Where Does It All End?

No, no, not the Hugo awards cat fight. That’s going to take years.

No, I mean, where do you end a story?

Here your characters are, they just won the big battle, so story over. The end.

“What!” Cries from outraged readers fly from all directions. “What did they do then?” “Did they just shake hands and everyone went their own way? Did they take over or just go home?” “Which guy did Princess Pink choose?” “And did Shy Guy ever get up the nerve to ask Geek Girl out?” “Did he kiss her?” “And what about the authorities?” “All this titanic battle all over their city, surely there were some questions being asked, right?”

Ending a story badly is almost as bad as starting one badly. Neither is likely to induce the reader to rush to the book store and buy the next book.

Oh, a little abruptly is forgivable, but an ending that the reader really doesn’t like? There is a difference between the reader throwing the book against the wall because he wants more, and throwing the book against the wall because the ending was a horrible let down.

There was a trend in British mysteries (my other addiction) a few years back, where some sympathetic character had to be killed at the end. It felt like a publisher’s demand—Dick Francis in _Shattered_ just pasted in a policeman to kill at the end. No relevance to the story, just someone to kill for an appropriate downer ending. Marsha Grimes in _The Grave Maurice_. Okay, the whole story was a bit squicky but instead of having the girl win and save the horses, she killed her. There’s an author who went instantly from “buy in hardback” to “Oh, not quite ready to try another one of hers, yet” for, let’s see, the copyright date is 2002? Going on thirteen years.

Do. Not. Break. The. Reader’s. Trust.

Most writers avoid the really bad endings. But these occasional fits of Ahtistry and thinking that there’s something inherently sinful about a happy ending can break out without warning.

Oh, you have a series, and the Main Character can’t possibly get all tangled up with a permanent squeeze, or worse yet a spouse? Trust me, at a bare minimum, kill the spouse at the start of the next book, not the end of this one. Better yet get him/her kidnapped and go rescue her. Yeah, yeah, trite overused cliché. If worse comes to worse, she/he can’t bear the danger and walks away. Or a screaming, throwing stuff break up. Anything except “and then she died.”

Let’s see, what other endings annoy me? Umm, insufficient tying up of a reasonable number of loose threads? It’s sloppy, but so long as you solved the main story problem, and hinted toward the solution of the other important ones, we readers will be happy enough to buy your next book.
Starting a new problem at the end of the book, to deliberately create a cliff hanger. You just can’t do that with books that come out a year apart. If the mechanics of the book force you to stop at a cliff hanger for some of the threads, please have the sequel ready to go in a few months. Please? Okay, that’s not fair for traditionally published authors. You have very little control over publishing dates. But do try to not keep the fans waiting so long that they give up on you in frustration. A cliff hanger comes with an implicit “You’ll find out real soon.”

And then there’s those endings that didn’t get any foreshadowing. They feel like the writer cheated. Painted themselves into a corner and . . . then a miracle occurred. That only works if the world is known to have miracles, and better yet, if the Main Character pulled the thorn out of the god’s paw early in the book and earned a miracle, that he just called in. If about a quarter of your beta readers roll their eyes and say they saw that coming from the second chapter, you’ve got it about right.

And then there are the endings that go on and on. Lord of the Rings. Loved the books, loved the movies. But the trilogy aftermath just dribbled on forevah.

Someone, probably Sarah, said once that the readers needed a cookie at the end. Give them something to make them happy. It’s advice I try to follow. Still learning.

This one’s got a good cookie. I think. :

47 thoughts on “Where Does It All End?

  1. a Des Ex Machina ending can always be a letdown…

    unless your story involves gods and machines, in which case that’s fine.

    1. Grr. Deus. the BTR podcast playback is sucking down my CPU, their page is horribly written.

    2. ‘And the Holy Relic was lowered by a winch from the Scared Chamber in the top of the Tower. (At one point it was the ‘Sacred’ chamber, but the climb up to it was bloody terrifying…) The golden and silver Sacramental Cords were inserted into the Hotlets of Power, taking great care not to let them touch, for any watching where they met would be blinded for moments by the energies escaping.

      ‘The God woke slowly, then heaved itself upright. “What it is now,” Marvin said, in a resigned voice. “A brain the size of a planet, and I’m at the mercy of whoever gives me electrons.”


  2. I think the issue isn’t so much a happy ending or a sad one, but a satisfying one to the reader. This involves set-up, development, and resolutions that don’t materialize on an as-needed basis. The structure is almost identical to a joke, where everything sets up the punch line. Lame punch line; lame joke. Lame ending; lame story.

