What makes a good ending? What makes a great ending? What is that one thing that takes a breathless reader through those last twenty pages before he puts the book down with a sigh, feeling like the journey was well worth it? What are the keys to forging a solid, leave-em-happy ending? Or, more specifically, what are the issues that make the actuality of that ending a pipe dream? I think I’ve come up with a few:
1) Predictability. No one wants to finish a book when its apparent by mid-point exactly where events are leading.
2) Impossibility. There can’t be some Deus ex Machina ending where the hero not only produces a hat out of thin air, but also waves it with a flourish and yanks out one, two, three little bunnies. The feeling of betrayal or of being had is not a good one with which to leave the readers.
3) Unsatisfactory. Here’s where the waters gray. Some may say a book is unsatisfactory unless everyone lives happily ever after. I think a book is unsatisfactory if everyone lives. Stephen King obviously thinks a story is unsatisfactory unless there’s nary a person left standing (or, if there is, that person is covered in blood, missing a limb or two, and is mentally scarred forevermore). In this arena, research has to be a key element — truly knowing one’s audience and understanding what they feel to be a fitting conclusion.
4) The bane of my new writing existence (and probably the most culpable of the offenders out there) — Flatness. There’s nothing really wrong with an ending of this type; it builds to a climax, resolves the conflict and then ties up all the loose ends. It’s technically on the mark, but somehow doesn’t deliver the grand finale readers crave. There’s no gritting of teeth or twitching of anxious fingers as eyes sweep the last few paragraphs of the page in the hurry to get to the next. There’s no racing of minds to figure out just how all will be resolved. The book simply ends. What remains is a feeling of lacking, that we’ve been cheated of that ending — The ending.
Unfortunately, I could probably list more books that fall under the one of the above categories than those that don’t. Which brings me to the five hundred dollar question, Alex — What makes me any different? Is it the fact that I’ve already mapped the pitfalls? Or that I’m overly conscious of the issues that could send me into a downward spiral of blandness? I’m not so sure. Despite my awareness, I could very well find myself in the exact same position. In fact, I have. The whole reason for rewriting the final chapters of Resonance is because the first ending just… Ended. Even with my plot twist, there was little need to break out the pins and needles.
I’d like to hear from you seasoned writers out there; you who have tread the uncomfortable path of “wrapping up.” How have you managed your endings? And, did they ever shine as brightly as your mind pictured them? And, for the newbies like me, how are you managing? Is the resolution as torturous for you as it has become for me? Let me know. I’m curious to find out.
January 18th, 2007 at 10:34 pm
Thanks, Stewart. I was hoping you’d stop by and drop in your (very valuable) two cents.While I am an outlining fool (probably an outliner taken to the extreme), it still hasn’t helped me make The Perfect Ending. I think I’ll have to take you up on your exercise. What are you? Some kind of teacher? 😉 “And, as I am an honest Puck,if we have unearned luckNow to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,we will make amends ere long.” I couldn’t agree more with your “best ending” statement. That’s my favorite play. I remember reading it when I was younger and thinking how vehemently I wanted for it not to have been a dream. I guess that should’ve clued me in to my tendency towards fantasy, huh?
January 18th, 2007 at 10:20 pm
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January 18th, 2007 at 10:12 pm
An ending may leave readers with questions, but it must give a sense that the story has reached its logical conclusion, that the writer has put the story to rest.Outlines are critical for novel writers, in my opinion. Even if you are just mapping it with a webmap to show you how the action rises and falls, and how the different characters come together and interact.You know what would be an interesting activity? Reading ten books by ten prominent authors, and as the books come to a close, note how the author ends things, whether or not you felt satisfied, how the final couple paragraphs put the cap on things.The worst ending of all time?Stephen King’s “The Stand”. After almost a thousand pages of tedious character development, he brought good v. evil together with deus ex machina to resolve the conflict.The greatest ending of all time?”If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended,That these visions did appear, while you have but slumbered here.And this week and idle theme?No more yirlding than a dream.”
January 17th, 2007 at 1:04 pm
I doubt I could pull off the ending first method, either; I have trouble saying the alphabet backwards.I agree, Kate, that I wouldn’t want to write the rest of the book with the ending already done. I love the “seasoned writer” comment. I may have to steal it from you! Spyscribbler, I’m glad you found something useful in my ramblings.
January 17th, 2007 at 2:33 am
Unfortunately, Avery, I’m not a “seasoned” writer (unless you count that bit of sauce I spilled on my shirt), nor can I help you with this topic because I struggle with it too. I have tried the ending first thing–didn’t work for me because I didn’t want to write to the rest of the book after that! After all, I already knew how it was going to end. :)Nevertheless, looks like you’ve thought it through pretty well. Nice blog. 🙂
January 17th, 2007 at 12:54 am
I’m not so good at endings. *sigh* I try my best, but your post is certainly more helpful than anything I can come up with!(Funny enough, I just posted about trying the ‘ending first’ process of writing a novel. Maybe writing it first will make a difference, maybe not. We’ll see!)