Posted by: Ken Brown | April 3, 2009

Fiction and Bad Endings

Just a question to ponder: Why do we find “it was all just a dream” endings so unsatisfying, but have no problem at all with the fact that “it was all just a book” or “it was all just a movie”?


  1. Ever since they did this on Dallas, when Bobby Ewing was murdered and then resurrected the following season by saying his murder was all a dream, well, it has just seemed like a cheesy shortcut taken when writers run out of ideas. It’s creative laziness, imho.

  2. I think it also indicates a refusal to take their own stories seriously enough to let them play out. I was thinking about it and, though it is rarely as prominent as in Life on Mars’ finale, it’s actually a pretty common tactic in scifi. Whenever they want to do something shockingly horrible to the protagonist but are unwilling to face the consequences, they find some way of reversing time or making it a dream/illusion/alternate universe… like you said: lazy.

  3. That’s an interesting insight: unwilling to face the consequences. The world is a harsher place than we’d like it to be. Do writers become so attached to their characters that they want to rescue they from bad things? Sure, it happens all the time. The hero can be wounded but never killed. He can stumble but never self-destruct.

    Which makes me think of the cross somehow. It’s a bit of an impossible rescue scenario, too, isn’t it?

    I always enjoy your good thinking, Ken. Keep at it.

  4. i think it has something to do with truth. the best stories are “true”–that is, they reflect how the world works around us, who we are, why we do what we do, and ultimately who God is. when we see truth displayed in a story on film or in a book, it is a reflection of our own experience as humans. but then, in that sense, it’s really not “just a book” or “just a movie”–it’s true (or at least partly true).

    the “dream” ending can work. the brits used it in the original version of “life on mars” (though i’m not sure if it’s 2008 that’s the dream or 1973), but it maintained the integrity of the story and characters an invited significant questions about who we are and what makes life worth living. perhaps the u.s. version feels so awful because it doesn’t fit with the rest of the story–it feels and rings “false.”

    just a thought.

  5. Charlie and Carmen,
    That’s good stuff! I suppose you’re right that it’s not really the shocking ending that bothers us, but the feeling that the ending doesn’t follow from the beginning. After all, some of the best stories (think The Sixth Sense, The Sting, Ender’s Game, even Momento) have completely unexpected endings that fundamentally changed our perceptions of what preceded them, but they worked because the story actually makes better sense from the new perspective.

    I suppose that gets at both your answers: that a good ending will point to truth (even if only metaphorically, or by contrast), while a poor ending is in someway lazy and unwilling to face the truth….

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