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Endings and Fan Ownership

Ever since the finale of Game of Thrones (and to a lesser extent Avengers: Endgame), I’ve been thinking about endings.  About what makes a satisfying one – and also whether it is even possible for a franchise that built itself around the shocking and unexpected to have a satisfying ending. 

See, here’s the thing.  To me, what made Game of Thrones so compelling, what had people talking about it so much that you HAD to watch it live or you risked spoilers, was not the fact that it was perfect or satisfying.  It was the unanswered questions everyone was speculating about – and the fact that it flew straight in the face of what the “rules” of the genre said would happen.  When Ned Stark lost his head and the Red Wedding decimated the cast, the viewers (at least those who hadn’t read the books) were stunned.  People couldn’t stop talking about it because characters we loved weren’t safe.  Anything could happen.  Those were the new rules.  And so the bar had been raised.  Anything had to happen, because we were no longer satisfied with the expected.  But when you build a story around shock value, breaking conventions, and unanswered questions, how can you possibly craft an emotionally satisfying ending?  Those are two completely different skill sets.

It seems like it’s incredibly rare for those zeitgeist shows to have satisfying endings.  Lost.  How I Met Your Mother.  The skill set involved in spinning out a story and teasing the reader from episode to episode and season to season isn’t the same skill as leaving them sighing or crying happily at the end.  

Seriously, y’all.  GoT needed to hire some romance writers to consult.

There is definite skill involved in cliffhangers.  In complicating things in such a way that leaves the viewer with dozens of unanswered questions which they will be debating on Twitter for days after the fact.  But it isn’t the same skill involved in an emotionally satisfying ending.  Endings are hard, y’all.  Resolving things is hard.  You want the emotional payoff, but you also need to obey the rules you’ve set for yourself with your own show. 

I’m not gonna get into whether or not GoT did that.  (Though we can totally debate it in the comments.)  What interests me most now is this question:  Was Game of Thrones successful?   Even if you’re pissed at the ending, by most metrics it was HUGELY successful.  And even became more successful during the episodes that were the least well-received.

Because here’s the thing: the viewers had taken ownership.  They were pissed at Benihoff and Weiss.  They were signing petitions.  They felt they were owed a satisfying ending because they felt like they owned the series.  It was theirs.  No longer GRRM’s & no longer Benihoff and Weiss’s or even the actors’.  THEIRS.  And the ability to do that to your viewers and readers?  That is HUGE.  

Last year at the RWA National Conference, Jennifer Lynn Barnes (whom I probably worship to an unhealthy degree) mentioned that something unfinished or imperfect about a story was often an ingredient of a zeitgeist of the entertainment culture.  It gives the reader/viewer room to invest themselves.  Their own theories.  Their own speculation.  Their own fanfiction.  It sparks debates in the lines at ComicCon – and in that respect even the “flaws” become advantages.

Look at Rogue One.  It is seriously my favorite Star Wars movie to date and the entire purpose of the movie is to explain away a ridiculous flaw in the first Star Wars film that fans had been arguing over for decades.  (How can one shot from Luke at the exact right place explode the entire Death Star and how could the rebels possibly have gotten that information at such a convenient time?)

I think Game of Thrones owes a chunk of its phenomenal success to that “unfinished” element – for years everyone was wondering HOW they would conquer the Night King and WHO would end up on the Iron Throne.  Two huge questions that no one knew the answer to, but everyone knew had to be answered.  It sparked those theories, that fan fiction, and that sense of ownership by the fans that made it such a cultural phenomenon.  And those expectations set the bar incredibly high.  Maybe impossibly high.  But regardless of whether the finale satisfied, it absolutely broke ratings records and exploded social media.  It succeed in that way.

So which kind of success do we want?  And how do we apply that to our writing?  If we’re doing romance, we can’t leave the big questions (Will they get together?) unanswered at the end of the book, but perhaps we can think about the questions we can leave open.  And then decide for ourselves if we would rather emotionally satisfy our readers and give them the perfect book that resolves everything in a way that makes our heart hum but leaves no room for the reader to take ownership… or if we’d rather be Game of Thrones.  Thank goodness there is room in the fiction world for both.


Lizzie Shane is a Golden Heart winner and 3-time RITA finalist for contemporary romance.  Her latest release, The Real Thing, about a runaway actress and the single dad next door, is out now wherever ebooks are sold.  She also writes paranormal romance under the pen name Vivi Andrews.  For more about Lizzie and her books, visit www.lizzieshane.com.

19 responses to “Endings and Fan Ownership”

  1. Interesting blog, Vivi.

    I’m going to answer by asking a question, after a confession. I’ve never seen one episode of GOT. Recently, after hearing all the hipe about the final season, I thought I’m going to watch it. Especially after a met one of the extras while in Ireland. But when the explosion happened on the final show, the anger, I decided nope. At least not now.

