Monday, February 13, 2012

Let's Talk About - Endings and Length


Good evening,

                I’ll be entering Spoiler Territory now and again, so you might need to turn back.

                All good things have to end. This is a general truth, but it’s something that plagues story-tellers regularly. That long-running soap opera will eventually use up all of its plot threads. One day, Captain America will die and stay dead. Some book series will go unfinished by their creators and be left in the hands of fanboys and cruel publishers to complete – hell, some already have.

                It’s all a question of when and how, though. How long are you willing to stretch out a project? Have you figured out where it’s all going to lead? How do you plan to wrap everything up?

                For me, I prefer open endings – something that closes a lot of doors but has enough material to keep readers or viewers guessing. Watchmen did that very well: Dan and Laurie ride off into the sunset, a new world order is formed under the threat of interstellar war, and Rorschach’s notes have been found by a young intern at a local newspaper. Everything that happens after is total speculation. Watchmen’s length was also ideal; twelve fleshed-out chapters that added to the overall complexity of something that sure as helldoes not need prequels, DC.

                ...Sorry.

Not every story needs to be open, but if you can wrap up everything without having to resort to an hour of exposition then that’s a gold star. Mystery stories or horror stories or magical realism stories need to have that openness in particular. It adds to their mystique. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle would not have had the same impact if Toru Okada pulled a Sherlock Holmes and tied everything together after leaving the metaphysical hotel his wife stayed in. Similarly, Pan’s Labyrinth wouldn’t have been as heartbreaking if Mercedes cradled Ofelia as she passed away and exclaimed either “SHE MADE EVERYTHING UP” or “WHO THE SHIT WAS THAT GOATMAN?”

Let’s switch gears for a second and focus on length, because in order to talk about one side of this coin we have to address the other side.

There are very few stories out there in the world that can afford to be long-winded, rambling yarns. There has to be a point to length. I mentioned soap operas before; as much as I don’t care for them, I do have to commend the idea behind soap operas. You hear about shows that go on for decades with no end in sight. People get their hackles up when they hear that. ‘How long can they go on like this for?’ cries the audience, ‘How many stories of adultery, death, and unexpected twists where the man who drove off the cliff was actually the main character’s half-clone twice removed can these idiot writers pump out?’

And the answer is, as many as they can, because soap operas are about life.

Okay, fine, they’re a jazzed-up, sexed-up, melodramatic kind of life that sometimes makes deals with Satan or all turns out to be an elaborate dream sequence, but its life all the same. In real life, we don’t have arcs. I’ve had plenty of moments that could have been straight from a romance movie, but not once did a roll of credits fly by my face as I pulled in my lady-love for a kiss. Life never ends on a perfect moment. Life ends when life ends. So, in a way, while I don’t care for the ridiculously overcomplicated love affairs of Harry Lovetackle and his wife Marissa, I can at least applaud soap operas for showing the painstaking passage of time.

What I can’t abide by is padding; filler; stories overwrought with nonsensical arcs that add nothing to the overall narrative. I don’t mind episodic stories. I actually find them very endearing and fun. I don’t like it when a writer puts together a massive story, figures out all of the characters and the style of it, and then says “You know what this needs to be? Four-hundred chapters longer!”

This, dear reader, is what grinds on my nerves about most manga. I en joy Japanese comics and cartoons and the like, but creators need to know when enough is enough. I know it’s mostly editorial pressure to stretch out a story and milk it for all it’s worth, but it’s inconsiderate and insulting to all parties involved. Who actually enjoys a twelve-issuefight scene? Who appreciates lead characters who endlessly dance around confessing their love for each other?

This is not to say that Western comics are immune to stretched-out and overused plotlines. You still get instances of a reader being punished for not reading the backlog of issues leading up to that particular moment in time. At least with those, however, you get the odd comic where you don’t have to concern yourself with canon and previous arcs and crossover events or whatever else.

What am I getting at? I’m saying that writers have to know their story, inside and out. They have to know if there’s room to expand the universe, but they should apply reason as well. They have to know its style and its limits. They have to know what connects best with their audience and themselves. A writer has to know how far to go. Without that, you’ll have either the most dedicated legion of fans in the world or the most dedicated legion of critics. With that, you’ll have a more positive ratio if you play your cards right.

Be brave, writers. Know when to say it’s over. We’ll all thank you for it.

See you next time,

-RWI

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