The Game Theory of Story Endings

Do happy endings really make you as happy if you see them coming a mile away? When we watch a trashy action flick or a fluffy romantic comedy, aren’t the conflicts less interesting because we know it’ll all end happily ever after? Someone has to bite the bullet and write a sad ending to give plausibility to the threat of unhappiness. It’s disincentivized because sad endings are more challenging and risk upsetting the audience, but someone has to do it.

Steven E. Landsburg muses about this in The Armchair Economist:

I am intrigued by the market for movie endings. Movie-goers want two things in an ending: They want it to be happy and they want it to be unpredictable. There is some optimal frequency of sad endings that maintains the right level of suspense. Yet the market might fail to provide enough sad endings.

An individual director who films a sad ending risks short-term losses, as word gets around that the movie is “unsatisfying.” It is true that there are long-term gains, as viewers are kept off their guard for future movies. Unfortunately, most of those gains may be captured by other directors, because movie-goers remember only that the murderer does sometimes catch up with the heroine in the basement, and do not remember that it happens only in movies with particular directors. Under these circumstances, no individual director may be willing to incur costs for his rivals’ benefit.

A solution is for directors to display their names prominently, so that viewers know when a movie was made by someone unpredictable. Viewers, however, may find it in their interests to retaliate by covering their eyes when the director’s name is shown.

If you can be associated more strongly with unpredictability, you reap more benefits. You’re also more strongly associated with the unhappy ending, which might turn audiences away.

One way to ease the blow of an unexpected sad ending is to make deaths triumphant, defiant, or heroic. Think of how Spock died in The Wrath of Khan (No, I’m not going to give a spoiler alert for a 30 year old movie). Sure, people die in Star Trek all the time – when Kirk, Spock, and fresh-faced, red-shirted Ensign Jimmy beam down to explore a planet for life, we all know one of them isn’t going to make it back. But to kill a main character is more significant. And it was done in a touching way. They got the unpredictability without upsetting their audience.

I genuinely respect Joss Whedon for his willingness to throw curve balls like this in his story lines. He’s developed a reputation for having sympathetic characters die, leave, or change sides – often without warning. Rather than watching Buffy, Firefly and Serenity thinking “So, how is it all going to work out this time?” we’re forced to think “Is it going to work out this time?”

TV Tropes has a name for all this – Anyone Can Die:

This is where no one is exempt from being killed, including the main characters (maybe even the hero). The Sacrificial Lamb is often used to establish the writer’s Anyone Can Die cred early on. However, if the Lamb’s death is a one-off with no follow-up, it’s just Killed Off for Real. To really be Anyone Can Die, the work must include multiple deaths, happening at different points in the story. Bonus points if the death is unnecessary and devoid of Heroic Sacrifice.

In game theory situations, reputation plays a large role. TV Tropes mentions building a ‘Anyone Can Die’ cred, which can be achieved through repeated interactions. In a TV series or multiple films by the same director, you get a feel for whether the good guys always prevail. But even within a single story, early and repeated signaling can make the remainder of the plot more intense. When a major character is killed off without it being a Heroic Sacrifice, that’s a powerful signal that anything can happen. The musical Into the Woods will always have a special place in my heart for mastering this dynamic.

But there’s another route. Historical dramas can increase society’s perception of “sadness plausibility” without anyone taking a hit for being a downer. Nobody’s going to feel unsatisfied that Titanic, The Great Escape, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have sad endings. (Or if they do, they can take it up with reality for writing a depressing script. It’s not easy to keep those separate in our brains; we just get the overall sense that sometimes stories have sad endings. And that perception helps us enjoy all the other movies we watch.

10 Responses to The Game Theory of Story Endings

  1. Ian says:

    I just watched Matthew Chapman’s “The Ledge” last night (theatrical release on July 8; currently available through video on demand in some markets). The ending is semi-unexpected (the viewer hopes up until the climax that it doesn’t have to end that way) and tragic but heroic. It was, paradoxically, one of the most uplifting films I’ve seen in ages.

  2. harmamae says:

    Very interesting post. I enjoy happy endings best, but I find in many movies, especially romantic comedies, there is no suspense about the ending at all. This annoys me most in romantic comedies, especially if the characters are paper-thin. (Why do they get together? Why, because this is a romantic comedy, that’s why!)

    Ps: I love TVtropes too.

  3. Barry says:

    Quite thought-provoking. I’m interested in how fiction works, in part because I remember liking it a lot more a few decades ago, and wonder why it’s so much harder for me to get into novels and Hollywood movies now. I’m usually put off when I can see the writers and directors pulling the strings on the puppets, and lose the ability to suspend disbelief. At the same time, I find I can still enjoy stories that are obviously just stories — fairy tales, operas, ballads, etc. How does this sound: my reaction to fiction is parallel to the Uncanny Valley — if it’s clearly a comic-book kind of a story, it doesn’t bother me; if it’s trying to pass as “real life” it grates on me something fierce.

  4. Mitch says:

    I think a “sad” ending, or an ending that isn’t story-book “happy,” is often a better ending–an ending that makes you think. The Dark Night… Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (“色,戒”) ended up with the Chinese heroes getting executed by the Japanese invaders, but he created that ending in a toughtful, artistic manner. SLC Punk (obviously not an example of box office success, but a good independent film) ended with the main character’s best friend dying and himself realizing the silliness of his lifestyle, thus teaching him a lesson, not necessarily sad, but certainly not like a fair tale ending.

