Man, Frank R. Stockton was such a punk.
So, there’s a lot of bad endings in the world of stories. I’m not talking about downer endings, those can actually be quite good no matter how sad they may be. I’m talking about those blatant sequel hooks, rushed finales, story threads you’ve been waiting for the conclusion on that never finish up, works that just skip the denouement entirely, and the like. Narrative tricks that stop the story without finishing it. Non-endings. Non-endings have been around for quite a while. Longer than you or I. Frank R. Stockton punking it up all over the 19th century is proof enough for that. It seems they’ve been getting more and more frequent in the modern age, though, as pretty much every writing industry gets more competitive, as serial fiction gets more popular, as more creators either get lazy or try to leave things open for the follow up. It’s easy to see why. Endings are really, really hard in the first place. Keeping track of all the myriad threads you’ve opened up? That’s for nerds! And hey, if you set things up so that people have to keep with your story beyond the initial work in order to get a satisfactory conclusion? Who cares if it’s manipulative as all hell! There’s dollars/ego at stake!
Yeah, so non-endings abound, they’re getting more pervasive, and a lot of authors seem really, really attached to them. They also make all of your stories worse, though. And I’ve got the science, in the form of pretty line graphs and century old literary theories, to prove it. And you can’t doubt any of it. I got my Bachelor of Science degree. See, “Science”. It’s right in the name.
Anyways, once upon a time there was this guy called Gustav Freytag, better known to modern literary historians as the Frey-Dawg. The Frey-Dawg was a novelist and playwright who wrote some things you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re European or something, but he moonlighted as a literary critic because nothing picks up women in the 1800’s like talking smack about Shakespeare that they’ll never understand. Remember than in case you ever get your hands on a time machine. It was in the latter field that the Frey-Dawg truly made his mark on history. Check this out.
This is Frey-Dawg’s Pyramid. Also known as Freytag’s Pyramid or Dramatic Structure because your English teacher had all the personality of a brick wall. This showcases what is just about the most basic plot structure you can have and still have a story anybody’s going to want to read. That line could represent a lot of things, like tension, pace, reader’s interest, the amount of changes being made, whatever. You could argue about that for years, and it really doesn’t matter. It’s something you feel mostly by impulse, what specifically it is doesn’t make a difference. Basically, this plot structure sees your hero kicking it in his crib at the start, spends a bit of time showing you the base level of what the story-world is, before shaking it all up with the Inciting Incident. Said Inciting Incident starts up the rising action, with the hero progressing through the plot and leading up to the big “Luke, I Am Your Father” moment at the climax. After the climax, the story stops introducing new elements and focuses on wrapping up the threads it does have, the mysteries have been uncovered, the hero is whaling on the bad guy, that sort of thing. Then there’s no more to do, and you hit the denouement, where all the happily ever after happens, and the story sets the stage for the life you’ll assume the characters and world will have after you put the book down.
The Frey-Dawg built this pyramid strictly with five-act Greek and Shakesperian dramas in mind, but you can actually fit most stories ever since mankind was hanging around in caves telling tales of rocks mating into something approaching this mold. Not only is this such a basic measure of storytelling, this also outlines what are usually the minimum requirements to tell what most readers will consider to be a ‘complete’ story. This is generally what it takes to satisfy readers. This is the structure that most simply fills the needs of storytelling.
Of course, tastes in narratives change over time. While this structure fit a lot, possibly even most, of stories up through the early 1900s, most modern authors and readers alike prefer something considerably more complicated. Modern storytelling tends to extend the rising action greatly, pushing the climax back into the endgame, and adding in a lot of mini-climaxes or complications on the way there. Both the exposition and the denouement tend to be shorter, establishing the baseline and wrapping things up a lot faster compared to the time spent on the main thrust of the plot. You have little bits of falling action interspersed among the rising action, then the main fall happens over a lot less time than Shakespeare would give it. So, for an example of how Frey-Dawg would work that structure around a modern story, here’s the pyramid for an absolute masterpiece I just spent the last five minutes thinking up. Man, I’m awesome.
Don’t get too stunned by how amazing I am. We still have some talking to do. So, the important part, at least for our discussion today, is at the end there, the bit starting right after the climax. Even in modern-day stories, where the post-climax period is a lot shorter, our stories still have a period where they wind down, then plateau before THE END. That is vitally important. That is what you need to have a good, satisfying ending, no matter how happy or sad your conclusion is.
And that is what all these various non-endings fail at. Frey-Dawg clearly showed future generations just what it takes, and our storytellers are just stomping all over it. These endings suck because they fail to take into account the basic needs of a finale, as demonstrated by Frey-Dawg’s Pyramid.
Let’s take a look at exactly how these work out. There’s three main structures these bad endings tend to fall into.