Misused: No Ending

Deadlock Clock: 25th Dec 2012 11:59:00 PM
Total posts: [28]
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Is No Ending really appropriate for works that leave the hero alive but, ultimately, doomed? Or works that don't resolve everything but do, on the whole, wrap up the important points? It seems there's a lot of misuse of this trope to describe ambiguous endings or endings that imply without explicitly showing you everything.

For example, John Carpenter's The Thing leaves the heroes alive but stranded in the antarctic. It's not a "no ending"; the plot is resolved. The Thing is dead, the heroes are going to die. That's all there is to it. Do we have to see their frozen corpses to call it an ending?

Or take Inception, which has an ambiguous ending. We don't know if the ending was a real happy ending or a happy dream. But the movie is over. It did end; it just didn't resolve that last question.

Other examples of problematic entries:

Sky Captain ends with the bad guy's plan stopped and revived dinosaurs walking the earth. The plot is over, so I don't see how this is "no ending".

How the heck is Empire Strikes Back listed on this trope? I get that it doesn't stand on its own, but that's the Sequel Hook, right? The actual plot of the film, with the fight between Vader and Luke and all that, has resolved. Luke got away. They'll have to come back and fight again later, but it's not the same thing...

Snakes on a Plane ended. The trial wasn't the point of the film anyway, it was just the motivation for the events of the film.

This one is I guess debatable, but I thought the end of Final Fantasy 7 was clear even without the Advent Children movie — Jenova and her progeny were defeated. The use of Mako energy stopped and the people left their mako-powered cities (as shown by the overgrown reactor in the far-future finale). Everyone went back to a "closer to nature" way of life. That's the end, innit?

edited 3rd Oct '12 8:25:57 AM by Escher

I'll concur with most of your thoughts, but I do disagree with how you interpret Snakes on a Plane. The entire narrative establishes the need of getting a character to testify before a trial. That's it. The narrative, therefore, shouldn't just be about the plane flight to get to the city the trial is being held at but the complete quest at hand (which should include actually getting to testify before a trial). Heck, the film's depiction of said journey doesn't even end with the character arriving at a courthouse so we don't even get that much suggested to us.

The fact that the movie abandons this important arc as soon as the general conflict is over means there is no 3rd act that brings any sort of resolution. The movie's true villain (which are not the snakes) is never suggested as finally being brought to justice (not even for the new criminal charges that could now be brought against him for trying to sabotage a flight and kill a crucial witness), which means the story has no real conclusion to its most important plot points; it just suddenly comes to a halt after the plane lands.

edited 3rd Oct '12 8:51:43 AM by SeanMurrayI

I thought the trial was more of a MacGuffin event — it drives the plot, but it doesn't really matter why somebody wanted him dead before the plane landed. He got to the ground safely, and the story is over at that point. The plot failed.

edited 3rd Oct '12 1:28:49 PM by Escher

It drives the plot, but it doesn't really matter why somebody wanted him dead before the plane landed.

Actually, it does matter why a character wants somebody else dead before a given deadline, otherwise that character has no motivation for wanting that particular person dead (and no reason for needing it done by a specified deadline, for that matter). Heck, this isn't something that drives the plot; "somebody wants him dead before the plane lands" IS the plot itself.

It's actually more irrelevant to the plot how somebody goes about trying to kill him (even if it's the title of the work). Plant a bomb, hijack the plane and intentionally crash it, just shoot him, release a bunch of snakes, it doesn't matter what the exact threat to the character is; what's more important to a narrative is why that character is in danger in the first place and how the matter is resolved.

In the case of Snakes on a Plane, simply surviving an ordeal on a plane does not bring about a resolution, and the entire setup would suggest that resolution to involve the villain(s) responsible for creating the conflict being brought to justice, which never happens. We merely reach a point in the story where that part should be the next step in the narrative, which would bring us closure, only for such a point to be abandoned. And so a story that began with a murder witness needing to testify ends without a resolution or conclusion.

edited 3rd Oct '12 5:11:08 PM by SeanMurrayI

[up]What the heck? How can you say the fact that there are snakes doesn't matter to Snakes on a Plane?!

