Stories are most satisfying when they answer all our questions. At the end of “Die Hard,” not only do we get the satisfaction of seeing the hero kill the villain, but we also finally get to see that the hero has gotten back with his wife. As a bonus, we also get to see that the hero’s friend, the black police officer, has regained his courage to shoot a gun again when he kills the last remaining terrorist.
In “The Hunger Games,” we see that same completeness. Not only does President Snow look bad because the Hunger Games helped inspire rebellion, but the Gamekeeper gets forced into committing suicide for letting the hero triumph in the end. When stories are complete, they’re emotionally satisfying. Imagine a romantic comedy that never shows us whether the man and woman ever get together or not. We either want to see the couple get together or at least learn that they’ll never be together like in “Harold and Maude” where Maude commits suicide. Either way is complete and satisfying in one form or another.
Now look at incomplete movies. “The Hunger Games” sequels are far less satisfying because in the second sequel, there’s a cruel leader who takes over the hero’s town and punishes the people. Yet this cruel leader is never punished himself so the story feels incomplete.
“The Maze Runner” is another incomplete story where there’s a hint that the hero actually designed the maze experiment, but in the movie (and book) we never learn why he did this and why he would get involved in an experiment that he would know might kill him. Even more confusing is what this experiment is even supposed to accomplish in the first place. None of this is ever answered, which means the story is incomplete and ultimately unsatisfying.
A complete story is “Wild” where a woman goes hiking by herself. Gradually we learn what her past life was like and how she felt she was a loser who didn’t live up to her mother’s dreams. So now she goes hiking to find herself. At the end, she does. Then the story concludes by letting us know that she not only triumphed in the end, but changed her life around as well. Now we have a complete story.
Another complete story is “Still Alice,” a woman who’s slowly losing her mind. At the end, we see how her relationship with her one daughter has finally been resolved and we see that despite her loss of memory, she can still understand the meaning of love. While it’s a tragedy that she’s losing her mind, it’s a triumph that she’s still surviving.
In a complete story, not only does the hero achieve (or fail to achieve) a goal, but every other character’s fate is finally understood. In “Wild,” the hero has achieved her goal to find herself on the hiking trail. In “Still Alice,” the hero still understands the meaning of love while the secondary character (her daughter) has repaired her relationship with her mother.
Stories that don’t have an ending aren’t really stories but parts of a story. That’s what makes all those “Hunger Game” sequels less satisfying than the original because they don’t answer all our questions so they aren’t complete stories. They’re simply leading us towards the final movie.
Complete movies let us know what happens in the end and also makes the ending feel logical and inevitable. Endings that aren’t complete are unsatisfying. Endings that aren’t logical feel phony so the entire story feels unsatisfying as well.
Every ending needs to feel complete and inevitable. That means you need to understand your ending so you know how to set it up from the beginning.