When I wrote my Leone-inspired SF gamebook Heart of Ice, I knew it would need to have multiple endings. The basic premise was save-the-world, but there were others chasing the same goal as the reader’s character and, in most cases, the plans those rival heroes (or antiheroes – well, I did say it was a Leone movie) had for saving the world involved different variations on destroying it. Obviously a black-or-white outcome was never going to work for that story. (The multiple endings of Heart of Ice were also a sort of nod to the various cuts of Blade Runner, but that’s a detail.)
The pitfall with fixating on the number of different endings is that it puts too much emphasis on plot – and plot alone can’t be what’s interesting about a novel or movie, or we’d just read the summaries on Wikipedia. Great Expectations has two endings, and it’s one of the best novels ever written, but not for that reason. Prospero invites the audience to supply the ending of The Tempest (“I must be here confined by you, or sent to Naples”) and it’s one of Shakespeare’s patchier plays – but not on account of that epilogue, which is vintage Bard.
Look at it this way: a novel is a program for the mind. You run it on your brain by reading it, and that gives a unique experience. Then we come away with Pip’s or Prospero’s life in our memory, almost like events that happened to us. Just looking at the plot will tell you what the program does, but you don’t get to experience it. You have to be there for the whole story for the ending to matter and make sense.
That’s not just true for regular novels, it applies to interactive fiction too. As the reader of a gamebook, I might be striving to achieve one of several different outcomes, like the protagonist in a Coen Brothers movie, but a good story is never going to deliver the ending exactly as expected anyway. What makes the difference is the route I take to get there – and that is just as much in my own mind as it is in the flowchart of possible choices the author has presented me with.
In Frankenstein there happen to be several distinct endings – I didn't count, but there must be at least six or seven. If you look at them from a plot point of view, they’re not wildly different. I didn’t have one where Victor creates a race of little frankenkinder and another where he goes off and becomes a botanist instead. All paths through the story lead to Victor’s death. (Since it’s a tragedy, I don’t think that’s a spoiler.) But consider all the stories you might have experienced up to that point:
- Two villains: a cold, ruthless madman pursued by a murderous monster.
- Two heroes: an idealistic visionary and the tortured, sensitive child-man he creates.
- One hero and one villain: which can play out either way round.
- Or something even more interesting, in which both our characters are flawed but have some of the qualities of greatness – the defining scenario for a tragedy.
At the end of all of that, you may reach one of those half dozen final paragraphs. The number of stories you may have travelled through to get there, however, is infinitely greater.