Greetings and welcome, readers, to my blog dedicated to my thoughts, musings, pondering, and other pretentious synonyms, regarding the art of storytelling.
After giving much thought to the subject, I decided to start my discussions with endings. Whether this is some sort of artistic statement or an act of obtrusive contrarianism on my part is for you, dear readers, to decide, but either way, this is a subject that’s been on my mind a lot lately.
Whether it be book, film, game, or music, endings stick with you, for better or worse. The best endings leave an audience with a bittersweet feeling, a mix of satisfaction and loss. Conversely, the worst endings can make people flock to internet forums where they send death-threats to writers, or anyone with the audacity to say it wasn’t that bad. I wish I were joking, but we both know I’m not.
With that said, here’s my top ten best endings in storytelling (at time of writing), with no distinction made for medium or genre:
(While I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum, we ARE talking about endings, so proceed with caution)
The Dark Tower, Book VII of the Dark Tower series, by Stephen King
Most people know Stephen King as a brilliant writer of Horror and Weird Shit, but one title that seldom gets attached to the man’s name is Fantasy writer, which is a damn shame, because arguably his greatest works (the Dark Tower and the Stand) were both written out of King’s desire to write an American Lord of the Rings, and in both cases I would say King does a fantastic job on that score.
The Dark Tower series (and not that abysmal movie “based” on it) is a wonderful journey that takes readers down the rabbit hole into a world that seems to run on dream-like logic as four companions travel across an ever expanding world in search of the heart of all things, the titular Dark Tower.
Book VII is the final installment in the series, where the main characters are within spitting distance of their goal, and yet it’s also the hardest stretch of the journey. Reading this book, I felt every emotion known to man (and several known to monkeys). I cried, a laughed, I raged, and at the end I felt both emotionally drained and satisfied.
Dark Tower is not a perfect series, and even in this book there were several points I was thinking “Really? This is what we’re doing now?” but the last stretch made it worthwhile in my mind, and it’s why I recommend friends to the series whenever I can.
Warlords and Wastrels, Book III of the Duelist Trilogy by Julia Knight
This one is, admittedly, a pretty odd one to put on this list and talk about, for a couple reasons.
First reason being, the books in this series are pretty short, so what I count as “the ending” is very brief, but the other reason comes down to just how understated it is despite being one of my favorites, especially for a fantasy. It wasn’t the final battle that won this book a spot on this list, though that was awesome, and there wasn’t some huge twist that threw my expectations out the window like a particularly angry drill sergeant throwing a bed onto the field (true story, but now’s not the time for that).
What got this book stuck in my heart, and why I couldn’t think to have a list of my favorite endings without it, was something far more simple; genuine and sincere emotional resonance. After growing to know these characters and seeing everything they’d been through over the course of three books worth of character development, this book managed to break my heart with a simple “goodbye” in a way most stories struggle to muster with a tragic death. As a finale, it was oddly reminiscent of a Western in that regard.
Kingdom Hearts (I)
Storytelling is, of course, not limited to books, and so neither is the potential for great endings. Having said that, this entry is a bit odd, because unlike many of the other examples in this list, it doesn’t actually end its series or story. In fact, as the little (I) I put up in the listing would suggest, it’s just the beginning of a currently still-ongoing franchise. But, while I am eagerly awaiting Kingdom Hearts III like most of the world, it occurred to me that if Kingdom Hearts the franchise had simply ended with Kingdom Hearts the game, it still would have been pretty satisfying.
It would have been a lot sadder, but that’s the thing about art; it’s supposed to make you feel, no one ever said you had to feel good. So, a little background: Kingdom Hearts was a crossover of Disney and Final Fantasy, and the results were more amazing than they had any right to be. Over the course of the story, a young boy named Sora (played by Haley Joel Osment) ventures to many different worlds, meeting your favorite Disney characters on his journey to find his friends.
Spoilers for a sixteen year old game in-coming: in the end, he reunites with his friends just long enough to have to say goodbye again, because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Coupled with stunning visuals and beautiful music, the entire ending sequence is just breathtaking as it is heartbreaking.
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
I have read a fair number of epic fantasies over the years, but this one was a rarity bordering on the unique because of the type of character archetype of the protagonist. Typically speaking in epic fantasy, the protagonist is usually either fresh-faced and new to the role of hero, or at least in a position where if they save the day, all is good. Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, on the other hand, is an old man who has been doing the hero gig since he was that fresh-faced youth, and has already sacrificed decades of his own happiness for the greater good, and he has seen it all in his time as a hero. His struggle stems from the question of whether or not he can relinquish his role, pass on the torch, and seek his own happiness.
Although a sequel is planned for the book, the ending is strong enough to hold without it, and loose ends regarding the external conflict are acceptable because the entirety of the internal conflict revolves around the fact that the battle against evil is never ending, anyway. So, in its bizarre way, this first installment works as a perfect stand alone with a solid conclusion.
Secondhand Lions (2003 Film)
One of my absolute favorite movies, Secondhand Lions is the story of a young boy named Sora — sorry, Walter — (played by Haley Joel Osment) who is dumped off by his mother to spend the summer with his two reclusive great-uncles Hub and Garth (Robert Duvall and Michael Caine, respectively) and, whom are rumored to have enough money to make Scrooge McDuck blush.
Over the course of the movie, Garth tells Walter stories about when he and Hub were young men during the first World War (which may or may not be true), and they bond, coming to see each other as family.
Like any good coming-of-age story, Secondhand Lions deals with themes like idealism and a person’s values. Tying heavily into those themes, the ending is powerful, and if you haven’t seen this movie before, you should go do that.
