Exigo Ergo Sum
I finish, therefore I am
My tale has come to an end, my story has been committed to some sort of record. I lived, I existed, I fought the good fight, I made a mark on the fabric of the universe, if ever so small. It is finished, the end, game over.
And it is good.
…no, I’m not quitting the blog (though I’ve certainly been too busy to write my usual walls of text), I’m just musing. I’m in that sort of mood again, where I contemplate narrative, endings, entropy and death. Not because I’m depressed, no, but because I think endings are important to life, and crucial for stories that make life interesting.
It seems to me that there are two major schools of thought regarding story endings… for lack of a professional taxonomy, I’ll call them the Concretists and the Abstractists. They seem to roughly track with “Western vs. Eastern” or “Blue Collar vs. White Collar” or even “Nerdy vs. Artsy Fartsy”. All highly technical terms, by the way. There’s even a little of the Myers-Briggs flavor to some of the debate, along the Thinking-Feeling axis. (This overlaps a little with the Introvert/Extrovert axis, but it’s more about thought process, not social function.)
Concretists want the story to make sense and come to a logical conclusion. Even if the logic is strained, if it’s consistent with the world as presented, the whole experience is enhanced. This is perhaps embodied best in the morality tale mentality that runs deep in classical European fairy tales, or even Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” monomyth theory that underlies so many fictional yarns.
Abstractists are more interested in the emotional investment and the potential to interpret a fuzzy ending. Craving involvement with the story, an Abstractist loves a “neverending story” because it can fulfill that desire to indulge in immersion and endlessly ponder the deeper meanings of a fantasy life. Interpretation and pontification are almost more important than the original story.
I’m pretty sure that these are not fully isolated mindsets in general, but when it comes to ending a story, they run in clear contrast to each other. I find myself strongly in the Concretist camp, though as an author and artist, I certainly see the appeal of Abstractist thought. To my mind, endings are important because we can then move on. We can take what we learned and apply it in new ways out here in the Real World “monkeyspace” instead of dumping our hopes and ambitions into fruitless, unresolvable fiction. Abstract endings don’t end so much as just… stop. There’s a difference.
This isn’t to say that I always need or want happy endings. This is not a dream for rainbows and unicorn droppings in every facet of life. We do learn to understand life better when we experience the bitter and the sweet. Discerning between the two is an important psychological building block, and a crucial part of learning good judgment is learning how to anticipate the two and make choices to mold the future.
I’m simply noting that resolution is an important part of education. Understanding the process in something like Investigations Math or the “New Math” of decades back can be valuable, but without a destination in mind, complete with clear goals and consequences, we’re really not going to make much cognitive progress. We’ll just be feeling our way through unstable fields, building a cocoon of contentment with our own perception rather than building comprehension of the truths of the world around us. (To be sure, there’s a tangent to run about anthropic principles, quantum questions, religion and science, but I’ll just note that I believe that actual absolute truths exist, whether or not we understand them… and that the best of science and faith are interested in understanding those truths.)
When it comes to storytelling, if we are ever searching for resolution, but always held from it by teasing muses, sure, we might maintain interest for a bit longer than we would with a real ending, but we’ll wind up lacking perspective as the shifting story blows us about with every wind of authorial whimsy. Authors can get lost and wind up in a terrible cycle of retcons or rewrites, changing characters or events willy nilly or even on the fly. (There’s probably room in there to complain about scorched earth storytelling and Serenity, but I’m still too annoyed about that movie to put together anything cohesive, and well, it really was a resolution, just one I didn’t like. Stupid Whedon.)
So yes, as good as Inception was, the ending seemed like a bit of a copout to me. Leaving Dom’s fate to the viewer is perhaps a sly allusion to the themes of the movie, so it’s a successful gambit that works for the story being told, but the nonresolution seems a bit too, well, abstract to me. That said, it could also work to illustrate my point if we take Dom’s view. One of the theories about the show suggests that Dom makes a choice at the end to simply accept whatever “ending” he presently found himself in when he had his children back. He ended his own quest, and whether or not it was “real” doesn’t matter. He stopped looking, he chose an ending and moved on.
Chuck had a similar sort of “it’s up to the viewer” ending, though it was less about the nature of reality and more about the key relationship that drove the angst and triumph in the show’s narrative arcs. This seems to me to be an even bigger copout than the Inception ending, but it has certainly driven interest in the show past its finale, with talk of a comic or movie to continue the adventure. At the same time, it also bears resemblance to the silly “will they or won’t they” romantic tension between Chuck and Sarah that wound up being overplayed in early seasons. Stringing along viewers only plays well for a little while, then it just gets old as the authors find ever-more-implausible reasons to keep the characters spinning their wheels in emotional ruts.
Then there’s the current bugaboo in the gaming world, Mass Effect 3 and its ending(s). Shamus has a good pair of articles up on it, and this is another good breakdown. Spoilers ahoy, of course. In short, the ending wasn’t exactly loved by all (that link is a great article that manages to bring in The Lord of the Rings… if you read one of these links, make it that one), and the fuss was sufficient that BioWare is addressing it with some DLC to try to make things more understandable. This, naturally, has raised questions about who owns the narrative thread in an interactive story.
I suspect the metagame concerns about how game design is supposed to function and how the game market works is far more important than the actual Mass Effect story itself. It’s nice to see the nature of narrative bandied about; I think it’s important to designers to understand how narrative works and its interaction with… interactivity, and how those facets affect their game design. Storytelling is still important, even though we have a slightly different medium in games.
In the end, I think we’ll never really be able to make the Concretists and the Abstractists agree. That’s OK, though, since we do tend to need a bit of both (abstract thought tends to be the spark that fuels a lot of “what if” experimentation, which can be just as crucial as observation when it comes to learning about the world around us). Still, I think that real endings with resolution are the lion’s share of a healthy fiction diet, if for no other reason than they allow us to move on to the next story rather than be emotionally stuck in a mire of questions. Keep moving forward, keep learning. Experiment and ask those important “what if” questions, but realize that they have answers, and it’s important to move on to the next questions, building on what is known to reach into the unknown.
The end of one story often leads to the beginning of a new one, with a wiser audience in tow. That, to me, is a big part of why I think stories are important. They can teach us in ways that nonfiction cannot, including giving us tools to move on and make our real lives better in ways that we might not have otherwise imagined or experienced. That’s one of the strengths of the written word in the first place; to learn from others what we may never have the chance to learn on our own.