Bringing it to a Close...Part 2

>> Wednesday, April 20, 2011

When it comes to endings, it's important to appreciate what an ending is supposed to do. And not do.

Endings, in general, should pull the story arc together and bring it to a close. There are exceptions to this, of course - television shows left hanging, manga chapters with shocking revelations on the last page so that readers will be desperate to find out why and what the implications are in the next issue. It's a gimmick that's worked well for long-running serial works for ages.

But, in my opinion, that's not the kind of "ending" for a novel. Oh, it's been done and there are series of novels where several volumes are nothing more than a lead-in to the next. But, it's a copout, and a stupid gamble for any author that doesn't already have a huge and slavish following. A novel is a sizable investment in time and effort, not just on a writer's part, but on a reader's part. If a reader comes to the end of that investment and feels cheated, well, what are the chances they're going to invest in your next book? Maybe, if they're completely in love with your characters and story, but they are just as likely, if not more likely, never to pick up anything you've written again in case they get cheated again.

Oh, and for the record, even if you have a huge and slavish following as an author, shame on you if you play this "leave 'em hanging" game. Can't you keep your following without such gimmicks?

A novel, like a short story, should be able to stand on its own. It should have a complete story arc with beginning, middle, and ending that an unfamiliar reader should be able to absorb and enjoy without reading five novels before or having to read what follows. Everything required should be there. That doesn't mean there can't be allusion to characters and situations from before that would allow a fan who read the whole series to get something special. But the book should not require outside information pivotal to the story arc of this novel. This story has to stand on its own using only information provided inside the story or it's a cheat and a dirty trick to force more sales.

Not that I'm opinionated or anything.

Which leads me to my number one, my biggest and most essential ingredient to any ending: resolution. You've got to bring this story arc, novel or story, to a satisfactory close. Not necessarily a joyous one or a comfortable one. Happily ever after isn't required. Everyone doesn't have to fall in love and every loose end doesn't have to be neatly tied.

But the big ones do. The characters need to be in a stable condition (even if something else might be looming in the amorphous future). The crisis(es) that formed the focus(ii) of this story need to be resolved, even if it's not the ending the reader was hoping for. Ideally, relationships should be at an equilibrium (though, if that's just a sidelight instead of the focus of the story, that's less important). Key people need to have learned something, grown in some way.

As an author, you need to be aware of where your story's headed, whether you're a planner or a seat-of-the-pantser like me. Maybe not the specific ending for the story, but where you want your characters to be and what you want to accomplish with the story. The ending is your last chance to have your say and accomplish your goals, but you lay the groundwork for that ending from the very beginning, whether your ending is effectively polishing off a fulfilling entree or topping off a light meal with dessert.

You want to leave your reader feeling satisfied, you need an ending that makes the reader feel like all their time and effort was worth it. Which is the best possible advertisement for your next book. Or even an incentive to read that book again.


  • Jeff King

    I couldn’t agree more. I love how in-depth you explained it… now I just hope I can put this into practice with my ending.

  • The Mother

    I agree. I detest novels that end with more questions than answers--a trend which seems to be on the upswing.

    One of my recent series loves (the Quantum Gravity series by Justina Robson) totally lost me after book 3, when she left all of the essential characters up in the air. Pushing your readers to the edge of a cliff and then whipping up a stiff breeze in the last sentence does NOT make them happy. Won't buy any more.

    Perhaps the authors just don't know what to do next? Or haven't decided? But they had a deadline and they had to hand over a book.

    Or maybe it's just the modern "style." Either way, I'm out.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Thanks, Jeff.

    I'm entirely with you, The Mother. I hate movies like that. TV shows, episodically, I can accept to a point, as long as it doesn't happen every time. I hate when the do it at the end of a season (maybe that's why I don't watch TV any more?).

    But, in a novel, it will just piss me off. If you can't finish the story properly, don't write it.

    (I do give some credit to older novels that were hugely long and broken up post completion. Like the Lord of the Rings).

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