When a Story Should End: Infinite Imagination or Structured Storytelling?
The following will contain spoilers for Twin Peaks, Seinfeld and How I Met Your Mother. This is an extension on the thesis posited in August Merz’s piece ‘Calling it Quits: When Should TV Shows End?’.
When one undertakes watching a television series, a film, a book or any other kind of narrative art piece, one inherently expects that it will, most likely, be constructed in a typical bell-curve like structure. This usually consists of an introduction of familiar characters; the implementation of these characters into several hardships, which they must overcome, and reach a new and different equilibrium. Therefore, the characters of a text do not end back where they started, but their story often concludes in a way where we can imagine how their lives will continue. This is otherwise known as the conclusion of a story.
It is logically necessary for everything which begins to eventually end, and this is no different for pieces of entertainment. When a person chooses to take the time to perceive a narrative work, they innately like to be shown how the characters change. By watching the characters change, the viewer’s perspective on the world will change. However, just as one expects the character to return to an equilibrium, so too does one need to return to an emotional equilibrium. As more and more people become aware of the rules of narrative, they have become more aware when something is not answered or left ambiguous. While this is not necessarily a bad thing at times, there are instances where the death of a storyline or a series altogether is untimely to say the least.
However, our ideas of needing explicit details of how a story ends need to be re-evaluated so that art does not fall down the slippery slope towards complete blatancy of narrative. However, with the expansion of the creative world to include ‘fan fiction’ and tributes, perhaps, the story does not need to end, at least in the minds of who reads or views it. However, with the need for an artist to consider the commercial pressures connected with creating a beloved text, should the creators always expect cancellation or adhere to their creative dreams? Does leaving a series filled with loose ends negate what has come before it or is the journey just as valuable as the destination?
The Inherent Need for Commercial Viability
A case which has highlighted the need for a conclusion is the ABC cult series Twin Peaks (1990-1), which has been revived by its original creators David Lynch and Mark Frost, for a limited reboot season lasting nine episodes on Showtime, premiering on June 2016. Twin Peaks followed a FBI agent named Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) investigating the murder of “good girl” Laura Palmer in the town of Twin Peaks. While the series was thought to have “ended” after the finale of the second season was broadcast in 1991, a resurgence in support for the show to have a proper conclusion obviously came from several avenues. There was no limit on what the show could continue to do, at least in a creative sense.
However, because of insufficient ratings during the second season and a prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me losing money during its run at the box office, the series was not renewed for a third season. To have the journey end with the protagonist of the entire series, Dale Cooper possessed by an evil spirit, as well as leaving several other characters’ future in question, was, undoubtedly, not what anyone wanted for the series. However, regardless of the fact that it was initially marketed via the famous tagline of “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, Twin Peaks was never about reaching a defined conclusion. As much as it was a murder mystery, which transformed into a mystery surrounding a supernatural demon-like figure known only as “BOB” (Frank Silva), it was also a soap opera which focused on constantly exploring the underbelly of American small-town surburbia. Like most soap operas (e.g. The Bold and the Beautiful (1987-), it is defined in terms of its “infinite seriality”, or the fact that it could have continued to put characters through hardships and situations forever. However, all serial texts are always subject to commercial pressures, as Twin Peaks exemplifies, one should always be aware of both the commercial support of one’s work (and how long that will last) and the creative vision as to how one wants to end such a text.
The Familiarity of Art
When an artist creates something, they are not only creating it to be watched, read, seen or otherwise interpreted by the senses, but does so with the conscious intent to evoke some emotion in the recipient of their work. Therefore, the product can never be interpreted as completely distinct from the audience for which it is created. While there remains a vision as to what the artist wants their work to be, the expectations of the audience, as well as those who are supporting the work are always influential on what the final work is. However, if one knows that there is not enough support for their work to continue, should one end it before support is denied, or continue with one’s initial vision and end it in a way which is consistent with the initial idea?
In the case of Twin Peaks, David Lynch and Mark Frost, as well as other creative forces behind the show must have been aware that the initial hype had died down, especially since the main question of “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” was answered half-way through the second season. However, those behind Twin Peaks decided to end the season without resolving any of the character’s plotlines. While this was consistent with how Twin Peaks was programmed and outlined, with most episodes ending on a cliffhanger, they must have been aware that the future of the series was under question. While it seems natural to assume that an artist’s intention to end it whenever they desire or see fit, there must also be an understanding that there is a “fandom” which is expecting a satisfactory conclusion to give them the appropriate amount of closure.
One of the reasons why people undertake such things as watching an entire television series, or reading a novel, or any other narrative-based artwork, is not only to become attached to its characters, but to be inherently aware that they are only structures of a larger story. This is to say that while works of entertainment and art, at least those which aim to resemble a coherent narrative, are viewed as influential on people’s world view or to distract them from their normal activities, they are also manifestations of ingrained structures of narrative. Therefore, people go to the cinemas or the library, or watch television with a subconscious awareness that our interaction with a text will be finite (whether it be the length of a film, a television episode or the time it takes to read a novel).
