Let’s talk about stories. If you didn’t know by now, every story needs an end.
I could give you the metaphysical explanation, which is that
due to the finite nature of the universe and the nature of human experience, the stories we create for ourselves need to have definitive endings.
Or I could give you the barbaric response and simply say because they do.
Stories are defined by a purpose, whether the author or the reader is aware of it or not. A story depicts the journey of a character from a defined beginning to a defined end (Harry Potter and his seven years at Hogwarts); or the journey of a community from a defined beginning to a defined end (The many factions in The Lord of the Rings); or the journey of humanity itself, from a defined beginning to a defined (the Bible from the Book of Genesis to the Book of the Apocalypse). Stories which fundamentally hold ideas cannot be left hanging because they will make us feel dissatisfied. But, on the other hand, stories which continue ad infinitum destroy that which was good. The latter is one of the biggest problems facing the modern storytelling industries, from comic books, television, films, and even video games.
How Dragonball Z Illustrates This Problem
Let’s talk about Dragonball Z. It was the kryptonite of every young boy in the 90’s and 00’s, and one of the major reasons Japanese animation exploded in the west. It’s the story about Goku, the alien warrior, sent as a child to wreak destruction on planet Earth, but after an accident, is raised as a kind-hearted kid. Over the years, Goku adventures around planet Earth, making friends, fighting bandits, collecting the mythical “Dragon Balls”, and all the while growing stronger and more virtuous as he matures. Later on, as an adult, the stakes are raised, the story becomes more violent, and Goku must eventually come to face with an intergalactic warlord who has killed off Goku’s entire race, out of fear that one of them may transform into the legendary “Super Saiyan”. Naturally, Goku becomes the legend and defeats Frieza, the most powerful being in the universe.
This was the natural end to the Dragonball Z story, and believe me when I say watching Goku transforming into a super saiyan was one of the highlights of the afterschool cartoon specials.
Due to the popularity of DBZ, though, the creators decided to continue the story beyond its natural end, much to its detriment. Of course the villains have to be more powerful than the last, so in order for the heroes to keep up, the story turns every potential character into a Super Saiyan, including Super Saiyan 2 and 3 (because why not?)
It’s still well-loved, and despite everyone having favourite post-Frieza saga moments, nothing beats Goku vs. Frieza and the fans know it. It’s probably why Frieza returned for Dragonball Z’s 2015 comeback movie “Resurrection F”, and not the canonically more powerful supervillains like Cell or Majin Buu.
How Marvel (and DC) Messed Up Without An Ending
Have you written a story or made a movie where you overshot the ending? Could you feel the strain on your story as it lurched past its true ending? Dragonball Z isn’t the only offender. In fact, Marvel and DC seem to continuously violate the requirement of ending a story for over 60 years.
Take Spider-Man, for example. I don’t know the explicit details of the Spider-Man comic book stories, but it was news around the world when Spidey took off his mask for the Civil War plot line, and then news again when he made a deal with the devil to return his story back closer to the state fans know and love.
I’ll say that again in case it went over your head:
Spider-Man made a deal with the devil so the story could turn back in time to his glory days.
Why did they do that? It’s simple: the gist of the Spider-Man story seems to be a young kid who receives super powers and has to learn how to deal with them responsibly. By 1987, almost twenty years after he first appeared, Spider-Man gets married to long-time girlfriend Mary Jane. Crisis averted, Spidey should live happily ever after. That is the natural end to the story.
Funnily enough, Spider-Man stories from the 90’s onwards took a nosedive. Peter Parker, it seemed, was wont of remaining the kid who always tried to get the girl and save the day at the same time, and found himself bored when he got the girl and could now concentrate on his other job of saving the day.
All of the mainstream superhero comics have this problem, however. After stagnating sales and low market share, DC Comics, famous for Batman and Superman, released the “New 52” in 2011, which was a complete reboot of all their comic lines since the 1930s. Realising, however, that you simply can’t rewrite old characters with new stories without changing their character or upset the fans who enjoyed the old plot arcs, DC decided to roll back on the old continuity in 2016 with the so-called “Rebirth” initiative, thereby returning everything to normal, and rendering the reboot unnecessary altogether. All this, because the original comics had an ongoing story with no direction whatsoever.
So to reiterate, stories need to have direction and purpose. As a creative writer, filmmaker, comic book artist or whatever, the best way to do that is to know the ending to your story. Imagine being a football player shooting for a goal: you can’t shoot unless you know where the goal is in relation to your location, your foot, and the ball. Or imagine being an archer: you can’t shoot an arrow unless you know the bullseye and aim your bow in sight of it. Simply knowing the ending to your story sends it flying off the page with a sense of urgency and purpose. Characters won’t find themselves running around in circles. Plot points won’t feel disengaging and useless. Themes and ideas will find clarity and priority being pulled in the right direction. The ending, the destination, is crucial.
Are there good examples of stories with a sense of direction and purpose? Plenty. Perhaps the easiest one to point to is Tolkien’s books in Middle-earth. The Hobbit virtually telegraphs Bilbo’s journey to face a dragon and return home. Frodo’s later, far more epic journey of destroying the One Ring follows a similar template. For a more contemporary example, J.K. Rowling has stated to fans that she knew many of the major storylines for Harry Potter for a long time, and if you read through the books you can definitely see the hints she was dropping in hindsight. In saying that, it doesn’t matter whether it takes eight books or three movies to get there, but a definitive ending justifies the investment from an audience. And I mean definitive ending, not soft ending. Fans will always want more of something, in the same way I always want a never ending supply of rich, dark chocolate icecream. Even I know I’ll get sick of it at some point, and it’s best left as an isolated treat. I was kinda hoping Ms. Rowling would have been strong enough to leave the Harry Potter series alone, but I suppose with it being that big, not even she could resist. I heard the new play is a good one, anyway.
Well, there we have it. I got to talk about Dragonball Z, I got to talk about how stories should have endings, and I got to spend waking up in the morning adding a new post to my blog.
Make sure you know where you want your story to go, if not you’ll find yourself rambling without a sense of direction, boring people into a coma!