    So my question is, as writers shouldn’t we want our readers to love our stories so much after the ending that they want to tell others? I think so.

    I saw Endgame. Loved it. I hated that Stark died, but I had so many questions afterwards. Will the Avengers again go back in time and bring Tony back? Will his daughter be the new Iron Woman, I’m hearing about? Will the new Captain America be as loved as Chris was. Is Chris really done? Will Thor lose his weight? so many questions.

    If I do watch GOT, which I probably will at some point, I don’t think I’ll be as enthusiastic as those who have already watched it because I know the ending will not be satisfying.

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    • I can understand not wanting to invest the time and emotional energy, but I wouldn’t let a controversial ending necessarily stop you from watching. It was a huge phenomenon that got people so invested that there was probably no way to end the series that wouldn’t have resulted in a hue and cry. At least that’s my theory.

      And yes, as writers we want people to talk about our books because they love them, but the fact is people talk about things that bug them way more than they talk about things that make them completely happy. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to make our readers happy, but something that feels unfinished in some way (whether it’s a series or an unresolved plot thread) actually takes up more space in our brain – so reader obsession actually comes from leaving something not completely perfectly resolved.

      I’m not necessarily saying that we should do that, but it is a fascinating phenomenon.

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  2. Gwyn says:

    Great post! Truth be told, I hadn’t given many of your points much thought, but you’re spot on. And–in case you need further kudos–you may have planted a seed that is germinating in my head even as we speak. I’ve not had time to work on writing, but you know how insistent those seeds can be, pushing up dark, heavy clods of earth to get to the sun. We shall see what we shall see. Thank you!

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  3. “Seriously, y’all. GoT needed to hire some romance writers to consult.”
    You are not kidding. Those last two episodes were dream killers. Yet at the same time, I’m not tossing out my “Where are my dragons?” and “You know nothing, Jon Snow” shirts. So there was a certain power to that finale.

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  4. Elizabeth Langston says:

    My last release has a teen couple who meet at a summer camp. But during the year, they live 90 minutes apart. So they break up (for reasons) and then decide later to give the long-distance relationship a shot. I had a fan letter recently where the reader (9th-grader) wanted to know if the long-distance relationship worked out. That was so cute, and I know the answer.

    Those are the kind of questions I like to leave hanging. They’re happily-for-now, but (especially with teen fiction) for how long? Other questions that I’m okay with ambiguity is with side characters who are estranged and having repaired that by the book’s end, or with people with illnesses (physical or mental) that haven’t miraculously been cured.

    I haven’t watched GoT, and I won’t. I want my HEA. In the 90s, I saw (in rapid succession) The Silence of the Lambs, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler’s List. And yep, I was done forever with sad, evil, or gory stories.

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    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      *have not repaired by book’s end*

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    • If you have readers emailing you to ask you how things turned out, you’ve got this on lock. 🙂

      Life goals: write something that people get excited enough about to argue about, or write fan fiction about, or email me to harass me to write more!

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      I know what you mean about not wanting to see sad, nasty, gory stories.

      During the first couple seasons of Game of Thrones, when some of the awfulest stuff happened, my husband would say at the end of almost every episode, “That’s it. I’m done. I didn’t need that inside my head.” But then by the time the next episode rolled around, he was just too curious about what would happen next, and he’d watch again.

      Only those who’ve watched the show will understand this, but I almost gave up during the early Ramsay Bolton and Theon scenes. I still think that whole plot thread was gratuitous.

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      • Yeah – there were quite a few things in the series that had me wondering WHY they felt they were necessary. Things that seemed to just be there for shock value and making the viewers squirm, but we kept watching…

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  5. Darynda Jones says:

    AMEN to every word of this, Vivi!

    Fantastic post! Endings are crazy hard, and I feel like I never quite give my readers that absolutely 100% HEA. Even in the final Charley book, I ended it with two words. TWO WORDS! And because of those two words, I’ve received death threats. LOL. (Okay, only two, and I’m about 82% sure they were joking.) But I did have a lot of shocked readers. Even after giving them what I considered the ultimate HEA.

    But I love it! I love how vested in my characters they are. I’m honored and humbled and crazy in love with my readers to what is possibly an unhealthy degree.

    And as a writer, I understand completely WHY they GoT did what it did. I’m just not sure I’m happy with it, and I am one of the few people on the planet who didn’t actually watch the show. I watched the first season and once Ned lost his head, I was like, “Nope. No more. Not going there.” But again, it’s the extreme emotional response we are looking for.

    Also, just FYI, I have all the seasons on Apple TV! I fully support GRRM and I will watch them someday. I keep thinking I’ll read the books first. Then I look at my TBR pile. Oy.

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    • Yes! You had readers so invested and passionate that there was no possible way to satisfy absolutely everyone. But I’m sure you killed it. (I will admit I’ve been hoarding your books from 10th Grave on because I know I will binge the end of the series someday and I don’t want it to be over yet. Just one of the games I play with myself as a reader.)

