Some different ways that story endings can be satisfying

July 17, 2017

I've said before a number of times that what I find satisfying in the endings of shows isn't necessarily what other people do. Today I want to write a bit about that and about some different ways that endings can be satisfying.

As humans, we have a natural desire for our stories to make sense. We can tolerate a certain amount of not understanding things during the story, but by the end we would really like to know what happened and why it happened and so on; we would like to feel that there was cause and effect, not just randomness. A satisfying ending is in part an ending that makes the story make sense (and makes sense given the rest of the story). However there are different ways that the ending can make things make sense and be satisfying, or perhaps a better way of putting it is that there are different things that an ending can make sense of.

A narratively satisfying ending is one that tells us what happened; it resolves the important open plot issues from the story and answers hanging questions, all in a way that makes sense. It gives us narrative closure. In a traditional mystery story, a narratively satisfying ending tells us who did it, how, and why; it is the master detective explaining everything to the audience and the criminal being led off in handcuffs. In an action show, it is the final confrontation with the villains and the victory of the heroes. In a show with important previously unexplained mysteries, a narratively satisfying ending explains them well enough to pacify us (shows often have trouble here, though).

(What is an important unexplained mystery varies from person to person.)

An emotionally satisfying ending is one that answers the emotional, character centered questions raised by the story, giving us emotional closure. When you have dramatic characters in a story, an emotionally satisfying ending resolves their character arcs and says that yes, they changed, grew, dealt with their issues, found the answers they were looking for, and so on. In stories with romances, an emotionally satisfying ending is often one that answers the question of whether the ostensible couple is going to get together.

It's entirely possible to have a story ending that's narratively satisfying or emotionally satisfying without dealing with the other side at all. An extreme example of this is the Neon Genesis Evangelion TV series, where the last two episodes were at least an attempt at an emotionally satisfying ending that said absolutely nothing narratively. The resulting fan clamour allegedly led to End of Evangelion, where Anno shoved a grotesque 'narratively satisfying' ending down everyone's throat. We wanted to know what happened? Anno would tell us, even though we weren't going to enjoy it in the least.

It's relatively common for romance-focused shows to have an emotionally satisfying ending that doesn't attempt narrative closure. Here the core question of the show has always been 'will they get together', and the ending says 'yes they will' without showing us the details of how that plays out. This is the ending with the couple finally kissing for the first time and we shift to the end credits. The first season of Nodame Cantabile ended this way; the core emotional question of the show was always if Chiaki would come to love Nodame, and the ending of the first season said 'yes', even though it didn't cover the actual process of them getting together as a couple.

For me, Concrete Revolutio is an example of a show with a narratively but not emotionally satisfying ending. CR's ending told us exactly what happened and how, and in the process explained the big villain and so on. But it didn't really feel like it resolved many of the character issues, and instead dropped some of them on the floor. An older example is the ending of Eureka Seven AO, and if I want to go to a really extreme point there is the ending of Gilgamesh.

As an anime watcher, what I generally care about are emotionally satisfying endings. The story has to more or less make narrative sense by the end and I don't like gaping plot holes, but I don't demand to know the narrative details of what happens next and how everything resolves itself if the broad outlines are clear from the emotional closure. For instance, I thought that the first season of Nodame Cantabile was perfectly fine on its own and didn't really need any sequels (and I eventually lost interest in said sequels). This is not a universal position by any means; there are plenty of people who care a lot more about narrative closure than I do (and they are not wrong; this is a taste issue).

(Nor do I need all the mysteries to be addressed, even relatively important ones, cf Shingu and some of its unaddressed ones, and also. What mysteries need to be addressed and which don't is something I'm going to wave my hands about for now.)

Written on 17 July 2017.
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Last modified: Mon Jul 17 23:56:03 2017
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