Normally, I do these posts because I’ve read a cool book recently or been writing something related or seen a craft video- not this day! For a change, I was inspired (and challenged) to do this because of my recent TV watching habits. Thanks to the shocker of an ending for Game of Thrones and the contrastingly amazing finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I’ve been thinking a lot about how story may (or may not) stick the landing.
So what do I mean by wish fulfilment? Well, in the case of a comedy, this is when characters get exactly what they want/deserve. The baddies are punished, the goodies are rewarded. In a tragedy, the heroes suffer too, but we’re okay with that cos
readers are masochists it’s *cathartic*. Basically, if a book does what it says on the tin, chances are it fits into this.
The only rare cases when this fails is in satire or if there’s been an implied twist on the tropes. A good example of this for me was in Shadow and Bone, which I felt held promise as being a fresh take on the fantasy genre, but ended up being conformist. That said, a lot of people loved that very traditional ending, so you can see how that gets subjective pretty fast 😉 There is also the issue of predictability- which I find a lot of readers are forgiving of- even in the thriller genre. What I will say is when this veers off into really dodgy territory is when a choice is made for “fanservice”- where the creator makes a decision purely to please fans- which ultimately backfires spectacularly. I often imagine misguided producers shrieking: “I was doing this to please you! I thought it was what you wanted! LOVE ME!” Let’s just say, I’m not a fan.
Moving on, I think we’ve heard a lot about subverting expectations lately because of Game of Thrones royally screwing up its ending. However, it might surprise non-fans to hear that Game of Thrones actually used to be the *BOMB* at this (back when the show was following GRRM’s books, that is). Spoilers if you plan to watch/read it, the Red Wedding in particular is my favourite example: yes, there was misdirection upto this point, but when you looked back you could see exactly how this was set up and how it was secretly the logical outcome for Robb’s story arc. Sure, it was a shock, because the characters involved didn’t see it coming, but a clever reader could’ve seen the writing on the wall. And yes, plotlines were abandoned because of it, but it not only made logical sense, it left you with an even greater sense of longing for what might have been AND managed to create dramatic consequences for the other players in the story. Essentially, subverting expectations enhanced the story in every way!
Sadly, subverting expectations won’t always work and the final season of Game of Thrones proved this unequivocally. There was very little setup in order for there to be payoff, often plotlines came out of nowhere, and there appeared to be times when the writers pivoted direction mid-story.
But of course, as George R R Martin says:
One of the biggest components for this failure is that the building blocks of character and story have to be in place in order for this to work. Sometimes you can get away with this in terms of tone, as with Carry On, indicating through jokes that this is a parody of Harry Potter; sometimes you have write hundreds of thousands of words before you can twist the story on its head. Point is, readers/viewers will be unhappy if a plot thread comes out of nowhere. Plus, there has to be a reason for doing this: humour is a good reason, challenging convention is another, entertaining the viewer also works… to an extent. Because if the audience suspects this is purely for shock value, they’ll ultimately be dissatisfied. Again, it all comes down to delivering that longed for catharsis.
Most of the time, things fall in the messy middle though. Endings that are bittersweet- like the emotionally charged victory of Lord of the Rings– can be equally as satisfying. Even things we think of as classic tragedies, like Romeo and Juliet, play into comedic tropes in order to subvert them (and ultimately ends up conforming to tragic conventions). Narrative arcs will generally allow for characters to rise and fall (in tragedy allowing for a moment of bliss and in comedy giving a time for despair). Very few books “flatline” (a distinct example being City of Dreadful Night– where the narrative remains bleak throughout). For instance, this is a useful source showing the rise and falls in six basic plots. And here’s my (entirely subjective and unscientific) graph of where a story might fall in terms of subverting or fulfilling expectations:
(where tragedies end in death and comedies end in marriage)
Whether you entirely agree or disagree with where I’ve placed certain stories, hopefully you can see the difference in endings. And even after we’ve considered all of this, sometimes an ending can deliver for some fans and not others (as is the case with Harry Potter). Chances are there will be dissatisfied parties and I will say that there’s no pleasing everyone- and that’s not a bad thing! Really, there is no one way to stick the landing and we always have to consider that taste plays a part. And I haven’t even covered the difference plotting vs pantsing makes when it comes to endings… that’s a discussion for another time.
So what are your thoughts on the differences? Do you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said here? Let me know in the comments!