I don't get what you're saying. It's the definition of MacGuffin; a MacGuffin is more or less freely interchangable with any other MacGuffin without really changing the plot of the story.

It doesn't matter why they want Samuel L Jackson dead on that flight — any reason will do. It could be that he's the key witness to a court case; it could be that he knows the true identity of the leader of a terrorist cell; it could be that he knows the launch cancellation codes to a cluster of russian ICBMs that have been sold on the black market.

It's important that the bad guys have a motivation, but it doesn't matter that it's this particular one. The nature of that motivation doesn't inform the bad guys' actions during the course of the movie, other than that he needs to die before the plane lands. You could switch the context and the movie still plays out exactly the same way. The movie is about (say it with me) Snakes on a Plane. The nature of the threat is what the entire movie is about. The reasons behind creating that threat, not so much.

If they had decided to bomb the plane (or just shoot him) instead of release poisonous snakes, the whole film would be different. Almost no scene in the movie would fit with that new plot. That's a complete change of the film. But if you switch it to Russian mafia trying to kill him before he delivers a secret code he memorized? The film doesn't change at all but for a few lines of dialogue. (So long as there's a reason he can't just deliver the information over the phone — maybe he doesn't trust the government to protect him unless he's actually in custody before he gives them the number.)

That's why I'm saying it doesn't matter; showing him arrive at the court room or showing the bad guy get sentenced doesn't really need to happen; he survived the flight and the bad guys lost their one chance at him. That's all the story really was interested in.

edited 4th Oct '12 6:51:47 AM by Escher

The villains don't want Samuel L. Jackson dead on the flight; they want the guy that Samuel L. Jackson is there to protect dead. If you want to point to anything coming close to being a MacGuffin, it's that one character that Samuel L. is looking after.

In short order then, Samuel L. Jackson needs to get a Living MacGuffin to Los Angeles to bring a bad guy to justice, except the movie stops without that MacGuffin fulfilling a role in bringing the bad guy to justice and, therefore, without the story arc ever reaching its logical conclusion or resolution. Hence, No Ending.

The snakes don't matter to the plot so much that they're only the plot device through which the bad guys create conflict for the protagonists on their given quest. We could replace the snakes with anything else (killer bunnies, hungry hungry hippos, even voodoo zombies and vampire henchmen) and still have the same basic narrative completely intact. The snakes are largely superfluous to the basic narrative being outlined (i.e. Getting a witness from Point A to Point B to testify before a court and overcoming a villain's scheme to foil that one mission along the way); whatever specific scheme the villain employs to create conflict for our protagonists on their journey is irrelevant when outlining the basic narrative itself, even if the villain's specific scheme is the work's title.

edited 4th Oct '12 10:18:56 AM by SeanMurrayI

I will admit at this point having not actually watched the film, but I don't think Sean could be a living macguffin. The definition of the trope says cearly, "A Living MacGuffin is is a character who is quite free, in little to no danger, desperately sought after and out of the hero's reach." Sean is definitely in danger and not being searched for or out of the hero's reach, so the trope doesn't apply. In general, to my understanding, to be a Living MacGuffin a character must be essentially uninvolved in the plot — you could replace them with a briefcase and the story is the same.

<handwave> In any case this is all arguing over a single example and that's not the point at all here. No Ending is being misused for ambiguous endings, or worse, for endings that are clear but simply don't show the last seconds of the Bolivian Army Ending (or otherwise imply but don't show the last moments).

edited 4th Oct '12 10:49:09 AM by Escher

Tropes Are Flexible, and I'm not too fond at that very rigid, very literal interpretation you're looking to apply now.

Living MacGuffin, for all intents and purposes, is a "MacGuffin that is a living person". Nothing more complicated than that. And Sean is clearly a motivating plot device that gives Samuel L. Jackson's character an objective of moving to another location (from Hawaii to Los Angeles) in order to complete a specific goal (getting the villain convicted in court and sent to prison)... as well as provide him with a valid excuse for taking a specific mode of transportation (a plane).

