Stephen King wrote The Dark Tower series over the course of 22 years. The Tolkien-inspired epic spans many thousands of pages as the gunslinger Roland travels from the desert to the Tower. Halfway through the seventh and final book, just before a major character dies, King breaks the fourth wall to deliver a warning about the fate of the central group of characters (or ka-tet in the parlance of the series):
…they are ka-tet for the last time. The story of their fellowship ends here, on this make-believe street and beneath this artificial sun; the rest of the tale will be short and brutal compared to all that’s gone before. Because when ka-tet breaks, the end always comes quickly. Say Sorry.
Such is the way of endings. Readers smell the finish line and lose their patience for atmospheric details and drawn-out contemplation. Writers realize that if they want to finish the story they set out to tell, they need to focus on the finale. Endings are the high-stakes gamble of fiction. Blood rushes to the head and suspense twists the intestines. Even with great writers, the outcome is never certain. What questions will be answered? And what happens to these people I’ve spent so much time with? So much depends on those last desperate pages.
To soothe this anxiety, many writers turn from storytelling to summary. They skip ahead a few years and give what amounts to a Wikipedia entry on their characters’ future lives. Harry Potter is an obvious example, but you also see summaries in montages at the ends of movies, or worse, unadorned text that describes everybody’s fates. This is King’s problem kicked into overdrive. The end comes so quickly that the story’s normal form cannot contain it. Summary endings are like junk food. They may briefly satisfy because they divulge so much about what happens to the characters, but these unearned revelations can never be as fulfilling as detailed, immersive storytelling.
Barbara Kingsolver offers a clever solution to the allure of the summary ending in her novel The Poisonwood Bible. The first 400 pages of the book describe two years in the lives of one family, while the last 100 pages cover about 40 years. But The Poisonwood Bible doesn’t turn into a history textbook for it final act. Instead, Kingsolver writes brief, detailed snapshots of important periods in her characters lives, and spaces the snapshots years apart. That way, we still feel the emotional effect of full narrative, and we get to gorge on decades of plot development.
Another book that addresses the summary ending in an interesting way is Orson Scott Card’s new direct sequel to his classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, Ender in Exile. The original Ender’s Game uses a fairly typical summary ending, as the last chapter gives a sparse overview of what seems like a calm year in Ender’s life. But Ender in Exile takes place mostly before and during that last chapter. In fact, the most interesting story in Ender in Exile happens in one sentence from Ender’s Game: “The voyage was long.” The new book is compelling in its own right, but it also breathes a new vibrancy into the old novel, which felt completely fresh upon rereading.
This talk of endings brings me to the final ten episodes of Battlestar Galactica, which begin airing tonight. While less severe than waiting decades for Roland to open the door at the top of the Dark Tower, fans of Battlestar have still been anticipating, for years, answers to questions raised at the beginning of the series. Lots of questions. And, like King says, we know the end will come quickly.
So, while the show to date has delivered surprises with deftness and apparent ease, those surprises came mostly from dodging questions, not answering them. This concerns me because Battlestar does not seem to be a show that can sidestep its viewer’s curiosity with trick play, a là The Sopranos, or avoiding answers entirely, like The X-Files. The show has promised revelation, so I assume we’ll get it. The question, then, is not just what the answers are, but also how they’re delivered. We all want to know the fate of humanity, but not if it’s boring.