More thoughts on Endings

Years ago, when I was running an innovation team at the BBC, one of my favourite sites was Half-Bakery*. The idea is that you post a barely-formed but interesting idea (such as a ‘Sarcasm lock‘ or a ‘Guided Missile to make Tunnels‘) and other people decide whether the idea is ‘baked’ or ‘half-baked’. Of course, the voting is merely a MacGuffin for the comments, that range from serious suggestion to wild flights of comic fantasy. I loved Half Bakery because it was an early insight into what the internet does so well. It takes your half-baked ideas and builds on them. Sometimes by ripping them down and putting something else up in its place, but sometimes by intelligently pointing out the flaws in your half-baked ideas and suggesting better versions.

I thought of Half Bakery a few weeks ago, when I read Andrea Phillips’ very intelligent and well-argued response to my post about designing endings in participatory media. She rightly calls out the holes in my half-baked ideas, and points out that often the endings in particpatory media are actually other beginnings, for example when ARGs are used as marketing for a game or film.

I then read an astonishingly good post by Paul Ford on how the never-ending streaming of Facebook and Twitter challenges traditional media’s historical reliance on endings – the full stop at the end of an newspaper article, or a news anchor’s sign off from a TV bulletin are alien concepts in our never-ending, permanently current stream of social media. At the end of it, he suggests that endings will return in some form, but not in the ways that the ‘old guard’ are nostalgically wishing to return to:

“We’ll still need professionals to organize the events of the world into narratives, and our story-craving brains will still need the narrative hooks, the cold opens, the dramatic climaxes, and that all-important “■” to help us make sense of the great glut of recent history that is dumped over us every morning. No matter what comes along streams, feeds, and walls, we will still have need of an ending.”

So with Andrea’s post, Paul Ford’s brilliant article, and Henry Jenkins’ series of posts that first got me thinking about this, I’ve become a bit obsessed with endings. How do we design endings in the context of streams? Does it mean handing the audience over to another cultural product, like a movie or film? Leaving the audience in a place where they can chat or (froth) about the ending with their friends? Is it an epic, synchronous experience, like the theatrical live events at the end of many ARGs? Or can it be a quite, contemplative, personal experience that happen in our own place, in our own time?

I’d love to get some people together to talk about designing endings in the context of streaming social media. Maybe a small, informal workshop where people can talk about how their own projects ended, and what they learned from the ending. Let me know if you’re interested in the comments below, and I’ll organise an event. I’m already organising The Story 2012, so this will be much smaller and more informal. Maybe we can call it The End.

*Amazingly, HalfBakery.com is still going strong, even though it launched in 1999

14 thoughts on “More thoughts on Endings

  1. Re: Endings for streams. I’ve been designing a piece of fiction for Twitter and planning a mixture of oneshot tweets inbetween and either side of an overarching narrative always felt right, but I wasn’t sure why, until I realised its similarity to ‘open world’ video games – and in particular Bethesda’s RPG ‘Oblivion’.

    Oblivion sets up a world with a bewildering array of stories – which the player experiences through everything from side quests and grinding to character customisation and readable books – as well as a main storyline. Indeed this last – despite ostensibly being the main attraction – is increasingly experienced as just one topic in a multi-layered ‘stream’ of play experiences. The ‘ending’ of the main storyline provides a closure, but that’s all it is – ‘a’ closure. The player will have several other narratives on the go and at different points in their arc and with a world as rich and full of narratives as Bethesda’s there might never be an ending.

    So too with Twitter. Rather than providing a single narrative or three-act structure, we dip in and out of multiple simultaneous narratives. ‘Surfing the web’ suggests we’re all riding a wave each, but when it comes to considering streaming content platforms it might be more useful to imagine we’re ‘playing’ a host of surfers and a seashore full of tides.

    Rob

  2. My first thought is that endings become tricky if you don’t know what to count as the beginning, but that’s not quite right, because stream-like online narratives have done in medias res for a long time. The problem then becomes one of formal vs narrative closure, but even the standard novelistic narrative end-points — births, deaths and marriages — require space afterwards in an online context for reflection and comedown. Not endings, then, but codas: the echo of that final chord of ‘A Day In A Life’ is in my head as I write this.

