Tuesday 17 May 2011

Stories - how long is too long?

How do you know when it’s time to bring the curtain down on your characters? I got to thinking about this because Kevin McGill of the edutainingly brilliant Guys Can Read was lamenting this week what a damp squib the Smallville finale turned out to be.

I haven’t seen many episodes of Smallville, but after ten seasons there are only two places a show can end up. Two different kinds of whimper that can supplant the bang of a timely end. One is when the show runs out of steam. You keep tuning in because you care about those characters, but you know they’re not going to be hitting balls out of the park ever again. Case in point: the final season of Babylon 5. That wasn’t Mr Straczynski’s fault, but it was still an exhausted winding down, best forgotten, of what had been at times the most exciting SF show on television.

Or the show can spiral into the sucking singularity that is narrowcasting. I’m a devoted Buffy fan, but I’m not sure that anyone could pick it up at the start of season seven and have any idea what was going on. I began to get a whiff of the narrowcasting bouquet this week with the Doctor Who fan discussions (in which I took part, got to admit that) about whether or not Rory is still an Auton. And if that means nothing to you – okay, you got it; that’s narrowcasting.

Stories have an end, even when they’re about characters we really love. You may not want to admit it, but your parents’ story ends when you leave home. After that it’s all reunion shows – usually “The One with the Cranberry Sauce”. And endless reunion shows are fine for real people whom you love, but in the case of fictional characters then it really is time to boot them off Reichenbach Falls.

The Norse gods had Ragnarok. The British Empire had World War Two. Beowulf had his dragon. The end dignifies what came before, and sometimes redeems it. Stories need endings. At the close of a well-crafted tale you should be sad to leave the characters – even the bad ‘uns – but you know it’s right. Their story is over. “I feel… cold,” says Captain Barbossa, and it’s such a brilliant culmination of everything that’s gone before that it ought to be the end. Only the magical might of Calypso and the million-dollar demands of Disney could undo so absolutely essential a demise.

Ongoing comic book sagas risk the calamity of too long a life more than most. Sandman is great because it built to a definite conclusion. If we properly cherish what we were given in Watchmen, we won't ask to read the ongoing adventures of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre. Conversely, at a full century of issues, even the freshness of 100 Bullets was starting to feel more than a little stretched out. Knowing when to take a last bow is the mark of an effective performer.

Because of this, Leo and I are resolved that Mirabilis will run to issue #40 and sufficit. After the green comet has gone and normal service is resumed with the beginning of the real year 1901, whatever happens to our characters after that is up to you. Gentle breath of yours must fill their sails - Shakespeare thereby acknowledging, as he threw aside his pen for good, that ultimately all great stories are merely enablers for the reader’s own imagination.


  1. The British Empire had World War Two. In which case world war one was foreshadowing. Something Dr Who under Moffat kept doing. But yes all stories have to end. I think Kurt Vonnegut said that the end of a story should feel like the end of a nice dinner party you had with friends. I like the idea of that.

    1. You're right, James. And the series was so popular that now they're talking of an even bigger blockbuster: WW3 :-/ I love the Vonnegut quote -- must remember that.