Endings Matter Most

When I finished the last page, I wanted to toss the book as far as I could, as hard as I could. The protagonist who I had followed for the last four hundred pages died without accomplishing his goal. No momentous lesson learned along the way, no great change to complete his character arc. Why, I wondered, had I wasted my days and hours reading about this failed adventure that led nowhere?

Do you think I picked up the next book in that series? (Rhetorical question! 🙄 )

Endings are important, whether they are the ends of sentences, paragraphs, chapters, or books, as author and former Writer’s Digest columnist Nancy Kress reminded her blog readers earlier this year.

Endings are in the position to leave the greatest impression. Consequently they should be the strongest part of each story element. Today I want to concentrate on the ending of the novel.

Recently I read a book that ended with the completion of a character arc — just not the protagonist’s, but of one of the secondary characters. Though I had no murderous thoughts about that book when I finished, the ending certainly was not compelling and I had no intention of seeking out another title by that author.

Earlier this year I read a story that included a host of characters in the denouement — all except the antagonist. Another ending that fell flat.

Here are a few other elements I believe weaken endings:

* Repeated action. Something happened earlier in the story — a chase, romantic tension, confrontation with the antagonist — and the end is little more than a reprise of that earlier scene.

* Predictability. The protagonist has only one logical choice, there are no red herrings, the set-up points to only one outcome. These kinds of slips enable the reader to see the end coming long before the final chapter. Such predictability drains the power out of the end which does not create a thirst for more.

* Unearned endings. The character isn’t properly motivated, a necessary object to victory makes its first appearance right when the protagonist needs it, the cavalry charges in at the last minute to save the day. These endings might have worked if they’d been properly developed, but they’re rushed or incomplete.

So what makes an ending work?

First, a good ending is fully fleshed out. Often the action slows down, the necessary details are painted into the scene, every moment is made to count.

Then too the best story endings bring the protagonist’s internal and external conflicts to a climax at the same time. Perhaps the conditions of the external struggle lead to the key for dealing with the internal issues. Perhaps the reverse is true. In either case, when the two bleed into one another, the ending is more than satisfying. It is memorable.

Are good endings always tied up neatly, with all the bows facing the same way? I suppose the answer to this question depends on what the author wants to accomplish.

The book with the most memorable ending I’ve read is Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell, for the very reason that I didn’t really know how the story ended. Yes, when the book ended, Rhett had left. But Scarlet, our protagonist, was a tenacious woman who found strength in the land and who went after what she wanted. Consequently, I wanted to believe her when she delivered her final hopeful line. In fact, for days I mentally added my own ending or rewrote Ms. Mitchell’s because the ending as it stood disturbed me so.

Why did such an ending work? It wasn’t happy-ever-after and it was maddeningly open-ended. Yet after 1100 pages, I didn’t feel cheated. I felt desperately sad for the protagonist I had cheered for so long. I wanted things to be different for her.

Clearly, the ending was earned. The relationship between Rhett and Scarlet had been deteriorating for pages. Hence, his leaving was not without ample warning. Neither of them had been willing to risk offering love to the other for fear of rejection. And Scarlet was so blinded by what she thought she wanted that she didn’t know what she actually needed … until it was too late. Or was it?

The ambiguous ending can be strong and satisfying in a thought-provoking way if it suggests more and leaves the reader wondering.

Whether tightly wrapped up or somewhat open-ended, stories need to bring their character arcs and plot events to powerful conclusions. Those are the books that stay on shelves and get re-read from time to time. Those are the books that make readers want to buy that author’s next novel.



Filed under Plot

7 responses to “Endings Matter Most

  1. Pingback: Sally Apokedak | Reading, writing, and ranting

  2. Loved this and loved Gone with the Wind. I recently read a book I enjoyed all the way through until the very disappointing ending, and I never want to do that to my readers. I was taught that the ending was just as important, if not more so than the beginning, and I believe it. Blessings, BJ

  3. Yea! Another Gone With The Wind fan!

    My heart goes out to you about the Badly Ending Book. That is such a disappointment, I think.

