End Games

There is often a lot of discussion about crafting the beginning of a story – the first line and following paragraphs. There is no denying a good beginning is essential to hooking a reader or prospective editor. But what about the other end? The end-point of all that structure and character development? The bit that comes before those extremely satisfying two words (at least in the first draft) “The End”.

A good beginning combined with an attractive character might net a sale despite the book’s other faults. With enough marketing buzz it might even create a best-seller, but without that sublime end point, the book is in danger of losing its essential impact.

Perhaps the ending may be less important for books that survive on their characterisation (super-cool protagonists can carry a story through loose or even illogical plots), or that support themselves on superior prose style. But for the other books that lack that well crafted ending, are they destined to drift out of the consciousness of readers as time passes?

So what constitutes a good ending? For me it’s emotional punch and a simultaneously delivered, poignant realisation. A feeling of emotional resolution. When the character arcs have reached their end in a satisfying climax of drama and action that leaves the protagonist changed for the better. I know this does not work for everyone, perhaps seeming too ‘formula’. Some prefer unresolved endings, particularly in short fiction. I think everyone enjoys a surprise ending to mystery that is built well from the beginning (i.e. not ‘the gardener you saw for one paragraph on page 4 did it’).

What books have you read that have left you in a state of sublime happiness? A surging feeling right down in your gut that your life has somehow been enhanced? The knowledge as you lay that book aside that something truly wonderful has passed from the writer’s psyche to you?

What do you think constitutes a good ending?

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.

8 comments

  1. A good ending satisfies the reader. Evil is punished, good is rewarded, and most threads are tied up with a few perhaps left loose for pleasant speculation (and maybe a sequel). People do not have to “live happily ever after,” but their story needs at least a happy pause. Robin McKinley’s “The Hero and the Crown” is one example. The heroine and her (mortal) love marry, evil is beaten back, and even though not everyone gets the happy ending that they wanted, the war is over for at least the next few generations.

    I can’t think of a fiction book that I’ve read in the past decade or so that “left [me] in a state of sublime happiness.” Many have satisfied, some I wanted to hurl across the room, a few I promptly trotted out and bought the sequels to. But none come to mind that left me in a state of wonder and happiness. The closest may be books 1,3, and 5 of Jan Karon’s Mitford series, about the joys and sorrows of life in a small town in North Carolina.

    1. I guess asking what left you in a state of sublime happiness was a bit of an ask. . .

      I like the idea of the ‘happy pause’. It looks like we probably think the same way in terrms of story structure. A lot a people seem to have a different opinion, judging by what’s published. I, like you, am extremely frustrated by what I am reading these days.

      I am willing to except that a protagonist may fail, but only if they have crediblly pursued their goal to the end.

  2. A story makes a promise to the Reader. Within the first pages the writer sets up tone, voice, characters, the beginning of a plot. When the Reader gets to ‘The End’ there should be a feeling of completion, of promise(s) fulfilled, a sense that the beginning and end, now both known, are bookends to a complete story, and that the whole is a satisfying unity, for all its meanderings and experimentations.

    One of my favorites in this manner is Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon: it begins with a marriage, and ends with a true partnership, as its main characters face the consequences of having chosen each other, and learn to deal with what that really means (around solving a very ingenious murder). I can read BH once a year and feel only that I am coming upon well-loved words, phrases, and sentiments – not ‘that I’ve seen all this before.’

    Much as I enjoy most reading that I finish, few books can be re-read, and fewer still re-read multiple times. But that is the standard I aim for. We’ll see if I achieve it.

  3. I need to feel satisfied. From the writer’s side, this can be a little difficult, especially when you’re trying to wrap up a middle of the series book. I’m kicking one of those around, right now.

  4. My favorite kind of ending is one where the stress builds right up to the end, and the victory is so close to the end of the novel that I’m left in free-fall for a bit, trying to put it all together. Other folks seem to want to wallow in closure for a bit longer.

  5. For me I think an ending has to match the story. A group that goes into combat and comes out without losses and virtually unscathed better have a damn good reason. If it is a bunch of 14 yr olds fighting grown folks with a decade of battle experience, iIm less likely to buy in. If it too groups of the less than morally pristine going at, I’m not going to believe in any sort of chivalry, and expect some hearts to stop beating.

    Take a look at the movie “Four Brothers”, the ending fits, the whole story works, but it isn’t a movie for everyone.

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