The leading couple get married. The villain dies. The protagonist dies. Everyone dies. A happily ever after. How to end a story? A bad ending to a book, play, film, can almost feel like a betrayal: a betrayal of either fiction’s conventions, or of what we see as reality.
Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 different finales to his 1929 masterpiece A Farewell to Arms in an attempt to feel “satisfied”, to find that elusive perfect finish, to “get the words right”. Yet five years ago, Scribner published all these endings in one volume, each possibility offering a fresh perspective on the story. ‘The Nada Ending’ and its tone of apathetic resignation—“That is all there is to the story. Catherine will die and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you”—gives a quite different impression to this rather more spiritual option—“The thing is that there is nothing you can do about it. It is all right if you believe in God and love God.”
But as fascinating as these options are, Hemingway did ultimately choose just one—so why publish all the others? Multiple endings allow a consumer to decide for themselves what happened, taking power away from the creator in doing so, although of course all endings only exist because of the creator. They allow a sense of freedom within restriction, something which has been exploited to its fullest by the videogame industry. There are only a certain number of endings available—but there are enough options to pique one’s interest over and over again to try to get a different ending. You can see it both as a weird kind of reincarnation, and, more cynically, as a marketing ploy, a way of ensuring constant audience engagement.
The internet-fuelled success of Clue, the 1985 film of the board game Cluedo, proves this—released with three different endings, it was not successful commercially or critically at the time, but has since become a cult-classic. Netflix is looking at creating its own interactive, branchnarrative show in the near future. The streaming service has been at the forefront of television innovation for a while now, and at first glance this interactivity feels a very modern phenomenon. It combines video games with internet fanfiction and discussion boards to create a heady cocktail of consumer power, all whilst ultimate power still remains with the creator. But this technology has been around in book-form for decades. Remember Goosebumps: You Choose the Scare? Stemming from publisher RA Montgomery’s bestselling Choose Your Own Adventure series, these so-called ‘game-books’ address the reader in the second-person, confronting them with a constant series of choices, each of which leads them to a different page with a different and conflicting fate lying in store.
Despite a period of huge popularity, the videogame industry all but wiped out these books: Montgomery’s series ended finally in 1998. What they showed, nonetheless, was the importance of engagement, something companies are obsessed with today. They demonstrated the importance of keeping your audience on their toes. They also, and perhaps most importantly, worked against the idea, so important in children’s literature, of a moral ending. Readers were not rewarded for ‘being good’. The quantity of endings, the fact that one could end up with a ‘bad’ ending despite making moral choices and vice versa, is both true to reality, and false to fiction.
In a way, then, multiple endings are subversive, preventing didacticism through sheer quantity. This quality is transferred to theatre in Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges. Despite having only two actors, the play has ten characters and sixteen possible endings. Depending on whether or not the character of Celia Teasdale decides to have a cigarette in the first five seconds of the play, several people might get divorced, married, start affairs, have children, or die. Playing to the unique liveness of theatre, the four different two-way decisions continually re-emphasise the element of chance in both theatre, and in life, like the Gwyneth Paltrow film, Sliding Doors.
But multiple endings don’t simply add to the sense of reality. They also emphasise the importance of decision-making. In 1934-6, Ayn Rand’s play Night of January 16th positioned real people as jury, (a bit like Channel 4’s recent documentary The Trial: A Murder in the Family), leaving the final judgement, and so the ending of the play, entirely down to them. The fate of characters depends entirely on real people. The decision made cannot be changed—you cannot rewind theatre. This technique was put to even more dramatic effect in one of Derren Brown’s Experiments. Looking at the impact of crowd mentality, a studio audience were led to believe they could control what happened to a real person—with tragic consequences. The director of Late Shift, Weber, remarked: “The format is about decisions and consequences, so we wanted to show that in real life, you cannot shoot people”.
Unlike in videogames, there are no multiple lives. Multiple endings give consumers a degree of responsibility. This, ironically, can simultaneously make one feel even less in control. Your actions are restricted. Whatever you do, your path is mapped out for you. Multiple endings, as well as being a kind of gimmick, equally force a consumer to consider the bigger questions of life in general. Do you like choice? Do you like knowing all the endings are mapped out? To have just one ending, take road A. Or to choose your own adventure.