I recently received a short story rejection from Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It was a nice rejection; he explained what he liked about the story and what didn't work for him. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the things that didn't work for him were things I didn't like either. One of those things was the ending.

I have a problem with endings. I always have. I can remember getting reports back in 4th grade with all the red pen on the last paragraph. "Needs a better conclusion," it would say.

One problem is I don't plan them well. For all my neuroses about planning ahead, the truth is that I plan the near parts in excellent detail, with increasingly less detail towards the end. So by the time I get there, I am often left with all these plots and subplots crashing together, knowing who wins and who dies, but never knowing how.

This happens a lot in smaller scenes throughout the writing process, and I always figure something out, but for the ending that something has to be really good. That's hard to do when so much of the story has already been decided.

My other problem with endings, I think, is that I don't care about them. Oh, I know how important they are, and my very favorite books are those with amazing endings. What I mean is, when I first fall in love with a story I'm writing, it's never the ending I'm thinking of. It might be the world, or the speculative element, or one of the characters, but it's never the ending.

My Beloved Alpha Reader told me she loves the way I end chapters - could I just end the novel like that? The problem (I told her) is that what makes my chapters are the cliffhangers. I'm real good at cliffhangers. I can pull a decent scene- or chapter-ending cliffhanger out of almost anything. But if I ended my book like that, I'd make a lot of readers mad (including myself - I hate books that end with blaring cliffhangers).

Okay, so here we are. You're all readers. What makes a good ending to you? I know the basics - the logistics, if you will: It must answer most, if not all, of the questions raised earlier in the story. It must make sense, arising naturally from the plot and characters (e.g. no deus ex machina). It should not be boringly predictable (though it doesn't always have to have a major twist). What else, then? These things make an ending not bad, but what do you think makes one good? What are your favorite endings and why?

(Be kind with your answers to that last one. Mark spoilers appropriately.)


Adam Heine said...

I think I'll start, because it helps me to think things through if I write them out.

One thing all my favorite endings have in common is not just that they answer all the questions raised, but they have the right answers - the ones I want. [SPOILERS UNTIL PARAGRAPH'S END] Ender beats the buggers. Doro and Anyanwu learn to love each other. Malcolm kicks the Operative's butt and the Alliance is undermined.

It doesn't bother me that I know what has to happen in these cases, I still want to see how it happens. Sometimes there's a twist (Ender's Game), sometimes not (Serenity), but either way I'm left satisfied.

Natalie Whipple said...

Endings are an interesting thing because I think they are the most organic, natural part of the book. They are hard to plan.

When I write, the ending often sneaks up on me. I'll write a line and gasp—that's the end. Or sometimes I'll think I'm getting really close to the end, and then I'm not. That happened with ninjas. About 55k in I thought I was almost done...then bam, I had about 30k more left.

I agree that an ending needs to feel satisfying. At least tying up most of the threads—even if there are more books to come in the series. I can't stand a cliffhanger ending. I also like something that comes full circle.

Captain Hook said...

Wow! Are you sure we aren't twins separated at birth? Your ending problems sound just like mine. My last novel had a 178 word final chapter that I am attempting to fill out right now.

As for endings I like, it depends. If the book is part of a series (not the final book), then I love a cliffhanger ending. Otherwise, why go buy the next book in the series? But even with the cliffhanger, a lot of the plots/subplots need to be completed. One author who I think does this really well is Jim Butcher (Dresden Files series and Codex Alera series).

If it's a stand-alone book, I don't care if it's an HEA or everyone dies, but all plots must be completed. Can't think of any examples to give at the moment.

Anyway, that my $0.02 worth.

The Wannabe Scribe said...

I think cliffhanger endings can work well, in fact, I have one planned for my WIP, but as Natalie and Captain Hook have pointed out all plot point need to be brought together. There needs to be a resolution and all the big questions/themes need to be answered, even if they are not answered in the way your reader expects (a twist).

I knew almost from the start how my WIP was going to end, but the biggest problem was how to get my characters there, and I’m still not 100% happy with that.

One of the books I read recently killed off just about everybody at the end, but the ending still provided a resolution. It was thought provoking and the most logical conclusion for that story.