The Purpose Of An Ending

The end of Game of Thrones earlier this year deeply disappointed me. In fact, it hurt me. To some extent, I still don’t talk about it as I have yet to truly come to terms with how the showrunners savagely butchered and betrayed the source material, the characters, and the ‘bittersweet’ message that George RR Martin had carefully constructed over the last two and a half decades (and is still constructing). Nevertheless, the final episode of the series got me wondering – what is the purpose an ending?

Over the last few months, I have given this matter much thought and came up with the following points in answer to the purpose of an ending.

1 – To State The Message Of The Story

Every story has (or should aspire to have) a message running through its narrative. The final scene(s) should ram home this message.

Example 1 – The Dark Knight Trilogy

the purpose of an ending with robin
Robin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), holding up the torch as Bruce once did, to attract the bats in the Batcave,

Conventionally, Batman is about a masked man who, at night, beats up criminals so that they can face justice for their crimes. Christopher Nolan made this iconic DC character so much more than that in his extraordinary Dark Knight Trilogy.

Not only does he show us that Bruce Wayne suffered the trauma of losing both his mother and father suddenly in childhood, he uses this trauma to shape the man behind the mask. Consequently, Bruce realises that in order for Batman to frighten those who prey on the fearful, Batman must become more than just a man (because as a man he is just flesh and blood who can be ignored or destroyed).

Bruce needs Batman to become a symbol that will live on after him, and these ideas are a theme throughout the trilogy. To underline this, the last scene of The Dark Knight Rises shows Robin entering the Batcave and taking up Bruce’s former mantle as Batman. So, that the legend lives on.

Example 2 – Mazal & Shlimazal

Mazal & Shlimazel is an old Jewish folktale about the conflict between Mazel, the charming spirit of good luck, and Schlimazel, the horrid-looking spirit of bad luck. Tam, the protagonist of the story, comes from a humble home and wins favour with the King.

One day, the King asks Tam to achieve an impossible task and get the milk of a lioness. Tam, being a willing servant, takes a year to fulfil this task and manages (with Mazel’s help) to get milk from a lioness. Yet, as he approaches the King to tell him that he has a bottle of lioness’ milk, Shlimazel steps in and has Tam tell the King that he has brought the milk of a dog. Subsequently, Tam is sentenced to death by hanging.

The sentence may seem harsh on the outset. But it merely highlights the moral of the story – that it only takes a second to undo a ton of hard work.

Example 3 – Romeo & Juliet

As was discussed in a previous blog post on how to write a death scene, Romeo & Juliet is a play about two emotionally vulnerable people who are from rival families yet fall in love with one another.

The story ends with Romeo and Juliet committing suicide. Their deaths are tragic as there is no chance for poetic justice for anyone connected to Romeo or Juliet, and neither the Capets nor the Montagues win from their deaths. It leaves readers wondering what the point of their hatreds is all for. After-all, what have their hatreds achieved other than to cause pointless arguments and deaths?

2 – To Create A Logical & Satisfying Conclusion

During a story, writers raise numerous questions in order to intrigue the main character (and the reader, vicariously). Part of the purpose of an end is for all these issues to be resolved by the end of the narrative, so that the story can come to a logical and satisfying conclusion.

This will enable the reader to feel that the story is complete and that all loose ends are nicely tied up.

Example 1 – Harry Potter

Harry Potter (right) fulfilling his destiny against Voldemort in the epic Battle for Hogwarts in Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows.

The Harry Potter series is a great case in point to showcase an author who creates a logical and satisfying conclusion, and who resolves all issues. Harry starts off the story at the beginning of high school. He is a gifted but untrained wizard with a prophecy to defeat the Dark Lord (who killed his parents).

Over the course of the seven books, Harry improves his wizarding skills and becomes the leader of the fight against Voldemort after Dumbledore is killed. At the end of the seventh book, Harry fulfils his destiny and becomes the Headmaster of the school he loves so much. The moral of the story – some people are born with a gift and, through rigorous learning, go on to triumph.

But that is not all with regards to the Harry Potter books. JK Rowling put in many issues throughout the seven books, such as why does Neville Longbottom live with his grandmother? Why does Snape hate Harry? What are the Horcruxes? And who will Hermione end up with? These are just four of the numerous questions Rowling raises. Yet, she answers them all by the end of the seventh book, which is in part why the story is so wonderful and satisfying.