    And yes, I agree. We should work as hard on our endings as we do our beginnings.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Barbara.


  4. I’ve read a number of books with endings I thought too abrupt or poorly executed or otherwise unsatisfying. (I think I may even have read the same book you did with the hero who dies at the end, Becky.) I could explain at length why those endings didn’t work for me, and how I think they could have been done better. But I suspect that very few if any of the authors of said books thought they were writing a bad ending.

    Of course it does happen at times that an author is rushed trying to get a book into print and doesn’t have the time to do as good a job as they’d hoped. It might also happen that they have a poor editor who doesn’t notice that the ending is unsatisfying, or that they don’t have enough honest critiquers who can warn them about the problem, or simply that they are too stubborn to listen to advice and insist on writing an ending that’s wrong for the book. But I think that’s fairly rare. Most authors I know do try to listen to their editors and critiquers, and they do worry about their endings. And if you asked them, they would probably have all sorts of explanations for why they felt the book had to end that way, and not in some other way.

    The problem is that an ending that enrages and frustrates one reader (or several) can also be an ending that leaves many other readers thinking about the book for weeks afterward, and wanting to read it again to see how the ending ties in to everything else. I think authors sometimes aim for the second and end up with the first.

  5. Hi, Rebecca, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

    I think part of the problem might be that some readers like one kind of ending and other readers like a different kind. But here’s the thing. I’d put myself in the group that likes stories with happy endings, if not happily-ever-after endings. Yet, Gone with the Wind and all it’s unsettling, unclear issues captured me more completely than perhaps any book before or since.

    In other words, I think it’s possible to write an ending that may disturb but one readers don’t hate.

    I’ve critiqued an outstanding writer who was terrible with endings because she rushed so much. She was already plotting her next book in her mind and was eager to get to the end of the one she was wrapping up. And she envisioned the ending in detail but didn’t realize all that she was leaving out, all that the reader wasn’t getting.

    With deadlines and all, I have no doubt that giving endings the time they need is hard. But I tend to think it should move up on a writer’s priority list.


  6. Oh, I definitely agree that endings ought to be given the same careful attention as the rest of the book — indeed more so, as it’s the thing that leaves the biggest impression in the reader’s mind. And if an author is rushing through the ending because they’re bored of writing the story, that’s definitely a problem. (Maybe they need to write the ending first!)

    However, sometimes the author’s priorities and the reader’s desires and expectations come into conflict. I think particularly of one two-book series that I loved, which to me ended on a quite unsatisfactory note — not enough to keep me from loving and highly recommending the books, but certainly enough for me to sympathize with others who felt that there ought to have been a third book in the series to resolve certain threads the author had left hanging.

    But then I read an interview with the author in which she talked about the things that interest her when telling a story, and I realized that the part of her story that I’d been most invested in — the relationship between two of her characters — was really not a priority for her at all. She didn’t mind leaving that relationship in limbo (so to speak) because she felt she’d said everything she needed to say about it, and she was content to let readers make up their own minds about what happened next.

    I personally found that a little disappointing, as I would have liked to see her resolve those secondary issues that mattered to me. But I could respect her opinion that the series was done and it was time to move onto something else, as well. After all, she had pretty much dealt with the central crisis of the plot, or at least shown the reader how it could be resolved. As for the rest… maybe better to leave it open-ended, than wrap everything up in a too-tidy epilogue that left no room for the reader’s imagination.

  7. maybe better to leave it open-ended, than wrap everything up in a too-tidy epilogue that left no room for the reader’s imagination.

    That’s what I’ve come to believe. Even in the example you gave above, if you hadn’t read the interview, you might have been content to imagine what the author might have written in a third book (my approach when I finished Gone with the Wind). I can see how knowing her priorities would be a disappointment. It would be like me learning Margaret Mitchell didn’t really care one way or another if Rhett and Scarlet got back together. Agghh! Anything but that! Don’t tell me you don’t care! 😆


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