t reach for your dreams, because when you fail, it’s a total downer?”

“Hey kid, nice cheerios, too bad I pissed in them?”

No wonder my peers maintained such pessimism towards their own futures. If our stories mirror our hearts, and reflect the truths of our lives, it’s amazing my peers kept on pushing like they did. Each of us penned stories that stated a belief in life as meaningless random outcome. At worst, suicidal depressives. At best, nihilists.

So the Hollywood Ending has a purpose. And the Downer Ending might too, have its purpose, employed carefuly, rather than as your default story ending.

But really, could we have something a little more nuanced?

All the sweet and sour’s making my teeth ache.


Gregory Blake is a freelance fiction, comedy, and opinion writer. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and of course, on the blog you’re reading right now.

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