Example 2 – Rocky

Rocky (1976) is a classic film about an underdog willing to take on a world champion. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) starts off the film by calling himself a “bum” and blaming the world for his failings in life.

It is only when Apollo Creed gives a local contender in Philadelphia the chance to challenge him that Rocky (finally) takes responsibility for himself. After weeks of hard work, Rocky takes to the ring against Creed. Rocky does not win the fight, but his will to win earns him plenty of plaudits (even the ‘moral victory’).

To tie this example to my first point about the purpose of an ending, the moral of Rocky is not about achieving your goals. It is about enjoying yourself and making something of yourself through hard work and determination; to breed the mindset of “your hardest opponent is the one staring back at you in the mirror,” and that “a champion is just a contender who never gave up.” (Both of which an old and grizzled Rocky tells Adonis Creed, Apollo’s son, in Creed.)

Example 3 – Nocturnal Animals

Tom Ford’s outstanding 2016 thriller is a film that leaves no stone left unturned. Susan (Amy Adams) is a wealthy modern-art gallery owner in LA, who gets a package one day in the post from her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). It is a manuscript of Edward’s story, and Susan reads it with intrigue. However, as she reads it, she is forced to relive and confront some demons from her past; notably, why her marriage to Edward broke down.

Nocturnal Animals is full of suspense, plus tense and gripping. Astonishingly, every question in the film gets answered and Edward’s way of getting back at Susan is delightfully satisfying in the context of the film.

The movie has many morals to its tale. Above-all, it is about regret and revenge; about actions having consequences; and about how children can turn into their parents, among many other themes running through the narrative.

the purpose of an ending, moral tale hammered home
The movie poster for the outstanding Nocturnal Animals, which has phenomenal (and chilling) moral messages to the narrative.

*Disclaimer – When Endings Of Novels Are Part Of A Series

The purpose of an ending is slightly different when a novel is part of a series. Don’t get me wrong, the ending for each volume of the narrative must still be logical and satisfying.

However, there are two caveats that differentiate endings when there is a sequel to be made, as opposed to stand-alone stories or the last volume in the series. These are two caveats are:

  1. The ending(s) must have a hook and leave the characters in different places (if not physically, then strategically and/or psychologically) than at the start of the particular volume; and
  2. Writers can leave a few questions unanswered for later volumes.

Example For Caveat A – Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

The first two instalments of The Dark Knight Trilogy are both logical and satisfying from a narrative perspective. They also give the audience a hook and leave Bruce Wayne in very different positions from where he starts out from.

At the end of Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne has successfully overcome his fear of bats, has become Batman, and is working with Gotham’s police force. There is tremendous optimism at the end of the film that they can take the streets back from the criminals. Moreover, after Gordon shows him a Joker card, viewers cannot wait to see how Batman will tackle his chief nemesis next time around.

the purpose of an ending, the Joker card
The Joker card given to Batman at the end of Batman Begins that gets the audience excited for the next instalment.

By the end of The Dark Knight, the contrast could not be starker. Batman’s optimism is gone, and he has lost another loved one in Rachel Dawes. Furthermore, the Joker has psychologically broken him, and Harvey Dent (Gotham’s ‘White Knight’) is dead after having murdered cops. In so many ways, the Joker has won.

But Batman cannot allow an agent of chaos to undo all the hard work that he and Gotham’s police force have done in fighting crime. So, Batman takes the fall for Dent’s crimes and flees. The hook is that Batman has become an outcast and has gone into hiding. The audience is keen to see how people and the police will react to him when the next villain shows up; when they need Batman again.

the purpose of an ending, Batman fleeing
Batman fleeing on the Batpod at the end of The Dark Knight. Now, he is an outcast and the audience are curious to see where he goes from here.

Example For Caveat B – Harry Potter

As has already been mentioned, JK Rowling answers all the questions she raises. But she doesn’t do so in the first volume. Rather, she answers them gradually over the course of the seven books; for example, why Neville lives with his grandmother.

Writers should leave two or three questions unanswered in each volume in a series to hold the reader’s interest. However, the questions that the writer chooses not to answer in the first volume must not only be answered later on the series, but must be key to the plot as well. So, using Neville Longbottom again, we learn in the first book that Neville lives with his grandmother. Yet, we only learn why this is the case in book four.