The story is, thus, a fight over a MacGuffin (Sean). One side (Samuel L. Jackson) who must protect it in order to reach one goal (justice) and another side (the villainous gangster) who must destroy it to accomplish another goal (mistrial, escaping criminal conviction). And, yeah, you could still replace Sean with a briefcase of nondescript documents and files and have the same exact plot basically unchanged (although snakes threatening to ravage through paper in a briefcase wouldn't quite carry the same level of suspense).

edited 4th Oct '12 11:28:18 AM by SeanMurrayI

9 nrjxll4th Oct 2012 04:08:31 PM , Relationship Status: Not war
Moving past this particular example, I would agree that there are several examples of misuse on the No Ending page, though I don't have any real idea of how it's commonly used elsewhere.
[up][up] My understanding of the term MacGuffin is that it can't be an actual character with an on-screen presence, lines, actions to take, and so on, because at that point they're a character, not a MacGuffin. A person is a MacGuffin only if they don't really do anything for the plot other than exist, like the kidnapped Princess in any number of old video games.
11 Noaqiyeum6th Oct 2012 07:15:28 PM from the October Country , Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
The it-thingy
The story is, thus, a fight over a MacGuffin (Sean). One side (Samuel L. Jackson) who must protect it in order to reach one goal (justice) and another side (the villainous gangster) who must destroy it to accomplish another goal (mistrial, escaping criminal conviction). And, yeah, you could still replace Sean with a briefcase of nondescript documents and files and have the same exact plot basically unchanged (although snakes threatening to ravage through paper in a briefcase wouldn't quite carry the same level of suspense).
...therefore the plot is 'protect the MacGuffin from the villains' attempt to destroy it', and the film ends when the villains' attempt is thwarted, so it does have an ending and it doesn't belong here. Right? Right? :D

Regardless, I think the other examples do indeed establish a pattern of misuse. What do the wicks look like?
Anyone who looks dangerous is dangerous.

Anyone who doesn't look dangerous is dangerous and sneaky.
[up]No, as I said and as you quoted, the protagonist's motivation is to protect the MacGuffin as well as ensure that it is brought to a specific place (a court house) so that the villain is convicted for his crimes. Samuel L.'s quest is not simply to survive the story's 2nd act but to deliver the MacGuffin to an precise location in order to carry out one explicit function (dispensing the power to justify before a court of law that a specific individual deserves to be behind bars) which ties all remaining plot threads otherwise left hanging by Samuel L. simply abandoning his established motivations and going surfing.

edited 6th Oct '12 10:13:26 PM by SeanMurrayI

13 Noaqiyeum7th Oct 2012 02:07:45 PM from the October Country , Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
The it-thingy
I don't think you can have it both ways. Either the character is a MacGuffin, or he fulfils an important role in the plot. If you say he is a MacGuffin, then by definition the plot does not involve his purpose and use.

It's like a diamond heist. The con artist's motivation for trying to steal the suitcase of diamonds may be to pay for the Littlest Cancer Patient's experimental medical treatment, but the plot isn't about the Littlest Cancer Patient, and the film ends when the suitcase is successfully absconded with.
Anyone who looks dangerous is dangerous.

Anyone who doesn't look dangerous is dangerous and sneaky.
If the protagonist's motivation is to pay for that Littlest Cancer Patient's medical treatments, then the main narrative would require some resolution on that very point, be it explicit or suggested; if not, the story would lack proper closure and No Ending would surely apply.

For instance, did the con artist get the money he needed in time, or was he too late and the sick kid already dead? Unless there is an answer to a question like that one in the work (implicitly or explicitly) when or after the briefcase is absconded, then the con artist's quest would not have an actual ending; a resolution and the knowledge of whether or not the protagonist was even successful in his mission would be completely unknown and simply not present.

The main difference between No Ending and Bolivian Army Ending is largely that while Bolivian Army Ending does not provide truly complete closure, it's typically heavily implied what happens immediately afterward (and it generally isn't going to be a Happy Ending). On the other hand, No Ending is when in a Three Act Structure, there simply is no third act or denouement.

edited 7th Oct '12 3:03:20 PM by SeanMurrayI

15 nrjxll7th Oct 2012 06:02:48 PM , Relationship Status: Not war
Look, regardless of this specific example, there is misuse going on, right?
16 Noaqiyeum7th Oct 2012 06:16:05 PM from the October Country , Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
The it-thingy
Anyone who looks dangerous is dangerous.

