“Is a great story invalidated by an unsatisfying ending?”
I’ve had this thought for a while, but the most recent piece of fiction that sparked this question in me is the Netflix series The OA. Personally, I loved the series and was satisfied with the ending. However, it took me a while to process the ending and cycle back through the story in my brain before I really appreciated it. My initial reaction was crickets. There were a lot of reviews online that acknowledged how great different aspects of the series were, but then said it was ultimately a fail because of the ending.
Let me first state that, as I write fiction, I really hope that I am providing satisfying endings to my stories. However, as a reader and viewer I do not feel something is completely invalidated by a ending I do not find satisfying. I do find a story disappointing if the ending, along with a lot of the plot, is predictable. I’m not a fan of by the numbers storytelling, which a lot of times allows me to be forgiving to novels, shows, and movies that try to swing for the fences even if they hit a few foul balls. I loved the ambition of the OA and feel like the ending did tie everything together, but it just wasn’t obvious. Even if the ending was a disappointment, I don’t know how the performances, emotion, and atmosphere created can just be ignored.
One circumstance where I think the ending can really tarnish something is when a story is dragged out to a point where the writer is not being faithful to the characters anymore. However, I still can appreciate what was created up to that point. The most glaring example for me is Dexter. Dexter was brilliant for four seasons. However, it continued to be stretched out after that with gimmicky plots, and stopped being honest to the characters’ cores. Even though it ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth, I still am fond of those first four seasons.
As I reflect on this, I think part of it comes from my love of Stephen King. One criticism I have heard from a lot of people is a dislike of his endings. I have read and loved his book On Writing several times. I have also viewed any talk or interview of Stephen King that I can access on YouTube. Being familiar with his writing process, I can see why some might not like his endings. King does not map out his story, he just writes. He cares more about his characters than where they ultimately end up. I enjoy going for a journey with characters more than I do a stringent plot.
Overall, we live in a time where there is a ridiculous amount of options and mediums when it comes to stories to consume. This means that storytellers of all types need to up their games to stand out from the crowd. However, I also think that we need to be open to the storytellers that are risk takers and not just criticize quickly because we have the means to online. I don’t ever want to reach a point where people don’t take risks with their art out of fear. That would be a truly unsatisfying ending.