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.