Anyone who doesn't look dangerous is dangerous and sneaky.
17 nrjxll7th Oct 2012 06:18:14 PM , Relationship Status: Not war
Then can the people in this thread stop bickering over whether Snakes on a Plane is part of the problem and start deciding how to fix the problem?
[up]I'm not talking about Snakes on a Plane anymore, and the basis of every particular thing I've been saying all along remains completely relevant to making a point on how to recognize a correct example of the exact trope now under review.

If we can't firmly establish before we begin to "fix" the page what should even constitute as correct examples of No Ending (which I will still maintain are stories that end without an adequate Dénouement—or without any Dénouement at all—and have a complete lack of closure for established character motivations), then what assurance do we have that when we suddenly rush towards finding a solution that we even have a mutual understanding of what we are looking at here and an agreed upon definition to go with it?

edited 8th Oct '12 4:27:47 PM by SeanMurrayI

So there's a few questions at hand, really.

The first is this: Does it count as No Ending when the plot is generally resolved but we don't see, or even have implied, the final wrap-up to the motivation that hasn't been relevant to the story since act 1?

That is to say, every story has a reason why the action happens, but in many cases that reason takes a back seat for the majority of the movie — it's why the heist happens, it's why the assassins are after him, it's why the monster was set free; but the story is about "how the heist happens", "how he defeated the assassins", or "watch two monsters beat each other up in the ruins of Tokyo". Does failing to return to that original reason and show (or imply) a wrapup to that plot constitute a lack of resolution? Or is it simply implied that once the challenge has been overcome, the rest naturally comes off without a hitch?

In my opinion, it's not necessary or even always desirable to return to that original motivation when it's been out of the story for so long. Including that wrapup may drag out an ending or bring the wrong emotion into it.

Second question: How much wrap-up is needed to imply the ending? Assuming we have Monty Python and the Holy Grail on one end of the scale (absolutely no ending, the main plot just falls off the table and rolls under the couch — played for laughs in this case), and something like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Thing on the other (the ending is clearly implied but we don't actually see their dead bodies on the ground), where does the line fall?

The description itself seems to imply that any Bolivian Army Ending is a No Ending, which I disagree with; the latter clearly tells you how things are going to go, it just doesn't show every detail. This is partly due to the Law of Conservation of Detail; if the movie doesn't show it, it wasn't important to the story. Since we don't SEE a last minute rescue happen, there wasn't one.

Third question: Is it a No Ending if the plot line is essentially resolved but some important issue is left unclear as an intentionally ambiguous ending? Is the hero still dreaming or really awake? Did the hero win only to be infected with The Virus or is he clean? Did the shapeshifter pull off a last minute switch with the love interest? We aren't shown a clear answer, but we're given enough information to make either possibility feasible, enough to wonder.

I personally think this is absolutely NOT a No Ending; the story is done, we just got an unsettling footnote.

Opinions, go!

edited 10th Oct '12 7:09:25 AM by Escher

Does it count as No Ending when the plot is generally resolved but we don't see, or even have implied, the final wrap-up to the motivation that hasn't been relevant to the story since act 1?

Character motivations established in Act 1 are what make a plot to begin with, and you better believe that wrapping up those same motivations from Act 1 is a pretty important part of Act 3 that is needed for real closure. A plot is not resolved simply by the cessation of an escalating conflict involving reptiles on an aircraft in between Acts 1 and 3.

Please refer back to Three Act Structure, while I break down Snakes on a Plane yet again...

