A cop out is when a story builds to a certain climax and the writer suddenly wusses out and chooses a different, less ambitious or less satisfying ending, or worse, chooses not to end the story at all. This may come out of Executive Meddling, Real Life Writes the Plot, Creator Breakdown, lack of talent, or simply an incomprehensible creative choice. Often results in a Broken Base.
According to That Other Wiki, "Cop out is an idiom meaning to avoid taking responsibility for an action or to avoid fulfilling a duty." (Which, of course, is not related in the slightest to the other idiomatic meaning of "cop" as in Cops and Detectives, nor to the film Cop Out.)
It should be added that not all cases of the below are always "cop outs"; to provide two examples, a particularly heinous bit of Offstage Villainy can be used to make a vile villain even worse with very little effort ("What is it with you heroes and fathers? I killed my father too, and you don't hear me whining about it!"), or a Disney Death being treated as highly suspicious at the time ("I won't believe he's actually dead unless you actually saw his corpse, after so many false reports of him being killed.").
Compare with Offscreen Moment of Awesome.
Different from an Anticlimax in that a story with a Writer Cop Out can have a climax, just not necessarily the one that would be the most dramatically satisfying. In the right (or wrong) context, a Climactic Battle Resurrection could be the easy way out. It may also be seen as a Writer Cop Out if a film adaptation of a work with a Downer Ending goes for something slightly happier (or vice versa). Expect cries of They Wasted a Perfectly Good Plot. The flip side of Author's Saving Throw.
This is a bit of an umbrella trope as there are many different ways to cop out. Some of the most infamous are:
- Aborted Arc: The series never gets around to resolving a story arc that was started earlier.
- All Just a Dream: All the events of the story are rendered irrelevant by revealing that the protagonist was only dreaming.
- All Just a Prank: Similar to All Just a Dream, the events of the story are rendered irrelevant by revealing that it was an elaborate prank.
- Ass Pull: The story comes to an end because of a revelation or solution that comes out of nowhere and completely disregards what has already been established in the story. The name comes from the idea that the author just pulled an answer from their ass out of desperation for a quick and convenient way to end the conflict.
- Audience-Alienating Ending: A common reaction to these tropes is for the audience to avoid a work because of how it ended.
- Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: Evil is defeated but the hero managed to keep his hands clean.
- Cliffhanger Copout: A story ends on a cliffhanger with the rest of the series never explaining the outcome of the cliffhanger.
- Convenient Miscarriage: Might not be convenient for the character if she actually wanted children, but it is convenient for the writers to have the mother-to-be miscarry if the character having a child would make the storytelling more complicated.
- Debate and Switch: When a debate is short-circuited by another consideration. Not always a full cop-out.
- Deus ex Machina: A previously unforeshadowed character, force, or circumstance arrives at the last moment to save the day, rather going through the effort to either have the protagonists figure out how to solve the problem themselves or writing a logical but depressing Downer Ending.
- Deus Exit Machina: Something unexpected and illogical takes a powerful force would could easily resolve the plot out of the way so that it doesn't ruin the drama of the climax.
- Diabolus ex Machina: Although the heroes logically should win in the circumstances depicted, something unexpected happens to cause them to lose, because if they had won the story would be over, or because the author wanted a Downer Ending but accidentally made his protagonists too competent or the villains to incompetent.
- Disney Death: A character initially appears to die, but subsequently turns out to still be alive or is miraculously brought back to life.
- Gainax Ending: Rather than actually having to decide on having a Happy Ending or Downer Ending and alienating fans who expected one or the other, the writer instead writes a completely incomprehensible one and alienates both.
- Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Rather than allow a morally ambiguous character to remain morally ambiguous and force the audience to think about ethics, the character suddenly does something unquestionably evil so that it becomes explicitly clear whose side we are supposed to be on before the finale.
- Like You Would Really Do It: The character's importance prevents the audience from actually believing that the character will be killed off, no matter how convincing the creators make the character's apparent death.
- No Ending: The plot just simply isn't resolved at the end. It's a cop out if the author simply didn't know how to end it.
- No Endor Holocaust: Situations that would logically result in civilian deaths don't.
- Not Blood Siblings: Rather than forcing the characters to wrestle with their incestuous feelings or forcing the audience to deal with actual incest, it turns out the characters were actually never related.
- Not Himself: Only a cop out when the reason the character acts differently is never explained, beyond "because we needed them to act that way to cause the plot".
- Now What?: When the driving conflict of the story is resolved, it ends, rather than attempting to depict the consequences.
- Only the Author Can Save Them Now: The characters are put into a situation where the only solution to their problems is a Deus ex Machina.
- Offscreen Moment of Awesome: This is a cop out when a character does something really cool, but it's not depicted because it'd be difficult or expensive to do so.
- Offstage Villainy: The villains only do bad things offscreen, because if their actions were shown directly it would either take the focus away from the protagonist or it would increase the work's rating.
- Reset Button: Rather than actually dealing with the consequences of story events, something happens to reset things to how they were beforehand, in order to preserve tension or avoid resolving the premise of the work.
- Reset Button Ending: The consequences of the whole work are avoided by resetting to the status quo ante at the end of the work, so as to allow re-use of resolved plot threads in a follow-on work.
- Sequel Reset: A work that was not originally intended to have a sequel receives one, but the driving conflict of the original work was resolved in its ending. Rather than come up with a new conflict or deal with the consequences of the original, something happens at the beginning of the sequel to set things back to the way they were at the very beginning and allow basically the same story to be told again.
- "Shaggy Dog" Story: A story that ends with the protagonist's efforts turning out to be pointless.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: A story where the protagonist ends up dying and their efforts are rendered pointless to add insult to injury.
- Stupid Sacrifice: A character sacrifices themselves even though they had no reason to.
- Sudden Downer Ending: The story ends on a tragic note at the very last minute.
- They Wasted a Perfectly Good Plot: An intriguing plot thread is never explored in an interesting way.
- Third Act Stupidity: Characters which have acted competently in the first two acts suddenly take idiotic actions because if they'd done the smart thing, the story would be over already.
- Villain: Exit, Stage Left: At the end of the story, the bad guy escapes before he can be punished.
- A Wizard Did It: The creator hastily explains inconsistencies as happening because of magic.