1.10.2011

How Not to End a Book

The importance of crafting a good opening hook gets a lot of attention in the writers' blogosphere. Likewise, character arcs and plot structure. After all, for the ending to be of any purpose, the reader has to get that far.

But I hear less about what makes a good ending, and if I'm going to love a book enough to re-read it—and I've always wanted to write the kind of books that get read again and again—the ending had better be lovable. Here are a few ways to kill an ending.

The Info Dump
All right, I can permit a short epilogue in which a handful of minor concerns get wrapped up, if—and only if—it follows at least one solid, fully-developed scene in which the tale has its resolution and the characters achieve their peace. But info dumps can make for trouble: sometimes they say too much. As a reader, I prefer to be left with a little scope for imagination.

The Wannabe Happy Ending
It irks me when an ending is wrapped up so quickly that either we don't get to experience the protagonist's happiness, or the joy doesn't come in proportion to the suffering. Bittersweet and tragic endings have their own rules, but a happy ending should be good and glorious and long enough to enjoy.

The Half-Resolution
Writers: Please don't start a plot thread you can't finish.

The Message
I might never forgive Thomas Hardy for putting the word justice in scare-quotes at the end of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The ending was cruel enough—I think the reader gets the point without it having to be said. Obvious agendas are annoying anywhere they occur, but they evoke sure disdain when they pop up out of nowhere on the last page.

The Cliffhanger
Even if the book has a sequel, this is just not kind.

Good endings come in happy, bittersweet, tragic, and many gradations of each. But one final note, for the edification of writers: If the book is going to end tragically, and the point is that life is chaotic and miserable and meaningless, I don't care how you write the final pages. I am still going to hate your sorry guts.

Have I missed anything? Do you have favorite endings, or endings you love to hate? Let me know. I'd love to learn from your thoughts.

8 comments:

  1. Mmmm, don't ever read my short stories, then. I have a hard time with happy endings in that medium. :-)

    My professor in college once said that a good ending must be both wholly unexpected yet wholly inevitable. That it must catch the reader off-guard, but when the reader reflects on it, he or she will say that it couldn't have ended any other way. It's a paradox, to be sure, but I find it to be true. And a pain in the tukhas to pull off.

    Personally, I agree with you--I need a proper denouement. It doesn't have to be like some of Shakespeare's plays or like Tolkien, with the climax and resolution at the half-way point, but still--I can't have the conflict resolve and then *whumph*, end credits. The reader is left hanging, protesting to the darkness, "But then what happened? And how did [Protagonist] react to [Development]?"

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  2. Favorite endings: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Last Battle, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Till We Have Faces. Those are the ones that always come back to me or that always come to mind when such a question is asked.

    Semi-Favorite ending: Mockingjay. Liked the ending very much but couldn't really stand the rest of the book. Have I mentioned how disappointed I was in the conclusion of Collin's series? :)

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  3. Till We Have Faces was amazing wasn't it!

    I LOVED the ending in Crime and Punishment, it's absolutely beautiful, and in Anna Karenina..at least until Tolstoy starts philosophizing.

    I actually really liked the ending of Tess too, but I read it after reading Hardy's Jude the Obscure, which had a good-but-incredibly-depressing ending that prepared me for more Hardy-misery, so I can understand why it might be hard to swallow unprepared.

    Overall, I guess I really like endings that are depressing, but with underlying hope..Camus has killer endings, especially in The Fall.

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  4. Chris, welcome! Your professor's words are well taken. I'd agree. Also, while I admit to a preference for happy endings, sorrow doesn't necessarily make for an unbearable one. It's nihilism and chaos and existential despair that I can't stomach. :)

    George, I thought about Mockingjay while I was writing this. That story was so gruesome that the ending, much as I liked it, couldn't satisfy. The alchemical failure--as I see it, anyway--was especially disappointing.

    Masha, Crime and Punishment has one of the more beautiful endings I've come across. And yeah, though the single line I've criticized would probably have still bothered me, being prepared for the end of Tess might have tempered the fury. :)

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  5. Camus's The Stranger: 'I can only hope they meet me with their jeers.' The world simply never looks the same after that...

    Chesterton spins some very nice endings in the Father Brown stories, too. Gaiman is the master of the note-perfect ending, of the sort Chris so aptly defined; Miyazaki a close second. ('Well, I give up. Can't win against wolves.')

    LOTR is probably my favourite ending in the literature, with the immediate second going to Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, breaking even with MacDonald's 'The Golden Key.' (If you've never read it, Jenna, go read it now.)

    I've always liked Tolkien's idea of the ending being simply a frame, 'a sharp cut in the tapestry of story.'

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  6. Oh, forgot to say-- if we can step into movies for a minute, Roberto Benigni's La Vita e Bella [Life is Beautiful] has, I think, perhaps the most beautiful and bittersweet ending I've ever encountered, anywhere. (Watch it in Italian, with English subtitles if needed.) It's going to have me in tears at my desk if I keep thinking about it...

    And, back over to books, Dickens's A Christmas Carol surely deserves special mention here:

    '[...]and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One! '

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  7. I'll look for The Golden Key, Mr. Pond.

    La Vita e Bella is one of my favorite movies. I've come across few characters as wonderful as Guido, and even though the ending had its tragedy, it contained a brilliant legacy of love and joy.

    Dickens' Christmas Carol--yes. Another of my all-time favorite endings.

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  8. "If the book is going to end tragically, and the point is that life is chaotic and miserable and meaningless, I don't care how you write the final pages. I am still going to hate your sorry guts."

    AMEN!!!

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