On “Golden” Endings

Hey, it’s another Mass Effect rant!

Actually, it’s not… yeah, it’s kinda inspired by a very heated discussion within Bioware’s official forums, but the topic that I’m going to be discussing goes beyond one game.

Said discussion is about the idea of “golden endings”; the sort of happily-ever-after Disney style conclusion where everyone gets exactly what they deserve and everyone you care about emerges from the struggle largely unscathed.  They used to be remarkably common in fantasy and science-fiction, but not so much anymore.  Many fans are disappointed that this particular series, the option isn’t even on the table… even in the “best” conclusion, it is a bittersweet end at the very best.

I personally dislike “golden endings” in most cases, but it has little to do with some inherent pessimism.  It has to do with the mechanics of emotion; the science behind invoking emotion within a piece of fiction.

Yes, there is a loose science behind it.  Bear with me, and I’ll explain in time.

First of all, I personally come from a more modernist background when it comes to fiction.  In opposition to the Romantic Period that encapsulated literature as an escape from reality, the modernist modus operandi is that literature should reflect and encapsulate reality, exposing its flaws rather than running from it.  This is not saying that all modernist pieces are dark, dreary, bitter lessons about the cruel hard world (although many are, because frankly, writers tend to be a fairly gloomy and despondent lot); it is saying that a narrative should be consistent with some element of the real world, and that the story should follow and conclude within that framework.

There are many stories that focus on the hopeful, positive, and endearing traits of humankind, the world, and our place in it.  A “golden ending” is perfectly acceptable in such stories… it’s well within the boundaries of the story set forth.  That is actually a very modernist approach, believe it or not.

The problem is when you get stories set in what is in reality a very dark experience, and the disconnect that comes when everything you care about somehow comes out the other end with nary a scratch.  I’m going to bring up two very popular examples to task for this (and I want you to know I like both of them, and that one of them is one of my favorite literary works of all time) as a contrast to how it does and doesn’t work.

First up is probably still the definitive sci-fi movie series of all time; Star Wars.  I am going off the only three movies that matter, not the drivel of raw sewage that came later.  The first time I finished watching the Return of the Jedi, I literally rolled my eyes at how it concluded.  It was the Pixie Sticks of literature; pure sugar… empty calories that give you a boost of warm fuzzies, but little else.  Every major plot character came out disturbingly unharmed (I mean, hell, Han Solo had just been in one of the most vicious ground skirmishes in the entire war… he doesn’t even look like he had been scratched by a stray tree branch)… the chances of such a scenario unfolding was so close to nil that it might as well have been impossible.

The closest we come to any reflection about the toll war had demanded be paid was a short scene with Luke placing his father on a pyre… and even that is trivialized by the discovery that he is again one with the Force, and is far happier in death than he had ever been in life.  It steals away any sense of loss or grief when it all gets tied up in such a pretty little bow.  It loses the impact of the entire setting.  The cost of war is diminished in the audience’s eyes to the point that few people even stop to think about said cost by the end of the trilogy.

Now I want to contrast that to how it was done brilliantly by J.R.R. Tolkien in Return of the King.  On the surface, it would look like it plays out similarly… not all of the characters that Tolkien crafted to be important to the story live to see the end of the last battle with Sauron, though many get to cross the sea to the closest Tolkien has ever gotten to a description of heaven.  But it doesn’t take long to realize that the two conclusions could not be any more different.  It is painfully evident very quickly that the characters within Middle Earth paid a heavy price… they are all fundamentally changed and scarred by what they had been drug into, through, and finally out of.  When Frodo turns to Sam and comments seemingly wisfully that the wound on his chest will never fully heal… that hit me; an emotional blow that came when I realized he wasn’t just talking about the physical scar.

Some characters were changed for the better… some for the worse… but they were all changed.  That is the emotional impact of war.  That is the heart of what a fiction that is set in conflict needs to remember at its core.  War is never pretty, it is never nice, and it demands a king’s ransom from your soul.  It also needs to ask for something similar from the audience for it to deliver the emotional impact that conflict demands.

Now, you may ask, “But isn’t the war itself cost enough?  Isn’t thousands (millions, billions) of dead enough to sate the price you demand be paid?”

The answer, perhaps sadly, is no.

Death and destruction is the setting of war… it’s ingrained into the medium.  You wouldn’t consider the bright sun shining down on a happy story enough cost for the story to then turn towards something more dreary, and so you really can’t consider the loss of the faceless multitudes enough to invoke the emotional response required for the story to match the setting.

Let me use an example (shockingly, it’s not going to be the Holocaust, so ya can’t invoke Godwin’s Law here).  Joseph Stalin was responsible for the deaths of up to thirty five million of his own people during his leadership of the Soviet Union.  Thirty five million.  That’s an absurd number that dwarfs the crimes of Hitler nigh eight times over.

Most people know this… but they don’t really know it.  Numbers… the simple cold calculus of war… don’t convey emotion in and of itself.  Without the experience, without feeling that loss first hand, the number really doesn’t hurt you… it doesn’t shake you fundamentally.  The weight isn’t in the death toll… it’s in the experience (another very modernist thought, I may add).

So yes, the story pretty much has to hit the characters that you had come to love throughout a story, whether that means injury or even death.  It’s the only way that the audience can feel that loss, and then be hit by the emotional weight of the war itself.  Only then does the number and the setting have the power to hit with the emotional impact that the story demands.

It’s a consequence of the “monkey sphere” theory… the nature of humans to not really give much thought or care to those that are outside their circle.  So, as a writer, you have to weasel characters into that sphere of concern, and then you have to take that character away.  It’s the only way that I know of to get the reader to feel what has been lost.  I’m also dubious a better way exists.

A “golden ending” in that setting trivializes the tough choices that were made… it turns the cost of war into a number, not an emotion, and the story is lost because of it.  And since the vast majority of my stories involve the conflict of war to some degree, I think you can see why I abhor “golden endings” in the vast majority of my stories.

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