  • Act 1: In Hawaii, a man witnesses the brutal murder of a US prosecuting attorney at the hands of a vicious gangster who will do anything in his power to avoid being convicted for his crimes. FBI agents are assigned to escort this important witness to a trial in Los Angeles in order to deliver testimony against this vicious gangster. They decide to travel to LA by plane.
  • Act 2: The vicious gangster, still determined to avoid a criminal conviction, uses his resources to sabotage the flight in order to prevent this crucial witness from ever testifying against him.
  • Act 3: The witness and one of the FBI agents survive the flight and the plane lands safely... and that's it; they just decide to go surfing and neglect the last 1/3 of their quest. They're not even surfing because that's how they must complete their journey to the courthouse. We learn nothing more about the vicious gangster, whether or not our protagonists were still able to make it to the courthouse, whether the gangster was even able to find out if his plan worked or not, whether the witness's testimony was successful (assuming he still did make it to a courthouse), or whether justice was finally served and the viscous gangster finally got what he had coming to him. There's no actual closure, no Dénouement, just a sudden stop. It is truly what it means to have No Ending.

Most important of all, the full narrative of Snakes on a Plane can be accurately summarized without even mentioning the damn snakes themselves once. That's how relevant they are to this plot. The snakes don't even do a single thing to provide closure for any character's motivation or the main plot itself.

Samuel L. Jackson and his witness didn't take a plane from Hawaii to LA and survive a bunch of snakes just so they could go surfing; if that's all they had to do (or wanted to do), they could've just stayed in Hawaii—where they already were in Act I—and never ever bothered to establish a narrative.

edited 10th Oct '12 12:07:34 PM by SeanMurrayI

We aren't talking about Xs on a Y anymore. Please stop bringing it up.

I think part of the problem is that No Ending doesn't seem to know whether it's a supertrope (which children like Author Existence Failure, Cut Short, possibly Bolivian Army Ending, and possibly Left Hanging) or a sister trope to those. I would think supertrope, but the description says "under this circumstance it's not this trope, it's that one", which implies a sister trope.

And actually this trope may cover too many things, even with trope flexibility in play.

  • Works that intentionally have no ending, and usually lampshade this fact.

  • Works that accidentally (usually through bad writing) leave major plot points unanswered.

  • Works that ended abruptly as an alternative to Author Existence Failure or Cut Short (knowing that the end is coming, they rush to finish and have to leave some things un-done).

  • A Sequel Hook that never got picked up.

Maybe some of those ought to be split off?

edited 11th Oct '12 8:06:37 AM by Escher

We aren't talking about Xs on a Y anymore. Please stop bringing it up.

What I wrote isn't even about Snakes on a Plane at all. It is only the particular, real example I use to demonstrate exactly how the trope called No Ending correctly appears, various logical implications that reenforce points about the importance of bringing authentic closure for character motivations which always drive narratives, and whatever else its appearance otherwise signifies in a narrative. All I've been doing is describing the relevant trope as it should generally be described while referring to a legitimate source which you can even look up yourself.

Before we can properly recognize any faults with No Ending, we need to have some kind of agreement on what it is positively intended to be (or should be) in the first place. And quite frankly, I'm not all that concerned with what's a supertrope, subtrope, sistertrope of what. The most pressing concerns should be...

  • Do we agree on a definition of No Ending?
  • Do examples and wicks match our understood definition?

edited 11th Oct '12 10:33:46 PM by SeanMurrayI

[up]So you wrote a full page response to say "On question one: Yes."

The supertrope/sistertrope question is important to determining the definition of No Ending, since it puts some boundaries on whether or not certain pre-existing Ending Tropes fit within its purview.

edited 12th Oct '12 8:52:06 AM by Escher

I think the point to be made about Snakes on a Plane is that, even if Sean Murray is right, no one cares about the plot of Snakes on a Plane. It's about motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking plane. The plot itself is a MacGuffin; if it were a video game, it would be an Excuse Plot.

Even discounting that, it seems more like What Happened to the Mouse? But More So to me.

By the way, this trope was originally far more specific. That may explain why it's so confused as to where it stands on the trope hierarchy; tropes like Left Hanging were sisters or even parents of its original definition but might be child tropes, or outright redundant, now.

edited 14th Oct '12 1:50:35 AM by MorganWick

25 nrjxll14th Oct 2012 01:51:37 AM , Relationship Status: Not war
I'm pretty sure that original definition is a trope of its own by now.

As for the difference from similar tropes, I'd say that No Ending seems to be pretty much the supertrope to the rest.

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