Over the last few weeks, I watched the entirety of one of my favorite childhood shows, ER, beginning to end.
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the fifteen-season phenomenon, ER tells the story of the doctors, nurses, and other staff in the emergency room at Chicago’s County General Hospital. The staff come and go — sometimes finding greener pastures, and sometimes just plain dying horribly — but County stays the same.
It’s only slightly less melodramatic than its spiritual successor, Grey’s Anatomy. It’s common for people to shit on Grey’s for being a soap opera, but rewatching ER reminded me that it wasn’t much better — County General sees it share of drama, from shootouts and stabbings to some serious issues with their helipad (poor Rocket Romano!) to a desk clerk taking out most of the admit area with a rocket launcher.
Anyway, I digress. ER is a great show, and it’s on Hulu if you haven’t caught it yet. Expect some serious ’90s flashbacks in the earlier seasons— the pagers, the hairstyles, Kathy Griffin’s original nose — but eventually, they catch up to the (almost) modern world; the show ended its run in ‘09.
Watching the end of ER got me thinking about the end of stories. There are two camps to how people imagine stories.
The first is what I call the terminally literal interpretation of stories. They end where they end. The writer has written a set, fixed corpus, outlining exactly what happens, and it’s pointless to speculate further. The answer to any question about any future the characters might have is meaningless. The story ends. We don’t know. The author didn’t tell us.
That’s no fun. I tend to believe in something more open ended.
Imagine that each story is a universe, just like the one that we’re living in. Marvel has a great system for this. In their comics, they have a numbering system for all the different alternate realities.
The main Marvel comic universe is Earth-616. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is Earth-199999. There’s a whole long list of these.
By the way, our own universe isn’t exempt; we have a number, too. Welcome to Earth-1218, where we have always lived.
In my mind, every story belongs to a universe, that, perhaps, exists in parallel with ours. A universe where wizards and witches a la Harry Potter exists. Another where vampyres a la P.C. Cast’s House of Night series exists, and yet another where Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampires do.
All of Rick Riordan’s mythologies exist in the same universe: The Greek gods keep to Manhattan, The Egyptians to Brooklyn, The Romans to California, and the Norse to Boston. The stories overlap; they have crossovers.
Likewise, my stories exist in the same universe, too. My goal is that there are little easter eggs in my novels, little flashes where you might recognize characters or references to other of my novels.
Sarah Dessen does this really well in Contemporary YA. It’s not obnoxious or heavy-handed or anything: if you pay attention to details, you’ll see characters from past stories in the background. It’s a really sweet touch, and oddly comforting. Like seeing an old friend on a crowded street in a foreign city. You smile, you wave, and you keep going.
I know that stories end, somewhere. But the end is incomprehensible to me. Like that odd sense of panic that comes over me when I really try to imagine what death will feel like. Or try to rationally accept the heat death of the universe.
There is, perhaps, a perspective from which a story, or, perhaps, all stories end. But I don’t think it’s really conceivable from a human perspective. Characters come, characters go, but they are still out there.
At least, perhaps, until there’s no one left to remember them. But I sure hope that’s a long time from now.
Zach J. Payne is, to borrow the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive Payne”. He is a thespian, poet, and writer for young adults. He is the #2 Ninja Writer. Follow along on his adventure, and receive his Query Letter, Deconstructed.