by Jay Johansen | Mar 18, 1996
There is one idea for a story ending that I absolutely hate the most: When a story ends, "And then he woke up. It had all been a dream."
I'm certainly not the first one to criticize this kind of ending. English teachers and literary critics have blasted it for years. But they only give half the reason for ridiculing it.
The classic English-teacher's argument is that this is a cop-out ending. You get the hero into some difficult situation, until you have the reader or audience on the edge of their seats waiting to see how in the world he's going to get out of this, because it just seems impossible, and then ... As the author, you have no idea how he could get out of this, so you pull the dream ending and everything is magically solved. Cheap and easy, demonstrating no cleverness or creativity.
Of course there are numerous variations on this cop-out-ending idea. I recall a really bad movie that ended with the camera pulling back to show all the movie lights and crew and so forth, and we saw the director stand up and call, "That's a wrap" or some such and that was the end of the movie. Essentially the same idea as "it was all a dream" -- "it was all a movie".
I've read numerous science fiction stories about people in a spaceship heading for a distant planet who get into some impossible situation and suddenly the story ends with them opening the airlock and discovering they've never really left Earth and this was all a test or a psychological experiment.
And by now, I'm sure someone's made a story that ends with the hero discovering that it was all a virtual reality game.
Of course for every rule there's an exception. There are some number of stories where this ending has been used but where it has been done well and it catches you as a neat twist ending. But usually it's just a gimmick.
But while the cop-out argument is valid, it's not really why I hate this kind of ending.
What annoys me about it is this: It seems to me that the whole idea of fiction is to lose yourself in the story, to almost believe, for a moment, that this is really happening. When I read or watch a story and I find myself saying, "Oh, come on, nobody could do that", or "That's not how people really behave", than I consider the story a failure. I don't mean, of course, that every event in a work of fiction must be drawn from common, everyday experience, or that characters cannot perform incredible feats or have wildly improbable adventures. Rather, I mean that a good author should relate his story in such a way that, while I am reading it, it doesn't occur to me to step back from the story and examine the probabilities. To put it another way, in a good story, the reader may ask, "Why did Smith leave without the box?" (or whatever), but the reader should not be asking, "Why did the writer make Smith leave without the box?"
And this is why the "then I woke up" ending annoys me so much. I have just devoted all this energy to trying to believe this story is true ... and suddenly the author himself says it isn't. The author has violated his contract with the reader. He has tricked me, betrayed me. Why did I go to all that effort to believe this story, when the author himself didn't believe it?
© 1996 by Jay Johansen