    The canonical online ending is the reply that’s expected but never received, or the bounce, or the ‘this account does not exist’, or the 404 error: all places where the technological backend breaks, is foregrounded in doing so, and establishes a formal boundary.

  3. Endings are hard in almost all forms of narrative, whether interactive/group or traditional, to say nothing of the problem of having your ending and the route to it all worked out, and then the client suddenly announcing they want the thing to carry on for another couple of months.

    Event-wise, I’d definitely be interested.

  4. New to this site, but about to do a play for Radio 4 that may well end up not having an “ending” in the traditional sense and that will certainly reference social media, whether or not any part of the story ultimately becomes interactive.

    It seems to me that part of what we’re talking about here relates to the idea of creating worlds, like Lucas’s Star Wars universe, in which stories can be ultimately unending but nonetheless constructed of episodes which do have a more traditional structure.

  5. Social Media closure; the elegant exit from a world of windows but few doors… I’d love to talk about the ‘ending’ that leaves people frothing – in a good way! When I think of endings I’m always reminded of Neitzsche’s line: “One should part from life as Odysseus parted from Nausicaa: with a blessing rather than in love”. Is this any less true of a story? Or are the Dylan Thomas-style campaigns to bring back series (Firefly, Outcasts, Family Guy…), fan-fiction etc. an appropriate and beautiful raging against the dying of the light and the sign that a story cannot be killed by its creators as long as its fans live on?

    I’ve probably just made myself seem like the *last* person on earth you’d want in your workshop. But if there’s room in your hearts… :)

  6. you know I would be there if I could.
    Ends are perceptual, what is an end to you, may be a change of form to me.
    What is an end to the Dr Who writers, is just an invitation to the fan fiction army.
    What is an end to one, maybe a re commission to another.
    It must be about “payoff” whatever that may be for your particular audience(s).

  7. Hi Matt,

    You’ve really got me connecting some dots this evening on endings. Clicking through on Paul Ford’s post from your site I came across Steve Jobs’ speech at the 2005 Stanford graduation. Jobs spoke of never being able to connect the dots forward. Only time and hindsight – time and the data – will reveal your story to you. Novelists understand this better than most. But why should novelists have the monopoly? And surely if there was ever time for a change!

    Having worked with novelists for the last ten years, and written personally for the same amount of time, writers feel around in the dark for such a long time with glorious moments of epiphany, only to return to the basement over and over.

    What I have been working on for the last year at writers and artists – the yearbook which has been guiding and advising writers for over 100 years – is the notion that there is a landscape to the writing experience – territories that all writers cross, even if they opt not to set up camp.

    What we’re looking to do is provide moments of illumination, so writers can get a lay of the land at crossroads and make personal choices – decisions. I’m not talking about a lamplit footpath here, and certainly not a floodlit field. Simply a searchlight at moments of crisis.

    Transmedia is at the intersection of all this. It can light up a hole in front of you, and get you questioning, taking responsibility: are you going to see it as a rabbit hole? or are you going to go away and construct some way of getting across? or make a running jump? I’m sick and tired of falling down the hole. I want to use my creativity in other ways. I don’t simply want to reach the summit of a mountain over and over. i want to reach the summit and figure out how to connect a bridge that high up with the others who’ve made it to the summit.

    Time is limited. We don’t all have the time to read a novel, let alone write one. But, now novelists have learnt the lessons, can’t they share with others how to navigate their unique path?

    Paul Ford is right to alert us to dangers when he references Jonathan Franzen’s commencement speech:

    “To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.”

    That said, you don’t recognize the dangers only to turn away from them. You face up to them and adapt a way to overcome or sidestep or defeat them.

    PS Matt, if you are still intending to do a workshop on this area or ever simply want to talk on the subject of ‘endings’ over a coffee, I’d be in.

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