There are tragic endings, and there are triumphant ones. There are celebrations of personal achievements, and cautionary tales of pushing too far. The meaningful ending is the purpose of a story, it is the essence of what the author is trying to say.
Understanding the mechanics of what makes a story a tragedy or a triumph can go a long way towards insuring that every audience member ends their experience both satisfied and emotionally fulfilled.
A Theoretical Basis for Understanding
In this series on Meaningful Endings, I’ve set out to examine exactly what is going on with well-told stories. While the two core questions asked (Did the good guys win, Does the main character go home happy or sad) may seem overly simplistic, they are actually based on a very sophisticated theory of story known as Dramatica. If you’re a regular reader of this site or know me at all, you know that I consider this theory the be-all end-all of story theory. Pretty much everything I write is either informed or heavily inspired by what I’ve learned from studying it. In other words, I think it’s super-cool.
Interestingly enough, this idea of meaningful endings can be found elsewhere. In Derek Rydall’s I Could’ve Written a Better Movie Than That!, four are identified:
- Happy Ending - The protagonist achieves the “outer” and “inner” goal. In other words, the hero gets the gold and becomes a better person.
- Bittersweet - The protagonist achieves the “inner” goal, but fails to get the “outer” goal. In Rain Man, Charlie doesn’t get “ownership” of his brother, but he does grow from a self-centered narcissist to a more selfless brother.
- Cautionary Tale - The protagonist gets the “outer” goal, but fails to achieve the “inner” transformation. In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster gets the power and wealth (outer), but dies empty and unfulfilled (“Rosebud” represented the innocence and joy of his childhood).
- Tragic - The protagonist achieves neither the “inner” nor the “outer” goal, Leaving Las Vegas was, in my opinion, a tragedy (although, you could argue that the protagonist’s goal was to “drink himself to death” — which he did accomplish).
Now whether or not Rydall was influenced or aware of Dramatica is not fully clear as it isn’t mentioned anywhere in his book (I suspect it is as there are more than a couple instances where the theory shines through). Either way, it’s a fantastic read, especially if you have any interest in becoming a story analyst. I bring it up only to show that this concept of connecting the results of the main story line with the results from the personal story line is a sound technique for analyzing what a story is trying to say.
Two questions: Did the good guys win or lose? and Did the main character go home happy or sad? The sum of which adds up to a purposeful ending.
The Good Guys Win or Lose
When you talk about this half of the equation, what you are really focusing on is the Objective Story Throughline. Typically referred to as the “A” story line (or “outer” story), the Objective Story Throughline is that part of the story that involves everyone. It is labeled Objective because it is looking at the story’s central problem from an objectified 3rd person point-of-view. Characters don’t have names when taking this perspective, they have roles. So Mav in Top Gun becomes the “Hot Shot Fighter Pilot”, Marge in Fargo becomes the “Plunky Sheriff”, and Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada becomes the “Evil Magazine Editor” (of course there are other names you could call her, but let’s keep it clean!).
It’s a good trick because when you stop using character’s real names, you tend to focus less on their own personal issues and more on how they function in the story. This is the part of the story where Protagonists, Antagonists, Sidekicks and Guardians reside. Again, function over the personal.
So when you ask the question, “Did the good guys win or lose?” you are in essence asking “Did the Protagonist’s efforts to achieve the goal end up in success or failure?” The Protagonist, nine times out of ten, is someone the audience would interpret as the “good guy” and it is this interpretation that they use as a baseline when they want to know the logistical meaning behind a story’s conclusion.
The Dramatica theory of story labels the answer to this question the Story Outcome. Was it a Success (good guys win) or was it a Failure (good guys lose)?
The Main Character Goes Home
On the other side of the meaningful endings equation lies the Main Character. When asking whether they go home happy or sad, what you are really trying to establish is whether or not the Main Character resolves their own personal problems. These internal issues are the sole property of the Main Character; other characters may comment on it or be a part of it, but the heart of that emotional turmoil belongs to the Main Character. So Stan has his Wendy-induced anxiety, Detective Somerset wants to retire, and Charlie Babbitt has his daddy issues. The story these Main Characters inhabit serves as an opportunity for personal growth.
So when you ask the question, “Did the Main Character go home happy or sad?” what you are really asking is “Did the Main Character resolve their own personal angst?” The audience uses the answer to this question as a baseline for determining the emotional meaning behind a story’s conclusion.
Dramatica labels the answer to this question the Story Judgment; Judgment because it is the Author’s evaluation of the Main Character’s efforts to work through his or her issues. Was it Good (main character goes home happy) or was it Bad (main character goes home sad)?
A Purpose to Storytelling
Choosing the answers to these two questions locks in the meaning of a story. A storyteller can only hope for confusion if he or she does not fully appreciate the concept between these two story structures. Audiences reach to stories for an explanation of why things are the way they are. Sure, there is a certain entertainment value that they may be seeking, and sadly, perhaps, even a thoughtless desire for distraction. But overwhelmed by the crushing flood of information and bite-sized video clips available from monitors and phones everywhere, audience members will quickly comment on anything less than purposeful as “Meh.” They want more.
Giving them a meaningful ending overcomes all that noise.
A story provides the audience a welcome respite from the meaningless and a chance to ponder why.