However, these inherent expectations are not confined to just the length of time to finish, but in adhering to oft-repeated points of narrative progression. Regardless of what medium the text is presented in, the mind is constantly subconsciously referring and comparing it to other well-known works. Similar to the way in which the introduction and body of a text is being referenced to other works, so too is how a story ends. Just as much as the viewer wants a certain repetition in narrative progression, they also need a certain familiarity in the narrative conclusion. However, this is not always possible as certain texts need to subvert common narrative parts. Recent texts have displayed and supported the thesis that the story does not need to end in a typical manner in order to hold value as either art or entertainment.
Subversive Endings as the Future
A recent text which subverted the expectation of its cult following was the short-lived Channel 4 show Utopia (2013-14), which was cancelled after only two seasons produced lasting twelve one-hour long episodes. Utopia follows the story of four average Brits who inadvertently get caught up in a web of government corruption and conspiracy. However, on account of insufficient ratings statistics, Channel 4 rejected a third season, even though the second season ended without providing any real conclusion. Despite the fact that the show’s creators asked that Channel 4 let them conclude the story with a two-hour special, this was also declined. Therefore, while the creators must have been aware about the failing numbers, they intentionally left the series on a “cliffhanger”. The causes for this decision is an amalgamation of many factors including the fact that Channel 4 is a public broadcasting station and is, therefore, on the periphery of what is considered mainstream. However, Utopia was all about subverting typical storytelling norms, with the narrative told in such a way so as to persuade the audience to sympathise and understand the actions of who are ultimately the antagonists. While other texts foreshadow or remain explicit on how they will end and, indeed, how they do end (e.g. Breaking Bad (2008-13), Six Feet Under (2001-5)), a decision to end a series, or a serial text with some ambiguity should not necessarily be shied away from as long as it fits with the themes and tone of the text. However, more episodic texts, such as those of sitcoms or certain dramas do need a definitive conclusion.
Ending an Episodic Text
An episodic text is one which need not be watched in consecutive order and can be watched without a comprehensive awareness of what has occurred before or a need to know what will happen in the future. Episodic texts not so much tell a story, but present an over-arching message over several, loosely connected stories. Therefore, in contrast to serial texts, the characters are where the story flows from, in that the stories are forced to happen via the traits of the text’s characters. The story is not the focus, but it is how the characters instigate and react to certain situations.
For instance, an episodic text which utilises this format is the “sitcom”. For example, CBS‘s extremely popular How I Met Your Mother (2005-14) was about the journey of four New Yorkers throughout their lives. Interestingly, it also aimed to tell a story, namely the story of how its protagonist Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) meets his wife and the mother of his children. However, the story is still just an ancillary part of the show throughout most of its run. Episodic texts often are based upon repetitious relationships between characters, exemplified by the “on and off” romances of Ted and Robin on How I Met Your Mother and Ross and Rachel on Friends (1994-2004). As a consequence of the use of traits to repeat similar stories continuously, it is hard to conclude the story, because there is not really much of a story being told, at least in the sense of a defined beginning, middle and end. Simultaneously, the story of the characters must logically be concluded, at least in the sense of what is going to be presented to the audience explicitly. However, as the story is not restricted by its own parameters, a show or other episodic text will usually continue to the point where it becomes culturally irrelevant or artistically redundant. A case in which the creators of a text ended the explicit story before this point is Seinfeld (1989-98). Despite the fact that one of the show’s creators, Jerry Seinfeld, was offered a hundred million U.S. dollars for him to make a tenth season, he rejected the offer and decided that the end was a fitting one. Indeed, by leaving the “New York Four” incarcerated at the peak of its popularity would have left many viewers dissatisfied. If it were to continue for much longer, it was evident that the ideas would soon be exhausted. Rather, what is key is to determine the balance between commercial viability/artistic impact and “losing its mojo”.
There will always be a certain point in time where the thing one loves losing the magic it once had. Whether or not people grow out of certain things or the thing itself extends into absurdity, there will always be a point where there is nothing more to gain out of it. You can, after all, have too much of a good thing. Artistic texts remain no different. Recall, for instance, the world-wide craze which was The Simpsons (1989-), the Fox Broadcasting Company’s animated sitcom about a normal American suburban family living in the town of Springfield. It used to be a institution that whenever a new episode aired or even when a classic episode was being re-run, it had to be seen. Now, after the production of 26 seasons and the broadcasting of 560 episodes, it is of no doubt to anyone, even the most lenient and die-hard fans of the show, that the show has lived into its “golden years” and, quite simply, has lived several seasons past its prime.
It has lost a considerable amount of the wit that makes its peak (argued by many to be the third season up to and including the eighth season) as renowned as it is. There is always a certain point in a story where its telling becomes unnecessary and the information provided becomes superfluous. While people often return to shows like The Simpsons, South Park and even The Bold and the Beautiful, because they know that certain expectations about what type of story will be told to them. However, familiarity should never be the first intention of art. Stories should always change the way in which the viewer looks at the world, and many shows have broken new ground in this way and then continued past the point of necessity. Another example of a less episodic show which continues past the point of necessity is Fox’s Glee (2009-), which was a pioneer in its first couple of seasons. It combined social commentary and some memorable characters mixed with musical numbers, while still attracting a wide viewership. However, in recent seasons, the show has stretched the characters past the point where they should be shown, as well as inserting gimmicky episodes, such as the episodes focusing on particular artists or musicals.
