I recently re-read Stephen King's Dark Tower Saga because, clearly, I have too much time on my hands (see also: starting this blog). Also, Stephen King was one of my favorite authors through high school and college (although I haven't read his stuff as voraciously since he "retired"), and the Dark Tower was my first introduction to his work. So, it's always held a special place in my heart and, for the first time since finishing the last book back in 2004, I really wanted to revisit that world.
In any case, even as I was starting the series, I kept thinking about something King does near the ending. And I started musing about how it compared to other devices in other media.
I will be referencing the endings of a few different things below the break, but no actual plot spoilers.
So, at the start of the final chapter of the final book of the Dark Tower, Stephen King directly addresses the reader. Although there's one more thing to resolve, he suggests that the reader leave off here, the coda unread, leaving the tale with no end but the image ending the second to last chapter. He calls it a good end and I'll say it is. He claims that reading through what he has left can only lead to disappointment (and on that I won't say yea or nay). He gives the reader permission to stop reading.
Logic says that you can stop reading a book at any time. If we needed the author's permission for that we might be a lot choosier about which books we pick up. And some people might never finish a Stephen King novel. But without that permission, quitting a chapter before the end is just that: quitting. But, somehow, it's different when the author tells you that stopping twelve pages before the end is okay.
In that latter case, stopping one chapter short isn't quitting, it's an ending. I know people who stopped where King suggests and those who've gone all the way to the end (I was one of these). I don't fault anyone for either choice.
And it is that, a choice. Which is rare in literature. Hell, it's rare in any kind of fiction. I checked TVtropes, and they only had 2 entries under Literature for Multiple Endings, and one of those was the old Choose Your Own Adventure Books, which is really a different monster. This kind of choice can, I believe, draw a reader into a book in a different, unique way, and it's almost never seen.
Outside of literature, the only other singular example I can think of is the movie Clue. In theatres, each theatre showed it with one of three possible endings. A viewer could have then gone to three different showings, seen all three endings and decided for themselves which one was the "real" ending.
Unfortunately, when the movie came out on VHS, they didn't have the ability to vary the endings. So, they showed them one after the other with the final one being literally called "what really happened." If you see it on TV, it's shown the same way. Sure, the DVD gives you the option of having a random ending, but since more people were exposed to it through its TV and VHS releases, the combined ending is the one that most people remember as the "real ending." Looking at it now, that seems like kind of a shame to me. The technique didn't seem to work out for Clue (it came just short of breaking even in theatres), but I'd love to see someone else try to do something similar.
Of course, there is one art form (and I do think of it as an art form, Roger Ebert be damned) that does pride itself on interactivity and choice: video games. Many games have alternate endings, different ways that the character's story can end. But I'd argue that, even in video games, you seldom see real choices in how to end things.
Even amongst the games with alternate endings, often the ending a player receives is not the result of a direct choice but indirectly picked through cumulative "morality" choices throughout the game or by their performance in some non-essential collection quest. Many times, there's still a definite sense that there is one real ending and a lot of bad endings.
Star Wars games tend to be some of the worst offenders. Almost every Star Wars game in the last 15 years or so has had both a "light" and "dark side" ending. Many times (maybe even most times), the dark side ending has directly broken Star Wars cannon. Sure, it's fun to take over the Empire before Luke picks up a lightsaber, but anyone who's seen the trilogy knows that isn't "real" (for values of real existing in a galaxy far, far away).
This problem becomes even more pronounced when a game gets sequels. Even if the endings had been open beforehand, the developers have to pick an ending to be canonical because they need to have a starting point for the game. It's hard to fault them on this, there aren't a whole lot of other options when you're making a sequel.
A few have managed it though. The Silent Hill games have had different protagonists in each game, and Mass Effect has plotted itself out to allow you to make significant choices through multiple games without invalidating what you did before. So, hopefully, we see more of this in the future. Video games are a great medium for this kind of choice.
But that doesn't mean I wouldn't like to see it in other places, too.