La La Land (2016 Film)
This one is going to be a little bit of a cheat, because in addition to the listed La La Land, we’re also going to be talking about Casablanca, another one of my favorite films.
For those of you that don’t follow such things, La La Land is in many ways a love letter to classic Hollywood cinema, with references to many classic films woven into the very structure of the movie, with shots and directing choices made specifically as an homage to classic films like Rebel Without a Cause, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Singing in the Rain, and perhaps most prominently, Casablanca (although, admittedly, it may only seem most prominent to me because Casablanca is, as I said, one of my favorite movies, while I can’t profess to have actually seen some of the others).
La La Land is the story of two struggling artists (an actress and a musician played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, respectively) who fall in love while trying to make their name. The parallels to Casablanca become especially prominent in the ending when the characters are forced to choose between the things they want. In both cases, I feel the characters made the correct choices, but it was never an easy one to make. La La Land toys with this in an interesting way, however, by actually going into some detail of what might have happened if they had done things differently, and it makes it all the more heartbreaking and brilliant.
Not long after I watched the movie for the first time, I showed it to a couple friends, and both of them were upset by the ending, one of whom was actually mad at me for a month because, and I quote, “That ending fucked with me, man!”, and honestly, I think that shows just how beautiful and powerful it really was.
A Memory of Light, Book 14 of The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson)
The Wheel of Time series is one of my long-standing favorites, an opinion shared by a great many people. Spanning 23 years (1990-2013) and the death of the original author in 2007, with a cast of literally thousands of named characters, and a story that manages to be both extremely personal and vastly epic in scope, the Wheel of Time series touched a great many lives, creating communities the likes of which you would have to see to truly believe.
When Robert Jordan died, there was much concern about whether or not the series would ever be finished (it was), whether or not it would be done in one volume, as Robert Jordan promised (it wasn’t) and whether or not this Brandon Sanderson guy would be able to take on the work beloved by so many and do it justice (he did).
Regardless of whether I was choosing to sort this list as ‘things with the best endings’ or ‘the best endings of things’, a Memory of Light keeps its place on the list regardless. As an end to the series, the entire book is a wonderful send off to all its wonderful characters and the beautiful world they inhabited. And the end of the book itself left an impact, letting readers know the battle was over, while leaving enough questions unanswered to keep the discussions going.
“There are no endings, and will never be endings, to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was an ending”. ~ The last words of the series
“My Finale“, the season 8 finale of Scrubs
A cornerstone of a good ending is that it should give the audience a sense that the world will go on even when we’re not seeing it, and give them a sense of where it’s going while still leaving room to come to their own conclusions.
Another is that it should address the themes of the story and use them to weave the final part of the tale. But a cornerstone of the best endings, especially of long running stories, is that they should make you feel like you’re saying goodbye to a friend. Very few endings do this with the same magic as this very definitely final episode of Scrubs. Eight years of character development and relationship establishment led us to this powerful moment. is J.D leaving Sacred Heart, the hospital where he learned to become the doctor he is today, where he met most of the important people in his life. And on his way out, over 40 actors and actresses reprise their roles as characters our hero met along the way, be they patients or coworkers, living or dead, for J.D. to say goodbye. And as he walks out the front door for the last time, we’re treated to one last dream sequence where the possibilities of his life are played out in front of him. And through it all, it’s up to the audience to decide whether that’s real, or just his delusions.
The Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
Like many great stories, the Hogfather is many things. It’s a holiday story.
It’s a story about growing up. It’s a fantasy. It’s all around a fantastic piece of literature. The story, on its surface, is a simple one; because of reasons, Dᴇᴀᴛʜ has taken over the job of the Hogfather (Discworld’s equivalent of Santa Claus). But beyond that one line summary, it’s a deeply nuanced look into the importance of fantasy, and things like Tooth-Fairies and Hogfathers, and what it is to be human. All while making you laugh at the tropes of classic Christmas stories and the antics of Wizards and Dᴇᴀᴛʜ. Despite being the 20th book in the Discworld canon, it’s perfectly easy to jump right into, and it was in fact my first Discworld book. The ending manages to be a perfect blend of comedic, heartwarming, and existentially fascinating, and I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Final Fantasy X
Despite the title, Final Fantasy X has little to nothing to do with the previous nine titles or the subsequent five (to date) or any of the myriad of spin-offs (save for one direct sequel, but that’s not important right now).
One benefit video games has over most non-interactive storytelling is that the audience has the potential to spend more time with the characters than any medium, except perhaps television, which has limits of its own. This gives the audience even more opportunities to grow attached to a character or characters, and once that happens, the characters’ struggles are the audiences’ struggles, their sorrow the audiences’ sorrow, their joy the audiences’ joy, and so on. And just like that the first piece of a good ending is in place, but it’s not enough to simply like the characters. Tying in with what I said earlier about a good story tying into the story’s themes, the growth and development of the characters need to reflect in whatever choices lead us to the end of Final Fantasy X.
When we first meet our main character (whose name is usually Tidus, but has probably been named every swear word under the sun), he is brash and impulsive, disrespectful and somewhat selfish, scoffing at the notion of anyone making sacrifices for the greater good. As he grows along the journey, however, he comes to understand the world around him and his companions’ resolve, and becomes more willing to do what is right no matter the cost to himself. Seeing that kind of growth and development is always satisfying, but especially when it ties directly into resolving the conflict. In addition to that, it’s also worth noting that, like the Kingdom Hearts example above, Final Fantasy X is loaded with phenomenal visuals and sweeping scores of epic music that raise the level up, making the ending a masterwork in its presentation.