In the end, although most stories could, in theory, go on forever, or at least until all of the characters die, but there will be a point in every story where it could have ended satisfactorily and therefore, becomes something different to what it was at its beginning. For example, Glee has changed from being a drama about teenagers who are out-casted within the social microcosm of high school and consequently, learn to be who they are via singing and friendship to just another melodramatic musical. The Simpsons has changed from the wacky adventures of a suburban American family to an amalgamation of cultural references. This is not to argue that change in how art is depicted is bad or should be discouraged, but rather to argue that most stories do not work if changed. Stories should be allowed to morph and change as long as they are still telling the original story which it began as. Still, this may mean that how a story ends, or refuses to end will devalue the rest of a piece of art.
The Emotional Impact of Endings
Regardless of how a story ends, it will never change how another part of that story made you feel in the past. For example, many might see the end of How I Met Your Mother, where it is revealed that Ted is telling his children the story after their mother has died, and instead ends up with Robin, as a rip-off or that the ending cheated them. Whether or not the ending was a satisfactory ending is not the point. The point is that just because one may feel that way does not mean that any feelings evoked by previous episodes or moments during the show are any less valued when contextualised with the ending. Nevertheless, when viewing a work as a whole, by comparing it to other parts, the ending can be used to discredit something which came before. This could be an instance where the ending is inconsistent with a prior event, a plot hole created by the ending or simply not ending the story sufficiently. Whether one tries to or not, an ending will change how we view that piece of art forever.
Imagine if one stopped watching Fight Club or Memento before the twist ending. Doing so would make your view of the film completely different from anyone else’s, but it would not be a true interpretation as you would not be seeing the text as a whole. Therefore, how a story ends is integral to how one views that story. However, no single, discrete part of a text, whether it be its introduction, its body or its conclusion holds no more weight than any other. If any part was taken out, all of the other parts would be valueless. If one was to say something like “I liked that show, except for how it ended”, that statement would instantly be inconsistent with itself, because the ending is so closely intertwined with both how a text began and how it progressed throughout its run. However, although things can be explicitly ended, with anyone’s fan fiction able to be publicised and potentially accepted as canon, the line of where a story ‘ends’ can become blurred.
Creativity Unrestricted in the Modern Age
While a story can be explicitly told via visual or textual methods, a good story will never end as long as creativity is left to run as free as it is doing so now. With creative projects such as fan fiction or tributes abound all over the internet and throughout the writing world means that even though a story has concluded, it will live on forever. Fan fiction can be any work relating to a particular text written by a ‘fan’ and could take place after, before, or relate other events which take place during the actual text. Texts which have inspired fan fictions include such series as the Harry Potter novels, the Star Wars films or any other text with a wide mythology. They can range from being utterly faithful to the main text to being preposterous and poorly written.
However, such unbridled enthusiasm for writing should be heartily encouraged, as it endorses an active interpretation of the text. Whether or not any one’s continuing story or auxiliary story is consistent with the existing canon is besides the point. Admittedly, the world of fan fiction can be a daunting place. Sorting between what is reliant on the canon, what takes place in an alternate universe or what is just having fun with the story is intimidating. However, this does not mean that any restrictions should be placed on how a story should grow in the mind of the writer. Consequently, if that writer feels that they wish to express these thoughts of how the story should continue, then they should be allowed to express these thoughts freely. A story is, first and foremost, that of the writer; that is until they give it to the world. Then it is the world’s duty to keep telling the story.
The literary and art world has made human beings so aware of different manifestations of similar story types and similar endings that, at least for the more mainstream of texts, we know how they will end. However, it is this familiarity which people are always subconsciously seeking. However, a story should not end at a point which the audience expects it to, if the impact of art wishes to remain as potent as it can be. While an artist should always be aware of the commercial success of their text, it should not impact on how long or short the story should be told for, but should match up with their initial idea. People who decide to watch or understand stories do so with the subconscious awareness that they will reach a certain point of closure, where the problem which the characters have faced is more or less resolved and the characters are more or less in a stable state.
However, artists, and indeed the viewers, should not shy away from the natural anxiety which comes from not providing closure with the ending. Indeed, those behind a creative text, especially a television show must always be aware of when a show should end and not continue it because of financial support or because the fans will continue watching it. If a text continues on, the audience will begin to passively read it, and that is where it becomes valueless. Similarly, a text would be valueless without its ending. Regardless, an ending should always be consistent with what came before, otherwise it would serve no purpose. However, on account of the growth of the world of ‘fan fiction’, there can be certain texts where there is never a true ending to the story. As long as there are those who continues to imagine how the story could continue, it will continue in those minds. To define the end of a story as fixed in a certain place in time or psychology would be to define imagination as defined by its end, which, by definition, it can not be.
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