>> Thursday, May 12, 2011
So, if we take out happy-ever-after endings, revelation and climax endings, what's left?
Everything else. And, yeah, that doesn't all fit tidily into categories.
But, never fear because I'm going to give you my insight into rules of thumb for any type of ending (which may or may not apply to the special endings I've already described—use your own judgement). These are things I keep in mind when writing the ending, including where to end the story.
First and foremost, remember the point of your story. Point of the story? What if it's just a frothy romp for entertainment? Nothing wrong with that. But, if your story is just to entertain the reader with a charming story or fun characters, don't kill them all in an earthquake or strike one down with AIDS. By doing so, the point of your story (having fun with fun people) has been subverted with an ending that sucks the joy out of it. That doesn't mean you can't have fun frothy adventures that end in despair, but the seriousness of the consequences, the reality that lurks behind the adventure needs to poke through in the story before the ending. Or the reader will feel cheated.
But most stories have something to say. It might be minor or even cliche, but the characters should all be striving and growing, be motivated by something or learning something. The ending needs to be working with that, part of that, in keeping with that intent. If the story involves the striving of people to be together against the odds, having them go their separate ways for spurious reasons at the end will be irksome. Give them good reasons, remembering their time together fondly, that's fine. But you don't want the reader getting to the last page and "Why did they try so hard for so long just to throw it all away?"
Some books have a very significant import, highlighting important issues like child abuse or war. Given the import of those topics, even if the story ends happily, it shouldn't be too easy, too tidy, too pat. There need to be scars and struggles with the ending emphasizing how challenging correction can be or the topics themselves become easy to dismiss.
The key is to not to lose sight of what you're trying to say. Bad things and good things can both happen at the end, hope from despair, reality striking fantasy, as long as you haven't subverted why you told the story for in the first place. That doesn't mean the guy gets the girl—perhaps giving up the girl is the greater expression of love, the greatest available. That doesn't mean tragedy is prevented, but you need to be careful about making every effort in the book seem futile. Hopelessness rarely makes a reader feel good about the reading experience. The key is that the ending should be part of the message, instead of negating it.
Don't be a tease. This goes somewhat hand in hand the first one. A novel is something like a promise that you build on over time. You're telling the reader what kind of book it is, what to expect from and for the characters. If you promise hot and heavy romance, having your main characters meet for coffee and then go their merry way is not likely to leave the reader feeling satisfied. If the book is all about someone training and striving to succeed at something, having them come in seventh with no fanfare or no particular reason can be frustrating. Why, again, did I bother suffering with this character? The ending needs to deliver on at least some of that promise, even if it doesn't happen to be exactly the way expected.
It can be tempting to pull a sneaky and do something shocking at the end. That's fine, but you can't break your promise. You don't have to give the reader the obvious solution, but you have to deliver something as good or better. Not necessarily happier, but as satisfying and meaningful as what the reader was hoping for. Pulling a quick change at the end just so it's NOT predictable is like trotting out a new suspect in a mystery at the last minute and making them the culprit. It's a cop-out and a cheat. The last thing a writer should want to do is have the readers feeling cheated. So, take a look at your novel, at the hints and breadcrumbs you left along the way, the promises and teases you offered on what the reader can expect and make sure you fulfilled those promises, even if it wasn't the way the reader might have expected.
Give the reader time to grieve. Tragedy can be a very effective part of an ending. Reality can be harsh and misfortune, even "senseless" misfortune, is part of it. But, if you, the writer, have taken the time to get your reader to know and love a character who is struck by tragedy, you need to give the reader time to grieve, either before the tragedy (seeing it coming like say, Love Story or Tale of Two Cities) or after the fact by allowing the reader (and the other characters) to come to terms with what's happened. Killing off the couple's toddler three pages before the end or losing one's mentor in the last paragraph can leave the reader without the ability to come to terms with their own loss if they've become entrenched with the character. It doesn't mean you can't kill off favorite characters or visit tragedy, just that you have to help the reader come to terms with the loss just as the characters must.
Don't wind down indefinitely. Just as it applied to the happily ever after endings, for heaven's sake, bring the story to a close within a reasonable timeframe. Everything that happens after the climax should serve a purpose to the story: cleaning up loose ends, bringing everyone into a stable condition, letting everyone come to terms with tragedy (and you need time for this, but don't let it drag on indefinitely)—you know, tidying up. Character exposition and development, adventures, should be minimized after the main core story has reached it's climax. Make it entertaining, sure, but don't take on chapters or episodes during this crucial period for no purpose other than entertaining. If it's not part of the winding down and putting the story to bed, move it to before the climax or let it go.
Foreshadowing with care. I have said and I maintain that a novel should be self-contained and complete, not leaving key story-arc issues unresolved or key characters in imminent destruction. However, some books, particularly those intended to be part of a series, frequently have an on-going conflict above and beyond the current story arc. In those cases, having a few loose ends to be tugged and tied in a later volume is fine as long as this story arc is complete, as long as someone can get a satisfying and complete story from this novel. In such cases, particularly if you know there are more books to come (or even if you want to leave the option open), a certain measure of foreshadowing is a fine way to end things...as long as you don't actually start a new story arc. Whether you note the existence of a particular threat or remind the reader of how much work is still to be done, despite the successes of *this* battle, a little hint that there's more to come is fine.
About horror. The guidelines I've been discussing on endings largely don't apply to horror (with the possible exceptions of denouement/climax endings) because the intent of a horror novel is generally less about satisfaction and more about being unnerving. That doesn't mean you can't have a satisfying ending, just that it's not necessarily the best choice. To get the effect you're looking for in your horror novel (depending on what your intent is) might mean killing off beloved characters at the last minute or leaving promises dangling, even nudging your characters to the cliff edge. In those cases, one can deliberately add to the disturbing effect of the story itself by leaving the ending, well, not so ending-ish.
I have an announcement on a revamping of my Ask Me Anything blog and then I'll move off into other plot related topics here. Stay tuned as it were.