Updated: Sep 1, 2022
If my mother were to haunt me from the next world (which would be a surprise because she is still alive), I know what her incantation would be:
“Finish the job!”
When growing up, I invariably almost finished my chores. My mom would come by and inspect. Sure enough, I hadn’t wiped off the entire table. I missed a dish on the counter. I didn’t clean the underside of the toilet.
In my later years, I've gotten better at completing tasks. Now I just need to work on that procrastination thing.
But now to business.
There are an increasing number of well-written stories and movies to which I give an “A” rating until the last paragraph or scene when I drop their grade to a solid “F”. Why would I do this? The most infuriating, face-clawing disfigurement of any story is at the end of the tale when there is no end.
I don’t insist that stories have happy endings. And I'm not referring to the cliffhanger at the end of one tale that leads to a series of tales.
The issue is when the last sentence ends before the main storyline is resolved, and there is nothing more.
A novel or movie may have a dozen plot threads. None of them require resolution except the main storyline. Why? Because otherwise, the story is half a story.
Half the product
You purchase a novel to read a story, not half a story. You buy a ticket to a movie to see the portrayal of a story, not half a story.
I become upset when this happens in movie theaters. I pay full admission and invest two hours of my life, plus put wear on the automobile and consume gasoline on the drive, but am provided only half of the purchased product.
If you ordered a meal in a restaurant and received only half the meal, would you be annoyed? If your surgeon removed half of your infected appendix, would you be distraught?
When I experience the pain of an unfinished movie, I go home and immediately email everyone I know to avoid the movie. I warn my friends and family that the movie will cheat them. I ask them to warn everyone else they know.
This doesn’t happen as often in literature because authors are smarter than movie producers, and are more dedicated to producing a quality product.
You must, by decree, by edict, by law, and in the name of all that is decent and upright, finish your story.
What does "finish" mean?
Here are some finishing tips which I strongly suggest that you consider:
Make sure the climax is the biggest moment in the story.
Just before the climax, the reader must ask herself, "How will she possibly win?"
The climax must occur in the worst setting possible.
Within the climax, the protagonist must face something about himself.
The climax must either successfully or unsuccessfully resolve the protagonist's and antagonist's goals. Do not leave the reader hanging.
The climax must provide a meaningful and emotional impact.
UNFINISHED Movies -- Spoiler Alert!
Here is a selection of movies whose non-endings have made me angry. Don't worry about my giving away the endings because they have no endings to give away!
Gone With The Wind (1939) -- At the end of the nearly four-hour movie, Scarlett O'Hara delivers a speech that is essentially identical to the speech she gives under a tree (the iconic sunset scene) two hours earlier in the movie. It appears she has not learned a thing. It's a long, tiring, four hours.
Maggie (2015) -- The entire purpose of this otherwise superior movie is to learn how Maggie's father will deal with his daughter’s contraction of a slowly progressing fatal disease. The film ends before we learn about how he deals with it.
Inception (2010) -- Closing credits appear before the main character’s spinning top stops spinning. When I witnessed this in a movie theater, I became angry and wanted to swear (but didn't). The people behind me did swear bitterly using the F-word. I knew exactly how they felt!
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) -- Um, what?
How it Ends (2018) -- Movie ends without any explanation or resolution as to why massive explosions are destroying entire cities. In the end, there's another large explosion in Seattle. Explosions do not look like atomic bombs. The movie does not even establish that the world is actually ending! The explosions may have been limited to only a few U.S. cities. The movie should have been titled, Ending-of-world-is-not-shown--or-even-established-nor-is-the-cause-explained. Such a "nothing-ending" causes demoralized fans to create videos trying to explain the ending. This is a perfect example of movie viewers being left to do the job of the lazy, idiotic moviemakers.
Total Recall (1990) -- Was it all a dream?
Emilie (2016) -- Otherwise excellent "evil babysitter" movie. In the last three seconds of the movie, the babysitter is shown escaping, making the entire movie pointless.