    Sometimes it involves a bit of misdirection. I remember a comedian who pulled off telling a joke so old Milton Berle wouldn’t have touched it by using the expected punch line as misdirection, then following it with the real punch line, which worked because not only was it unexpected, but fit the joke perfectly. But if the comedian had tried something that didn’t quite fit, they would have heard the crickets chirping.

    1. That’s the problem I have with, for example, Stephen King. His books are well written, and boy, can the man create a mood and his characters are engaging, but the endings are just…meh. Unsatisfying.

      1. yeah they seem to be 50% “Utoh, deadline” and 50% “oh well, I’m tired of this concept, time to wrap it up’

        (Of course, a lot of his recent stuff seems like he has just taken all of his story elements and thrown them into a series of hats)

  3. Oh, a little abruptly is forgivable, but an ending that the reader really doesn’t like?

    I read a book once, it might have been james patterson? Not sure. Anyway, the ending was we caught a guy, but it’s the wrong guy. The end. [and now that you mention it, there might have been a random death too]. I guess it was a series but I never picked a book up again because it irritated me so much.

    1. One of Clarke’s ‘Rendevous with Rama’ books – I think it was #3, ended up being heaved across the room because of the ending. It had taken a concept that was intriguing in 1, and getting a bit stale in 2, and made it totally unappetizing in 3.

  4. Sad endings can work, if the story is already headed in that direction. Tragedy has a long and respectable history. But I agree that sometimes it just seems that the character is depressed, or depressing, and the recent trend of inevitable suffering is just misery inducing in the reader. Gray goo indeed.

    Dick Francis is one of my favorites, and he usually manages to avoid this, but sometimes his main character just seems so hopeless, even though he solves the mystery and defeats the bad guys. I can’t remember any specific examples though; I haven’t read one of his books in ages. I should probably rectify that soon.

    1. Sad endings can work, if the story is already headed in that direction.

      I think stories like Gone with the Wind and Steel Magnolias are good examples of a kind of negative, yet still hopeful, ending? Sad things happen, but you have some hope for the future. I can accept that sort of thing.

    2. A now classic sad ending is Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Sad, but still satisfying to the viewer. And this movie is one of the high rated of the Star Trek franchise.

    3. Well, what is the idea of a classic tragedy?

      A hero, an aristocratic warrior chieftain, is destroyed by his tragic flaw. It is an own goal, the main character has agency in his own destruction. Bad choices have bad consequences, be a better person, make better choices, and avoid those consequences.

      There was none of this, society oppresses the poor victim stuff.

      Look at Socrates. That was all his choice. You can understand him as having the tragic flaws of love of country, love of truth, and inability to control his love of meddling in the business of others.

      Moderns might handle it as ‘look at the evil democrats picking on the unpopular’. The episode before the trial, the trial, and maybe even the after trial scenes make it perfectly clear that the matter is his devotion to personal customs that his fellows found abhorrent.

      In a tragedy, as early modern heroic adventure fiction and similar superversive subgenres, the main character’s choices and their consequences say something about choice, which resonates with the character and choice preferences of the reader.

      Where emody is maybe at best saying that ‘a goat is a goat until the day he dies’, and at worst suffering without plan or purpose.

  5. Mary Gentle’s Ancient Light. Looking back, I should have seen the ending coming, cuz it was like watching a train wreck — you know it has to happen and you can’t stop it and you can’t look away, but the real impact didn’t come til the very end. One of the most memorable endings I’ve ever read.

  6. Can’t disagree with you hard enough on LotR. It didn’t go on long enough. Attach a bunch of appendixes to the ending and it’s still not enough. But LotR is a worldbuilding-intensive story, as much of a tour of Middle Earth as a chronicle of the deciding war of the age, and I love a good worldbuilding-intensive story.

    Felt the same way about Gene Wolfe’s Citadel of the Autarch, when the last quarter of the book was mostly tying up loose ends.

    But maybe I’m just weird. Beleriand and its Realms was one of my favorite chapters of the Silmarillion. I tear up a little reading about the lengthy descriptions of the realms of the Noldor and all the natural beauty of the world, knowing it’ll be slowly destroyed in the coming battles with Morgoth.

    Yeah, my two loyal betas have to stand over me and my WIP cudgels in hand to keep the worldbuilding and historican footnotes from getting out of control.

    1. Can’t disagree with you hard enough on LotR. It didn’t go on long enough.

      I would never have gotten through LotR’s without skimming through all the hobbit songs.

      So. Many. Hobbit. Songs!

    2. I have attempted to read the Silmarillion precisely five times. And have given up. Five times. I despair of ever finishing it. I *want* to finish it, but it just doesn’t grip me. I refuse, however, to throw it across the room. I might hit the cat and kill it.

