Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Momentum and the Art of the Ending

Growing up, one of my favorite things to do was play video games (she said, as if this phase had passed at all). I was particularly into RPGs and like any good 90's kid with a Playstation, this meant a lot of Final Fantasy. Little surprise, I was largely into these games "for the stories," but my favorite part of the games usually came when the gaming mechanism and the storytelling were the most at odds. My delight was the late game side-quest.

I really wanted that dress made of belts, I tell ya.

Side-quests are like the subplots of video games - not strictly necessary for the wider narrative, but very important in that they add richness and depth to the world. In genres like science fiction and fantasy, which numerous video games and all Final Fantasy games fall into, side-quests and subplots are essential for giving the epic scope to the world building that a too tightly hemmed story could not.

But there is a time and place for all things in fiction, and video games often fall into a trap of going off the rails thanks to the inclusion of the side-quest. In every Final Fantasy game, all the best side-quests opened up right at the end of the game, when you finally had an airship to fly around the map and enough weapons to blow up whatever might be at the end of your little diversion from the plot. Often, the end of a game played out like this:

Girl in dress made of belts: Oh no! Thousands have been murdered by Lord Eveelus and his laser drill! If only we'd beaten him to the cave of Ger'blath and the mystic jewel inside!
Spikey-haired dude: BROODING
Guy with guns even though everyone else has swords: We must go to the government facilities at Rindondonk and stop Eveelus from activating the drill again!
Spikey-haired dude: Now that my amnesia is gone and I know Lord Eveelus is my father, I must kill him. This war cannot wait.
Girl with glasses: I'll fire up the engines and we'll go to Rindo-
Me, the Player: Nope. Please head to the northeast corner of the map.
Glasses girl: But Lord Eveelus-
Me: Nope, definitely not. We finally have an airship and there's an island in the northeast corner we haven't explored yet and what if there's a really big sword on it? Don't worry, it can wait.

And it could! It was never essential that you actually head to Rindondonk right away. Lord Eveelus would wait. By the time I got around to the main plot line again, I'd generally forgotten half the details of the final conflict and all sense of urgency was gone.

In books, the author controls the pacing of the plot and inclusion of subplots, so this kind of thing is rarer, but it does still happen. I've heard a few people comment that the end of the first Hunger Games book can be a bit rough for this. Right as Katniss is starting to get confident in her position in the games, she spends a few chapters getting Peeta's health back in order. It serves the narrative well in many ways, but as my sister once put it, for some reason it feels like she's stuck in that cave with Peeta for forever. All the momentum the book built up to that point screeches to a halt.

Even Katniss is so done with this cave.

Pacing refers to the speed at which the reader is pulled through the plot, and is one of the trickier things to master in writing. Both the romance with Peeta and even that quest to the north east corner of the video game world are necessary parts of their stories, even if they are subplots. But included in the wrong place or dragged on too long, they reduce the impact of later scenes that are maybe more important for the resolution of the overarching story.

For endings in particular, good pacing usually means preserving momentum. By the time the climax arrives, readers generally don't want diversions. They want to feel the urgency of the characters carry them through to the end. Achieving this means that all the set-up for the ending needs to come earlier - those subplots need to be woven in before the crush of the final conflict squeezes out space for them. Yes, parts of the subplot can come back. Take the end of the Harry Potter franchise where, right before the final battle with Voldemort in the seventh book, Percy Weasley turns up, begging his family to forgive him for being a butt and let him fight alongside them. There's a tense family moment, but very quickly, that resolution happens, because that subplot was set up a long, long time ago. Not much is needed by the time Percy bursts onto the scene. His character growth feels like a part of the climax, rather than a diversion from it.

So while the problem with Katniss and Peeta might happen in the cave, the root cause was probably earlier. Suzanne Collins showcases the pair together plenty in the first half, but Katniss doesn't demonstrate much vulnerability to Peeta until the cave scene. If Collins had let them be a little more tender together earlier, she might not have needed to spend so long in the final third of the book trying to earn all those "feels" she needed for the final climax to work. Maybe that story Katniss told about Prim's goat should have been back on their pre-games train ride. Then there could have been a quick allusion to it, then immediate kissing and behold! The cave scene is a chapter shorter and my sister is a chapter less antsy for the action to pick up.

As is the case in most things in life, one of the best examples of pacing endings properly comes to us from the TV show Survivor. I've mentioned before on this blog that I find the show a fascinating lesson in editing, and often what I'm meaning by that is editing for pacing. Survivor pioneered a lot of tropes in reality TV, but it's fascinating what particular tropes they carefully avoided from the beginning of the show, and one was the late episode commercial cut.

MUAHAHAHAHA! I'm talking about Survivor again!!!

From American Idol to Cutthroat Kitchen, almost every other elimination style reality show relies on a cheap form of cliffhanger to keep viewers around past commercial breaks. Right as the host is about to announce the eliminated contestant, the camera cuts away and you're suddenly watching a woman dance around her kitchen with Mr. Clean. But not on Survivor. This was a conscious decision on the part of the producers, who didn't want to compromise the momentum of these important moments or cheapen them with content they didn't control. It paid off, and eighteen years after it aired, the show is still going strong, while scores of imitators have fallen. I'm of the opinion that people get tired of being manipulated. Those pre-elimination commercial breaks serve as reminders that producers see their audiences as potential customers, and their own shows as gimmicks that get you to watch advertisements. Obviously this isn't the only reason most of these shows turn-over and get replaced by other, similar reality shows, but it speaks to a lack of care from the show runners. If the climax of a story isn't sacred, then nothing is.

In contrast, on Survivor, from the start of tribal council to the eliminated contestant getting their torch snuffed, there are no commercials, no artificial breaks and no outside-the-moment confessionals from other players. For writers, the lack of confessionals is particularly important. Throughout the rest of the episode, confessionals are used to provide narration alongside the scenes of camp and give the viewer a glimpse into what the contestants are *really* thinking. During tribal council, however, the emphasis is on the moment at hand. All the set-up that gets the viewer into the players heads has to be already done.

In a particularly well crafted episode, the viewers know enough about the inner workings of camp-life to have a sense of who is vulnerable to elimination each night, but not enough to know for certain who it will be. Tribal then unfolds in a manner that makes it feel more "live," even though the whole show is pre-recorded and edited. Still, it tricks the brain into feeling the urgency of the moment and the show doesn't relinquish that urgency until after the votes are read. It's solid, good storytelling.

Survivor isn't perfect from a storytelling perspective. Believe me, I have examples. But I find some of the choices they make interesting and instructive because for how silly the show is, it's edited extremely well. Meandering, unfocused endings are very easy to write, and I've seen a few of them editing unpublished works. Truthfully, I've written them as well.

Luckily, I've got reality TV to correct all the things I learned from video games.

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