(Just as a note, there might be spoilers for Mass Effect 3, but there will be NO spoilers from A Memory of Light.)
(I feel like I rambled a bit in this, but I think I got my point across, and I hope you find it useful.)
In recent months, more than one series I loved have ended, the two being Bioware’s Mass Effect video game trilogy and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. In experiencing the endings to both of these great series, the Wheel of Time’s just this week, I began to think about endings, and how I felt about both of them. And I think the best way to analyze these endings, and perhaps all endings, is in regard to payoff: Did the ending satisfy me as a fan, invested in the incredible world and story created over the course of the series? Did things that I expect to happen happen (but not to the extent that it’ dull and completely predictable? Were there clever (and cool) revelations that helped the story? And finally, did everything make sense in the context of the world and themes of the story?
I’ll discuss Mass Effect’s ending first, since I can go into more detail. If anyone follows video game news at all, the uproar over Mass Effect 3’s ending should be old news, and I’m not going to completely repeat all the grievances.
As a huge fan of Mass Effect’s characters and story, I was certainly disappointing with the ending when it was released, and while the Extended Cut DLC made it an ending I could accept (with the addition of some head-canon), the ending as a whole still failed in one major respect: That of payoff.
For the first 2 games of the Mass Effect series, the ultimate goal of Commander Shepard was clear: Save the galaxy from the Reapers, heavily implying that we would eventually kill them. Additionally, the second game strongly set up the character of Harbinger as the major antagonist, the leader or spokesman of the Reapers, and I fully expected that we would have the opportunity to shut him up once and for all.
But we didn’t get that. Harbinger hardly even appears in the game, getting a few cursory mentions, and no final confrontation, no satisfaction of getting to destroy him face-to-face, as we did in the first game with Sovereign, another Reaper. The other major failing of the ending, in my view, was how we ultimately stop the Reapers. For the first 2 games, and most of the third, I operated on the assumption that the end result was to destroy the Reapers, that what they wanted to do was something that could not be allowed, and that the Illusive Man was wrong in thinking they could be controlled–due to him being controlled by the Reapers.
But again, the ending did not deliver on what I expected. At the very end of the story, after everything I did, all the alliances I forged, all the characters I created relationships with, it came down to choosing 1 of 3 options, 2 of which held a completely different end result than what I had been expecting (not to mention Commander Shepard’s death being unavoidable in all but 1 ending scenario–but that’s just a personal thing. I am not a far of killing the main character at the end–it feels cheap, most of the time.) It did not fit with the themes of the previous games and the rest of the third game, the nature of the conflict itself fundamentally changing for the worst in the last few minutes. And furthermore, it did not truly feel like everything and everyone (fleets, characters) had a valuable role to play, and as such there was little chance to feel concerned for the characters. Of course, showing everything playing a role is more difficult in a video game than in a book, but still, it could have been done better, and given the nature of the game, the fans expected it.
So while yes, I can accept Mass Effect 3’s ultimate ending as a fine, even good ending, it still fails in the crucial area of payoff for the reasons listed. In this respect, an ending with improper payoff is not the same thing as a bad ending. An ending can be ‘good’, but without proper payoff for the various story elements, it loses a lot, and can never be a great ending. This is why Koobismo’s Marauder Shields fancomic (which can be seen here: http://koobismo.deviantart.com/), which is an alternate ending to Mass Effect 3, is superior in every way despite the fact that the comic is only halfway completed.. In this ending, every character has a role to play and no one feels useless. Story elements that the game itself simply dropped, but had potential to be important, have meaning. It makes everything matter. And best of all, we get to see the main antagonist die. The payoff we were all waiting for.
This brings me to my other example regarding payoff: A Memory of Light, the final book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. The Wheel of Time’s story is huge, even in a genre known for huge stories. Nothing I have ever read has surpassed it in scale, and I don’t know if anything I read–my own writing included–will ever surpass it. There are literally dozens of viewpoint characters, many story threads, and many things that had to happen, due to prophecies we learn about throughout the series. There was so much to keep track of, so much to reveal, so much to conclude. And they did it. Brandon Sanderson and the rest of Team Jordan, working with materials Robert Jordan prepared and left behind before his untimely death, made an ending that for me, as a fan (though admittedly not quite as an intense fan as say people who frequent the Theoryland.com forums) and a writer who greatly admires both Jordan and Sanderson, was perfect. Yes, there are small things people can nitpick, and no book is going to be 100% perfect, but in terms of payoff, for me at least, nothing was lacking. No characters were wasted; any characters that died in the Last Battle had deaths that had meaning, whether it was because they went out in a blaze of glory, their death had an impact on other characters, or even just dying fighting the good fight. I’m not a person who generally has emotional reactions to books, and can say that I can fully understand if people cried while reading the book. I did not, (again because it’s just not something I do), but I was closer to that point than ever before. Hell, I’m still a bit emotionally drained from it, and still playing that sad music from the Lion King. I cared about what happened to these characters (even the side characters–who have enough depth to have been main characters in a smaller story).
But away from a review of A Memory of Light and back to payoff, sort of. The book managed to make everything that had to happen happen, and not necessarily in ways I expected, which made it not be predictable. Things that mattered, from characters, items, plot threads, all were used well, and it made sense. And finally, the big things I was waiting for actually happened, and through it all the story remained true to its themes, and what the conflict actually was, and it had a satisfying ending that I really have no problems with, unlike Mass Effect.
So where does this leave us as writers? This is where we learn how to do things as best as possible, but reading (or playing or watching) other stories. By seeing where other succeed or fail is how we learn to write stories that we enjoy–there’s nothing worse than writing a story that we don’t like. If we set up a conflict and imply that it will happen, or that a character will do something, or some major/awesome event will take place, then follow through and make it happen. Don’t kill characters meaninglessly (of course this is not absolute, and some can get away with this, but most of us aren’t capable of that), and more importantly, make the characters matter. If seeds are planted early in a book or series, then make sure that what was set up pays off by the end, whether in an expected or unexpected way. This does require more work on the writer’s part it is true. Especially when writing a long series and having interconnected books, there can be so many things to recall, so many things to deliver payoff on. But that is our responsibility as storytellers–to tell stories that not only entertain, but to tell meaningful stories. Especially if we want readers to come back and read the next thing we write (and reread our works to try and catch the clever things we did), we have to make sure that what we write comes to a satisfying conclusion, and that we are truly the creators and masters of the worlds we create. But that’s a whole other topic that will make this post go on way too long–it’s probably already a bit too long.
So keep on writing, but in the back of your mind, whether you’re writing a standalone book, a twelve book series, or a videogame franchise, remember that when you reach that awesome ending, it’s only as great as what came before it, and that the ending needs everything that came before it as much as the story itself needs the ending.