Story endings can be broad or narrow ones

December 17, 2017

I've written before about the different ways that story endings can be satisfying, where they can deliver either or both of narrative or emotional satisfaction; they can wrap up the plot or resolve the emotional conflicts a character had, or both. Today I want to talk about an additional dimension in story endings that plays into how satisfying people find them.

Story endings can be what I'll call broad or narrow. A broad ending is one that ties up as much as possible of the open issues in the story, while a narrow ending ignores many of them and only addresses a few. It's most common for this distinction to matter narratively, because the plot side is where it's most common to have a lot of outstanding issues; usually the emotional side of a story is already concentrated on only a few characters, so the story doesn't need to cover very much to give them emotionally satisfying resolutions. However, in some situations you can still have an emotionally narrow ending, because you just ignore issues with secondary characters or focus in on only a few characters in an ensemble cast.

(For example, I feel that Eureka Seven AO had an emotionally narrow ending. There were character conflicts and themes that were simply dropped on the floor in the ending, if they even existed, since the ending focused purely on Ao.)

One way to get an emotionally unsatisfying ending is to have it be emotionally narrow. The show may wrap up the central character's conflicts and themes, but it ignores all of the rest; we the audience then feel that these other characters have basically been dropped on the floor, reduced to unimportant spear carries when the show had previously implied that they were important.

You can obviously get a narratively unsatisfying ending by having it be narratively narrow. However, a narratively narrow ending doesn't have to be unsatisfying, at least to some of the audience, because not infrequently there are plot questions that are fine to not answer . The show has to stage its mysteries somewhat carefully in order to make it clear that not getting answers is a possibility, which includes not making the answer to them be important for understanding things. But done well this can avoid a common problem with mysteries.

(In practice we already accept that many things about the setting of a show will not be explained in any depth, even things that are reasonably central to the show's premise. For one example, many science fiction series involve a great deal of technology for things like faster than light travel or flying cars that's simply never explained. Ghost in the Shell doesn't explain the mechanics of cyborgs, ghosts, hacking things, or the various weapons; it's enough for the story that we get a vague idea of how they work and what their limitations are.)

Of course, what works may vary from person to person. For a personal example, in Shingu I'm fine with Muryou's mysteries not being answered but other people aren't necessarily so happy.

Written on 17 December 2017.
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Last modified: Sun Dec 17 18:15:38 2017
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