      1. Don’t throw it away, give it to me! I’ve read my paperback ragged and need some spares!

        But in all seriousness, you might try one of the audio versions. Hearing the pronunciation and cadence of the language might help…

        On second thought, the audio is better for the re-read. Admittedly it can be tough dealing with family trees of similar names, and how characters get new names. Just remember it’s not about any one character but the whole grand sweep of the world-

  7. Some time back I wrote a blog post on the anticlimax, the part of your story after the climax, and why it’s important:


    Part of the purpose is to show new patterns, to underscore that whatever the “story problem” was, it is now resolved. If the problem was “boy wants girl” this is where you show that they are together–or you show that the girl really is gone for good. If the problem was “Will they survive the disaster” this is where you show them in “safety” (for the moment, at least) or you show that they didn’t (which is generally a rather short anticlimax). Your story problem sets up tension. Your climax brings that tension to a peak. And your anticlimax releases the tension and introduces the new situation after the problem has been resolved.

  8. I sort of like the German fairy-tale ending. “Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie nach Heute.” And if they are not dead, they are living still. Wrap up the adventure/crisis, leave a few threads for reader what-ifs, and carry on. But for the love of mud, the wrap-up has to make sense in the world and with the (remaining?) characters. *glares in direction of walled library book now lying on the floor and trying to act apologetic*

    1. “And if they are not dead, they are living still.”

      Oh! I like that one. Do they start any different than “Once upon a time?”

      1. I don’t know about German, but take a look at the Canterbury Tales sometime. A lot of the stories start with “Whilom”, which is actually still legitimate English, but which was dropped from common use in favor of its close cousin “erstwhile.” It’s actually very close in meaning to “Once upon a time,” so you would say “Whilom there was…” and it would mean pretty much the same thing.

      2. Well, you do get some variation, like, “In old times when wishing still helped one, “

  9. The ending that annoys me most is the one in which the hero wins by giving up. For me, the most annoying example was Stephen R. Donaldson’s “White Gold Wielder”. First time I ever got angry enough to swear off an author.

    [I don’t have to worry about spoilers for a 30 year old book, right?]

    I picked up the series at “Wounded Land” and read both ways. Had to wait a while for the final book, “White Gold Wielder”, to come out. At the end of the book, the hero wins by surrendering to the villain, which somehow turns the hero into the keystone holding the universe together and keeping the villain from escaping into the real world. All that struggle against the villain for naught! I swore to never again read one of his books, a promise I have kept.

    And it happens more often than you think. A friend of mine can (and does) annoy me by reminding me about how the last Harry Potter book ended.

    1. Let’s not forget The Matrix, Sherlock Holmes Game of Shadows, Obi Wan, Dumbledore, Tale of Two Cities…hey, it’s a time-honored tactic and still blows me away when I don’t see it coming.

      It’s only ‘giving up’ if the hero gives in to despair and lets the bad guys have everything they want.

      And as a proud Stephen R Donaldson fan, I’ve got to contradict you: a sacrifice to become a keystone in the Arch of Time is every bit as likely as an immortal villain who’s the embodiment of hate and despair. And if one world was saved from the bad guy’s wreaking evil on it, and another was freed from his dominion, then by definition it wasn’t all for naught.

      So whence comes the Donaldson hate? I don’t like seeing an author I love misrepresented.

      1. I have to admit that I found his books (can’t remember which ones I’ve read) extremely depressing. I saw him as GoH (I think) at a con and was shocked because he was so *cheerful*. He seemed so genuinely happy.

        BTW… I think he’s writing again, no?

        1. Granted, he’s not to everyone’s taste, but there’s a lot of beauty worth the characters’ defending in his books. It’s often threatened and very often destroyed, but the characters keep fighting, and they have to figure out solutions. I’ve re-read the third book a lot, it’s a poignant dilemma whether the Lords (wizard characters) have to decide whether to keep their Oath of Peace and risk being destroyed in the war, or embrace the potentially destructive passions that could save the Land or destroy it.

          He’s written a third Chronicles, but I’m not a big fan of that one. He seems to have run out of ideas.

          I’ve corresponded with him a couple of times. An interesting, very optimistic man, and very devoted to his fans. Very free with sharing his insights about what inspired him and what his intent was. He’d stopped taking questions to concentrate on the remaining Chronciles, but he might be available again now that they’re done.

          Sorry to be off topic, but wherever I go Donaldson just seems to be the whipping boy whenever he’s brought up and it ticks me off.

          Yeah, straw-Donaldson’s a real jerk, but leave real Donaldson alone.

        2. Donaldson is getting old enough that doing the con circuit for publicity is too exhausting and demanding. I think he took a bit of a break when he finished the Second Chronicles, but he has a couple of novellas (in one book) coming out this fall. Fantasy, but unrelated to each other or anything else he has done, as far as I can gather.