  5. Lauren says:

    My friends and I used to have a joke while watching Battlestar Gallactica, as soon as we really started to like (and empathize with) a side character, they got killed off. The death ended up being predictable. Though in so many other ways the story was totally kick-ass. Everyone knows how Romeo and Juliet ends, but they go anyway. The point is, predictability is unavoidable. It’s not the ending that gets the most butts in chairs, it’s how the characters get there. It’s the journey.

    here are some songs that tell a story, the video is unedited. It’s actually only part of the story :), but it’s beautiful music anyway. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kekqo3UsSA

  6. Tom Horne says:

    I volunteer on a rescue ambulance and I once worked on a chronic care and elective transport ambulance. Anytime I need a stiff dose of reality I can just put my uniform on and report for duty. I have carried the dead babies, tried in vane to resuscitate the young and the old. Even though I have five pre-hospital saves in the course of forty years of service they are too few and far between. So when I go to see a movie I really don’t mind if the lifeboat sinks in the last scene as long as in the previous scene a Coast Guard helicopter lifts out with all safe on board. Dammed Right!

  7. Doug Molitor says:

    I’ve always like “It’s a Wonderful Life” because the hero never defeats the villain, he never even gets to punch him out (cause the badguys in a wheelchair), he doesn’t end up rich or liberated from his crappy job or elected to office or in any way vindicated. The extent of his victory is that he doesn’t go to jail…and he owes his friends eight thousand dollars. And this is with an ANGEL on his side. i think it’s the most realistic, nose-to-the-grindstone, keep-slogging wrap-up of any ridiculously happy movie ending ever.

  8. Andrew T says:

    Like Mitch I’m a sucker for “fuck you” endings. Depending on my mood, I can sometimes enjoy a nice easy semi-predictable movie, but a downer almost never disappoints. On the other hand, a happy ending with true losses along the way can pass the realism threshold. And even if the downer is unconvincing, you can still laugh at the audacity of it.

    One way to beat the unpredictability/satisfaction conundrum is to have multiple plotlines, only some of which end happily. The movie I thought of, since you mentioned romantic comedies, was Love Actually. It had sappy moments, but it’s far superior to most entries in the genre partly because some of the relationships didn’t work out after all, and some did but in unconventional ways – now that I think about it, an “unconventional happy ending” seems like the equally effective counterpart to your “moving but sad ending” idea. I wonder if LA’s endings are close to the “optimal frequency” of happy ones; about 2/3-3/4 by my count. (It also had the benefit of high quality comedy.)

    Following up on that “unconventional” idea, a movie original, complex, or random enough to have no “traditional” resolution is pretty safe from your dilemma, since even a predictably successful ending will entertain via the journey. Looking down the IMDB Top movies, 12 Angry Men, Return of the King, Star Wars, Amelie, WALL-E, and Back to the Future are a few of the ones that have heroic protagonists and (arguably) happy endings where none of the main protagonists died, but got away with it with compelling stories or styles. And boy did looking at that list emphasize how much film aficionados love antiheroes and downer endings!

    Whew, that post turned long, sorry 🙂 Time to track down Wrath of Khan – that screencap never ceases to get to me…

  9. Kaleberg says:

    If unpredictability of the ending was important, we wouldn’t have genre fiction which outsells literary (actually a genre in its own right) fiction by a large factor. My impression is that it isn’t where one winds up, but the path one takes. Just because you know that the romance is going to work out, the villains thwarted or the plane lands safely, doesn’t mean that you know how it is going to happen and what is going to happen en route.

    Some writers use plot devices, twists and turns in events to make the expected ending appear more or less likely. The classic three act play structure with its introductions, complications and conclusions exploits this nicely. There is also character development in which the plot induces changes in outlook, maturity, and the like. Autobiographical works rely on this since we can find out what happened to the author by reading the jacket copy.

    It is all too easy for an author to be simply “unpredicatable”. To be honest, I tend to avoid that kind of stuff and consider it a cheap trick, a few notches down from a convincing deus ex machina. Who wants an author who simply flips a coin? Who would watch a football game where the foregone conclusion is that one side or the other would win? The point of story telling is to tell a story.

  10. NascentDreaming says:

    Everyone wants an ending they are satisfied with. Satisfied does not mean happy but happy endings are usually more simplistic making them easier to understand. Understanding an ending is central to being satisfying. People also want to be surprised but movies run into a problem when they aim to give a satisfying (understandable) ending with a twist to surprise the audience because the jump has to be reconcilable within the story arc, that is to say happiness is immediately understandable where as a surprise (i.e. where the antagonist wins) is harder to understand leading to the movie’s ending being unfavorable to a majority of viewers (given the time constraints since it is the movie’s ending.) The more unpredictable the ending is the higher the percentage of viewers who will not understand the ending making the ending unsatisfactory. This also means the more movies over all that have simple satisfying endings the lower their surprise factor becomes over time until the surprise factor for all most all viewers begins to have negative returns outweighing the returns of having a simple ending that is understandable. Movie’s can then make an ending that is less predictable and still satisfying because the audience has become smarter.

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