Most stories share a common structure derived from just three component parts:
Or, if you prefer:
- “Where the hell am I and what the hell’s going on?”
- “Aw jeez – can you make this any more difficult?”
- “Wow – who’d have thought we’d end up here?”
Think of any story and there’s a good chance it’ll fit this mould, whether it’s a traditional folk tale, a modern novel or a blockbuster Hollywood movie. It’s a formula that’s stood the test of time, holding sway ever since neolithic storytellers first sat round the campfire and spun their yarns all the way from “Once there was a cruel warlord …” through “… so he battled the monster …” to “… and the young hunter killed the tyrant and went on to live a long and happy life.”
Unfortunately, it seems that endings are out of fashion.
I blame soap operas. These never-ending stories whirl endlessly, each sub-plot merging seamlessly into the next. Sure, there are narrative arcs, but even those soap characters fortunate enough to enjoy some kind of resolution to their latest conflict have only the smallest breathing space before the next premise rears its ugly head and the whole damn carousel starts spinning again.
Nowadays, everything’s a soap. TV shows are no longer structured episodically, with returning characters playing out a new, self-contained story each week. Nor do they tell a discreet, coherent tale that lays out its premise in episode one, and follows its protagonists through various trials in episodes two to five before resolving everything satisfactorily in episode six.
Instead, shows are planned as seasons and sold as box-sets (isn’t it quaint how the term has stuck even though your streaming service involves no boxes whatsoever?). Every episode knits itself craftily into the next, weaving an ever-more-complex tapestry that dutifully reaches its climax at the season finale.
The trouble is, a climax is very different to an ending. Just when you thought everything was going to work out, you discover the season showrunner, keen that his creative brainchild should be renewed for another season, has left at least a dozen plot threads hanging, having promised both the network and his audience that there are bigger and better things to come.
And so it goes on, season after season, until by the law of diminishing returns, the whole thing reaches its natural resolution.
Except it doesn’t. Most TV shows die not with a bang but a whimper (word is that’s what T.S. Eliot said after the final episode of Lost). Their resolutions – such as they are – are no more natural than Frankenstein’s monster. In fact, they probably leave as many loose ends dangling as ever, as their showrunners dream of the Holy Grail that is the Spin-Off Series.
Nor are things much better in the movies. Why? Because films aren’t films any more – they’re franchises. Take your average Marvel flick. Is it a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end? No – it’s one episode in a gigantic soap opera. Oh, it might seem to have an ending, but it doesn’t. Not really. (If you doubt me, just watch how many people hang around for the post-credits teaser designed to whet their appetite for the next instalment.
Now, I happen to like the movies Marvel are making – some of them quite a lot. But I don’t even attempt to keep up with all the connections between them. Why? Because much as I like premise, and much as I love conflict, I’m of the opinion that you can’t beat a good resolution.
I also believe that if you starve an audience of resolutions, you deprive them of the most fundamental benefits to be gained by experiencing a good story. If the ending’s a happy one, this benefit is the triumphany satisfaction that everything’s turned out right. If it’s tragic, the benefit is catharsis – the purging of powerful emotion that might otherwise remain repressed.
Because story isn’t just entertainment. It’s therapy. Cripple a story by robbing it of its resolution and you diminish the audience experience. Do it again and again, and you run the risk of neutering the power of narrative altogether.
Premise. Conflict. Resolution. The three legs of the story tripod. Take any one of them away and the whole damn thing falls over. Where would that leave us? The answer’s simple.
At the end.