          And Thomas Covenant does makes for a demanding read. It’s rather the opposite of light entertainment, Those who are looking for subtlety and deep moral issues will probably get the most out of it. Those whose tastes run to blood and thunder, not so much.

      2. But he could have given up in the beginning and saved everybody, including me, a lot of trouble.

        1. And deprived a lot of fans, including me, of what I consider a valuable reading experience, an amazing adventure in an amazing world. I won’t dictate your tastes, but see things a little differently.

    2. Hardly for naught. Linden Avery healed the Sunbane, using knowledge, power, and materials that had been supplied to her over the course of three books, and resolved a good half dozen major mysteries in the process.
      It was a surprising twist, but no betrayal of expectations. Not to all readers, anyway. The apparent surrender was well foreshadowed and prefigured.
      It may help if one is aware that it is a known tactic in the martial arts for a defender to unexpectedly yield to an attack and position himself to counter from a different direction, causing an attacker who has overcommitted himself to be become unbalanced and thereby defeated.

  10. What about the 1986 movie “The Mission?” I thought it was an awful ending, but my boss told me ‘He didn’t lose his life, he laid it down.’
    I guess there’s just some stuff that ends that way.

    1. Ah. Well, if we’re going to talk movies, there’s this new channel that popped up on my TV box the other day. Much as I like the idea of five finger monkey style Shaolin thursday (or whatever they call it), the Chinese movies they show just have very odd endings.

      Saw one that involved siblings leaving the Shaolin temple at which they had been studying kung-fu to avenge the deaths of their parents. They get in several scrapes, from which they are saved by a mysterious vigilante. Finally, the rescue is followed up by the appearance of an arrow with a note telling them to go back to the temple and study more because they’re not ready. So they do. Roll credits.

      Another involved a pair of rival gangs that culminated in a big brawl. During the brawl, the leader of one of the gangs remembers his teacher telling him that if he shows mercy, his rival might be impressed and become his friend. So he lets his rival, against whom he is winning, up. They exchange deep looks, then his rival signals his gang to stop fighting and the two gangs become friends. Roll credits.

      Odd stuff.

  11. If we’re talking movies… Cowboys and Aliens. Every single moment was amazing and then it was over and… meh. I have no idea how they managed to fail so profoundly at the end… well, actually I have my theories. I think it was a “who’s story was this anyway” problem.

  12. Thanks Pamela

    Great post. And good timing, I for one had a real bad case of Hugo fatigue.

  13. Pam, I think I read the first one of Wine of the Gods… I think I complained about the abrupt ending. 😉 But I’m reminded how much I really enjoyed that book. Do they work out of order?

    1. They probably make more sense in order. And I’ve got a couple that do better together. But I try for stand alones.

      _Outcasts and Gods_ ended fairly abruptly because I realized I was writing a new story, not the wrap up of the old. One was the escape, the next, survival on a new world. That story is now in the second book, _Exiles and Gods_.

      _Empire of the One_ up above is a good stand alone, cross dimensional espionage.

    2. I’d say it depends on you. I started with Empire, then went back and got the rest with a nod towards budgetary concerns but mostly based on tracing the characters I was currently involved with. So, Empire of the One, then The Black Goats and Growing Up Magic, then Outcasts and Gods, Exiles and Gods, and A Taste of Wine, then Explorers, Comet Fall, and Warriors of the One, then Spy Wars and Dark Lady, then One Alone and Young Warriors, then Dancer and Heirs of Crown and Spear, then The Fiend, then Saturday Night and Mall Santa, then finally Earth Gate and The God of Assassins.
      I don’t think it gets much more out of order than that. FWIW, I found the end of Outcasts and Gods satisfactory, in the sense that it was a resting place, but was glad to have gotten Exiles and Gods at the same time, but it was also the fourth in the series I read, so I knew some of what resulted,. I wouldn’t recommend starting with Empire though I’m not sure I can say why subtly enough . . . well, some long-standing characters are operating undercover using assumed names which makes continuity confusing when you start whichever book you read next. Hope that wasn’t too spoilery.

  14. But Pam, endings in your series are not nearly as dangerous because each one is part of the overall story. And you pay off, as well. Isn’t there a promised book out by David Gerrold that is DECADES late?
    Another observation:In Princess Bride. Little Billy, being read to by his grandfather , challenges the gramps because he’s telling the story wrong. Westley CAN’T die. Buttercup CAN’T marry the prince. He KNOWS these things. It gives us a good teaching experience on what the reader will bear, and also of the ways to hide the McGuffin so that the story DOES resolve, not just have pieces whacked from here and glued over there.

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