Black Swan (2010) -- Movie ends when the performance of the ballet ends, not when the inner conflict of the main character is resolved or even understood. The people who made the movie were unaware that the story was about the main character, not the ballet.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) -- The entire movie centers on the main character dealing with and overcoming a heinous villain. After she thoroughly defeats him and all is well, he reappears randomly (against the rules established by the story) in the last few seconds of the movie.
The Ring (2002) -- Over the course of the movie, the main character uncovers, grapples with, and defeats the villain, only to have all her work undone in the last one minute of the movie.
Glass (2019) -- The entire movie portrays the execution of a character's plan, which was to be realized at the climax of the movie. At the end of the movie, one of the characters exclaims gleefully, "This is the moment I've been waiting for." The viewers have been waiting for the moment, too! But, wait...wait...credits roll. The viewers never get to see whether the plan worked or not. Two hours of movie viewing wasted. Grade-F movie material.
Bird Box (2018) -- At the end of the movie, we know no more about the adversary than at the start of the movie. We never see or understand what the villain or villains are or anything of their origin or motives. The placeholder characters and villains are given zero story arc. And people like this kind of fiction? Cheap, gutless writing deserves no acclaim from me.
Lost (TV show) series finale -- I declare the ending of the last episode of Lost as the worst ending of any TV series in my lifetime. Hundreds of fan-made videos and articles were produced in an attempt to explain the cliched ending that provided no answers to more than a hundred excellent questions generated throughout the series. Millions of loyal fans who watched the program for six years deserved something better. I heard that the writers of the program had written themselves into a corner. They threw up their hands, whined a childish, middle-fingered whatever! to millions of people, and gave up. What whiners. The writers and producers of Lost never finished the job.
I hope by now you get the drift that the main conflict of the story must be resolved. It doesn’t have to end happy or sad, but it must end.
FINISHED Movies Accused of Being Un-finished -- Spoiler Alert!
The following movies are often accused of having no end. However, they do end because their central story ends. Not every plot point is resolved, but the core story is. And that is what is required.
No Country for Old Men (2007) -- Throughout the entire movie, the sheriff grapples with his fear of death. When his issue is resolved, the movie ends. The other things happening in the movie are left unresolved.
Truman Show (1998) -- The entire movie portrays Truman overcoming his fear of crossing the ocean and, unbeknownst to him, escaping his incarceration. Once he’s victorious over these conflicts, the movie ends. Nothing else in his life must resolve.
1984 (novel) -- The last four-word sentence completes the story. It may or may not be your preferred ending, but it's an ending.
The Quiet Place (2018) -- Movie ends before the worldwide conflict is resolved. However, the movie centers on a family who does figure out how to defeat the creatures surrounding them. From the perspective of the main characters, the conflict is resolved.
Avatar (2009)– During the last quarter-second of the film, the main character opens his eyes. Notice the name of the movie is called “Avatar,” and not “Na'vi," "Pandora," or "The Blue Tree People." This is because the central theme of the movie is the transformation of the main character (the "Avatar"). When I saw the movie, I cringed in my seat waiting for those eyes to open. Had they not, I would have given the movie the grade of "F" and would have put it on the top of my list of failed movies--not because the ending wasn't what most viewers wanted, but because without his eyes opening (or the character dying), there would have been no ending.
Chaos Walking (2021) -- The movie is criticized for not explaining many parts of the story, such as: What is the Noise? Why doesn't it affect women? What are the Spackle (the nemesis alien beings), and what becomes of them? But such questions don't matter because the main plotline is resolved.
As viewers and readers, we may want more parts of stories to resolve than the main theme. We may want the ending more to our liking. And I relate to this. But a story whose main plotline is not resolved is a crime against nature and a blasphemy against all that is good.
If you as the author don’t know the real point of your story, then you will not know how to finish it. This isn’t just me pontificating. This is serious business. If you want your readers to hate you, leave off the ending.