When we eventually learn the reason, we understand more about why Neville is the way he is (timid). Crucially for the plot, his anger at what Bellatrix did to his parents explains why he fights so valiantly against the Dark Lord during the Battle of Hogwarts. Indeed, Neville’s actions demonstrate that even people who have suffered great misfortune at an early age can become heroes, or at least go on to achieve great feats.

3 – To Have The Characters Come Out As Changed People

The last point on the purpose of an ending is to show that the characters have changed following their journey during the narrative.

Since I have written in previous blog posts about story-arcs for characters, I will not delve into much detail here again. However, I will cite the example of Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings to illustrate my point.

Example – Frodo

The purpose of an ending is to have the characters changed.
Frodo (Elijah Wood) hugging a tearful Sam at the end of The Lord of the Rings. The journey to destroy the Ring hurt Frodo too much.

We first meet Frodo as a fun-loving hobbit in The Shire at his uncle Bilbo’s 111th birthday party. But after Bilbo leaves The Shire, Frodo finds himself burdened by the Ring. With Sauron now wanting it back and with his Nazgul on the way, Frodo is forced to leave everything he has ever known and destroy the Ring in Mount Doom.

Yet, the journey changes Frodo as a person. From fun-loving, he becomes worrisome. At Weathertop, he gets stabbed by the Witch-King (the leader of the Nazguls) and his wound never truly heals. Then, after Gandalf falls into the Abyss of Kazadh-Dum, he feels alone. And as he gets closer to Morder, he realises that the quest to destroy the Ring will claim his life, one way or another.

Nevertheless, Frodo destroys the Ring and returns to The Shire. Only, Frodo can’t settle back into his old life. His experiences have changed him to such a degree that all he feels he has left to do is to write his story and sail into the Grey Havens (to essentially die in peace).

Conclusion

As we can see from this blog post, the purpose of an ending is threefold:

  1. To state the message of the story;
  2. To create a logical and satisfying conclusion; and
  3. To have the characters come out as changed people.

If writers abide by these rules, they will create fulfilling stories that readers will greatly enjoy. Suffice to say, Game of Thrones did none of this, which is in part why I and so many others were bitterly disappointment with the final season.

Nonetheless, I would rather not focus on Game of Thrones anymore. Rather, I would prefer to focus on how I can help people create endings that people will remember for all the right reasons.

Thank You

Thank you very much for reading this blog piece on the purpose of an ending. I really appreciate it. Please comment below to tell me if you have ever read a book or watched a TV series that has greatly disappointed you, and why. I’d love to hear it.

Paul

PS: If you haven’t already, please fill out the form below so that you can be the first to receive my writing tips when they are posted, such as next week’s post on the purpose of a beginning.

4 comments

  1. These are some fantastic insights. I haven’t watched any of Game of Thrones, and this makes me wonder if I’m ever going to. The process of characters changing is what speaks to me the most.

    1. Hi Terry, sorry for the delayed reply. Thank you so much for your comment. That is super nice of you to say and I am glad you enjoyed the article. Yeah, characters changing is an absolute must for a story. I wrote about this in more detail in the blog posts I did on how to write a compelling main character, side character, and antagonist. Having a story-arc (where the characters come out changed) makes the narrative fulfilling and satisfying at the end. It can be truly wonderful to watch a character change/develop. It can completely alter one’s perspective of him/her.

      Re Game of Thrones… hmm… that’s a hard one. I would say Seasons 1-4 (inclusive) are brilliant and are definitely worth watching. The problem is that the latter four seasons get worse and worse to the point of self-destruction. It is so sad. As I wrote in the post, I am still having difficulty getting over how bad the ending was, even 6 months later.

  2. If I can convey the growth and transformation of my characters the way I see and feel it inside me, I will be amazed. I’m still hesitant on Game of Thrones. I don’t know if I want the disappointment everyone is throwing out there.

    1. I have every faith that you will transmit the story-arcs for your characters from your mind to the page, and you will write wonderful novels in the process.

      Re Game of Thrones… there is only one way to know if you will be disappointed or not 😉 If you are curious and have time on your hands, go for it!

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