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Never-ending Stories

Read Wednesday, 10 Feb 2016

Is it too much to expect audiences to keep investing in stories that have no foreseeable conclusion? Anthony Morris explores what happens when, written on the pages, is no answer … just another episode.

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George R. R. Martin wrote the books that inspired the HBO series Game of Thrones and he’s generally considered a master of fantasy. But perhaps the biggest fantasy he’s created is the one where he expects us to believe he’ll actually finish writing the series of novels on which Game of Thrones is based, A Song of Ice and Fire, before he dies.

Does starting on a journey lose its appeal if we know from the outset that we’re never going to reach an ending?

Originally announced as a trilogy when the first Ice and Fire book was published in 1996, the scope of the series has now expanded to include at least seven book. The 67 year-old Martin’s pace has slowed, too. It’s now at least five years between books. So, his announcement at the start of this year that the sixth novel, The Winds of Winter, has been delayed yet again and most likely won’t see print in 2016, comes as pretty much the opposite of a surprise.

While new George RR Martin novels are in short supply, Star Wars fans are getting ready for a glut. Even before the success of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens, series owners Disney were planning a Star Wars movie a year for the next five years. Recently, in an announcement that shocked nobody, the Disney chairman has publically said nobody alive today will live to see an end to the Star Wars saga.

The reasons may be entirely different, but the end result is the same: both are stories that may never come to any real conclusion. What does that do to the way we approach these sagas? Does starting on a journey lose its appeal if we know from the outset that we’re never going to reach an ending?

It depends on the story, of course. Knowing that writer/illustrator Mervyn Peake never got anywhere near to finishing his planned series of gothic-fantasy Titus Groan novels doesn’t make his 1950 book Gormenghast any less of a masterpiece, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood is still worth reading even though Dickens died before penning the conclusion. But when a riveting plot is the a story’s main selling point, when a story’s appeal lies in ‘what happens next’, how do we go on knowing that the answer could very well be ‘no-one knows’?

The secret of keeping serial fiction engaging is to suggest a conclusion is coming, but never deliver.

Of course, endings don’t always matter. The secret of keeping serial fiction engaging is to suggest a conclusion is coming, but never deliver. Superman is never going to die; Batman is never going to wipe out crime. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t kill Sherlock Holmes. It’s 2016 and The X-Files is back on television; presumably the story of Scully and Mulder won’t end until the actors playing them die … and then there will just be a reboot.

These two will probably never completely succeed in wiping out crime.

The difference is that the current crop of serial fiction is sold to audiences not as a series of separate episodes but as one long story. Think of the way television series are now expected to ‘stick the landing’, with a dramatically satisfying conclusion that will retroactively justify everything that came before. Endings are important, and a bad one (SeinfeldLost, the first season of True Detective) can cast a pall over everything that came before.

Sometimes this drive to wrap things up can ruin a story, too. Stephen King’s fantasy series The Dark Tower was, for the first few decades of his career, a side project he worked on when the mood took him. Then, after a near-fatal car accident in the 1990s, he rush-wrote the series through to the end to get it down before he died. It wasn’t his best work (confession time: I stopped after the fourth book in the seven-book series) and the conclusion didn’t seem to satisfy many. That includes King himself, who’s twice now gone back and written novels that fit between earlier books in the series. The series might have an ending, but you couldn’t call it finished.

But what if there’s no ending at all? Obviously, a story without an ending is less appealing. Being left hanging is frustrating; characters go nowhere, plot developments are unresolved, tension is unrelieved. But that’s only if we know for sure there’s going to be no conclusion: if George R.R. Martin died tomorrow, then reading A Song of Ice and Fire would instantly become a very different experience (the HBO series, not so much; Martin has reportedly already told the producers how it ends so they can wrap it up). Today we can read the unfinished story and hope for a conclusion, even if one doesn’t yet exist; once that hope is gone, all that’s left is a story that goes nowhere.

Scully and Mulder, investigating unsolved paranormal cases, probably forever or until somebody dies.

Logically the answer is to write the ending down somewhere and get someone else to finish the story after you’re dead. That’s what happened with Robert Jordan’s bestselling Wheel of Time series in 2007. Jordan died before the final book was complete, but his illness gave him time to write the ending and work backwards, narrating events when he was too weak to write them down. Then his widow hired another fantasy author (and fan) to finish the book. The conclusion turned out to be so big it was published as three separate books; reviews were mixed.

It’s not always the writer who leaves readers hanging, either. Who hasn’t walked away from some long-running saga, thinking they’ll go back one day – but never getting around to it? For every television series that pulls in new fans as it goes along, there are a half dozen that shed them. The conclusions to Dexter or Sons of Anarchy might have been disappointing, but hardly anyone stuck around to see them.

If you’re after realism from your serial fiction, it doesn’t get much more real than an ambiguous ending. We’re all born into a long-running story that’ll continue long after we’re dead. Unless, of course, the world is destroyed in some random, out-of-nowhere twist. But even the cheesiest series know better than to wrap things up like that.


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