      I’ll be curious to hear what you think when you do get around to GoT! 🙂

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  6. Elisa Beatty says:

    Brilliant post, Vivi!! You bring up so many interesting aspects of fan engagement.

    Absolutely, loose threads are a magnet for audience engagement, if the plot overall is well done and the characters are rich and spark imagination.
    (I’m so grateful for the truly excellent fan fiction following the end of Harry Potter. Which was a series that ended really well…despite some things being very painful. I may never get over what happened to Snape.)

    And it’s definitely true that nothing Benioff and Weiss chose to do would have satisfied every fan. (I can just imagine the furious cries of “What? No Podrick on the Iron Throne?? Where’s my pitchfork???”)

    HOWEVER, I think the fan fury over the last two GoT episodes had more to do with genuinely stupid writing choices involving character motivation.

    Earlier in the series, when shocking things happened, they immediately MADE SENSE. No one expected Ned Stark to lose his head, but ORDERING THE EXECUTION WAS ABSOLUTELY SOMETHING JOFFREY WOULD DO.

    The Red Wedding was shocking, but the second it started happening, you knew that was ABSOLUTELY SOMETHING THAT ARSEHOLE WALDER FREY WOULD DO.

    The Purple Wedding…well, LOTS of people wanted Joffrey gone.

    But the choices made by Jaime and Dany in the last two episodes….those infuriated so many people because they felt forced and inadequately motivated.

    I could rant about this forever, but I’m going to repost something I put on Facebook about Dany’s sudden turn to the Dark and Stormy Side:

    Dany did some appallingly vicious things to her enemies over the years. Starting with her stone-faced “Fire cannot burn a dragon” reaction to her brother’s gruesome death, and continuing on through many many burnings, crucifixions, beheadings and stabbings. Ruthless, merciless stuff.

    But she always, always, ALWAYS had a plausible reason for doing those things. In each case, a rational human could think “Taking out this threat in this unforgiving way may be what’s needed for me to survive to the next step.” Sometimes she chose mercy, and sometimes she choose to utterly crush or cow her enemies to keep complex situations from spinning out of her control. Maybe they were good decisions, maybe they were bad, but they made a kind of Machiavellian sense.

    But in 8.05 she pulls off a freaking amazing surgical tactical strike against Euron’s fleet and King’s Landing that MAKES HER ENEMIES SURRENDER, and GETS HER WHAT SHE’S FREAKING WANTED FROM DAY ONE, and then….just for kicks, she decides to barbecue the whole city????? Tens of thousands of people who never directly harmed her????? The people she believed she was actually born to rule??????

    Name me ONE military commander in all of human history who has done anything remotely like that, ever.
    She had a total victory. She had a virtual guarantee that the common folk would be amazed by her power AND her restraint, and think, “hell, yeah, she seems like a queen to me. Bow down.”

    She won herself an Iron Throne that wasn’t, you know, MELTED or crushed by twenty tons of rubble.
    Who would do what she did??? What tiny fragment of plausible reason could she possibly have had?
    What’s her motivation????

    She torched the city because nobody “loves” her in Westeros???? Because the Mean Girls of the North didn’t invite her to sit at their feast table???? Because Jon wouldn’t kiss her when she wanted????

    What is this, High Fantasy Middle School????

    I am so mad.

    And we don’t even get to experience what’s happening from Danaerys’s POV, except for a brief close-up of Emilia Clarke looking like she just ate some bad shellfish or something.

    What triggered her??? WHAT????

    Benioff and Weiss do NOT understand women.

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    • Preach.

      The problem was characters acting *so out of character.*

      Granted, the shorter filming schedule may have forced them to condense the final season and cut episodes, but if they wanted viewers to buy Dany’s change of heart and slide into true evil, Bri’s reaction, Tyrion’s case of the stupids, and Jamie’s reversed character arc, they needed those scenes and motivations. Otherwise, it’s a case of the writer forcing characters to do what the writer wants done to fix plot, not what the character would do.

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    • Honestly, I felt like they rushed it all. They had endless scenes of people walking through the rubble, but didn’t actually take the time to give the characters adequate motivation. I don’t think Dany turning into a rage-monster was an impossible leap given her overall arc, but they didn’t actually do the work to get us there (and having her go crazy perpetuates a concerning attitude toward female rulers which makes me want to grind my teeth). I don’t think Jaime going back to Cersei was an unbelievable move – but they didn’t do enough to show us WHY.

      I feel like they decided what the ending needed to be and then shoved the characters around like chess pieces to get them there, rather than having the plot spring out of the characters as it had when GRRM was at the helm. (Not to say he doesn’t have his own share of problematic shit going on, but still.) I am curious if seeing the fan reactions in advance will have GRRM tweak how things play out in the books to come…

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