Probably the most well-known painting in the history of the world is the Mona Lisa, painted in 1503 by Leonardo da Vinci.
I don't understand why this painting is famous. But I do know one thing about it. While the main subject is well defined, the background is not. The background is not finished!
This is how it is with fiction.
The same applies in music. Main melodic and harmonic themes are to be developed, altered, and resolved throughout musical numbers. But secondary and tertiary themes do not have to be.
Cute and provocative?
When I complain to my naïve, impressionable friends about movies that don't end, I usually get this response:
"The writers are just being clever by letting the viewers decide the ending."
If this is the case, movie posters and trailers should provide the following notice:
This movie will not end because we lost interest in finishing it.
You must finish it yourselves.
How sweet. Fine. Those who like paying money to do the writers' work can have a blast. Count me out. Writers must grow up just like everyone else and finish the job!
I am a firm believer in the literary principle known as Chekhov's Gun, which holds that if a loaded rifle is hanging on the wall, then at some point in the story that rifle must go off. The principle is named after Anton Chekhov, a Russian author and playwright (1860-1904), and not the famed Star Trek character.
The "stupid horror ending"
What is with the horror genre not ending the stories of movies? Before I can go to see a horror movie at the theater or even rent one from Amazon Prime, RedBox, or through KillTheCableBill, I must first go to Google and find out if the story actually ends. Apparently, horror fans want to pay money to watch half a story. Are there that many stupid human beings among us?
Let's talk about Hitchcock's movie called The Birds. The movie is considered a horror film. The main characters' central issue is resolved by the end of the film. The movie does not save the world. Nature is not restored. But this doesn't matter because only the main characters' problems must be resolved.
I remember watching Hitchcock's The Birds as a child and becoming angry when the birds were not defeated in the end. An adult in the room explained to me that the main characters in the movie did defeat the birds by safely getting away from them.
Unfortunately for that adult, Hitchcock's The Birds is based on Daphne du Maurier's novelette of the same title. In her novelette, the entire country of England is under siege by birds. Therefore, according to the original story, driving a few miles away would not have prevented the family from being pecked to death.
The vast majority of modern horror movies are only half-stories. Last night I watched what I thought was an expertly acted, well-scripted film called, Emilie (2016). I was so impressed with the movie that while watching it I began compiling in my mind a list of all the people who I would tell about it. "You MUST see this movie!" I rehearsed the invitation in my mind over and over. That was until the last three seconds of the movie when the evil babysitter is shown getting away. At that moment I changed the movie in my mind from A+ to F-. Now I'm telling the world to stay away from it. What a shame.
Do not confuse "non-ending" with bad ending. I accuse the movie Emilie of having a non-ending because the next night after the movie ends, the Emilie character could come back and continue to torment the family. The film does not actually show Emily dying. The family's issue of how to defend themselves against Emilie is not shown or resolved. There is no mention in the movie about what to do if another family member is bitten.
My desperate request
Please! Can anyone refer me to a website that lists all the horror movies ever made that don't have the stupid-pointless-horror-ending? I beg you. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s a tidbit I learned once that has stuck with me like a lost puppy. It has helped me better understand all fiction I have come across. You must understand the difference between the following two literary mechanisms:
Plot: What happens in a tale.
Story: Why the tale happens; what the tale is really about.
It is the story that must be resolved, not the plot. The story driving the plot (the big why) should be revealed to the reader as late in the tale as possible, two-thirds to three-fourths the way through. This is done to extend tension. Give away the story too quickly and your readers will be less motivated to keep reading.
The modern world needs more emphasis placed on endurance and less on immediate gimmie-gimmie gratification. Experiencing a tale all the way through to its completion, with a delayed "reveal of the story," inspires all of us to wait a little longer and be a little more mature. This is what we want in our real lives: to persevere on a steady course until we win the greatest prize.