On Endings


While writing your story, you are making certain promises to your reader. Some of those promises are inherent in the genre you're writing: if you're writing a murder mystery, you promise the reader will learn who did it and why; if it's a romance, you promise the right people will get together in the end. (Mostly. You can break these rules, but you should know what you're doing first).

But genre aside, every story makes promises, and it's your job to give the reader what they want. That doesn't mean you have to be predictable, but throw in the wrong kind of twist and your reader will toss your book across the room in frustration.

Let's look at an example. Halfway through Back to the Future, everything's set up for a big climax. The two major conflicts (will Marty get back to the future? can he get his parents together so he still exists when he gets there?) are set up so that Marty's only chance at both is at the same time: the night of the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. How does this have to end? You might think there are a thousand ways it could end--after all, anything's possible--but the truth is that the viewer is expecting a very limited subset of what is possible.

In BttF, the viewer expects Marty to get home and his parents to get together. Why? Because it's a light-hearted, funny movie. From the very beginning, the movie sends subtle clues that this will be a fun story, which implies a happy ending. There are a number of twists that can happen, but if Marty dies in the end, or gets stuck in the past forever, the viewer will be upset.

BttF also sent signals about what kind of climax it would be. Because there are action scenes (the Libyans attacking Doc Brown, Biff and his goons chasing Marty), the reader expects not just similar, but bigger, action for the climax. Because the movie is funny, we expect a little comic relief from the climax (or at least aren't blind-sided when it happens).

There's more. Marty's dad didn't have to become confident, did he? Could Marty have gone home and found everything exactly as he left it--loser parents and all? He probably could have, but we're all glad he didn't. The viewer expects the characters they care about will not only win, but win big (or, if it's a tragedy, lose big). It's not enough for George McFly to get the right girl, he has to become more than he was before Marty interfered. Marty doesn't just come back home, he comes back to something better (a new truck, Doc Brown lives and is a closer friend to him than ever).

Not all endings have to be happy and predictable, but they have to be satisfying. They have to be bigger and better than anything that's happened in the book so far. If you twist it, the twist should be better than the straight-forward ending would have been--don't twist just to be unpredictable.

Ask yourself, what has to happen in the end? Twists and details aside, where do the characters have to end up for me to be satisfied? That's where the ending needs to go.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Love this! The beginning absolutely sets up the end, and the inciting incident should foreshadow the climax. It's amazing how something we know intuitively as readers/viewers is such a struggle to get our hands around as writers.

Tricksy business, this writing.

Matthew MacNish said...

Even novels that aren't the last in a series should have some kind of resolution, and should keep promises. You can break some promises to the reader, sometimes (Bartimaeus book 3, or A Game of Thrones) but you can't break them all, or they're just going to get pissed.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree! Unfortunately, it seems that denying expectations is becoming the "edgy" thing to do -- and critics are agreeing, for some reason! For me, when expectations are subverted just because, that's the definition of a cop-out. (Example: the end of Jodi Picault's My Sister's Keeper. RAGE SMASH.) But for some reason, these authors are being trumpeted as "brave", or ... something.

Adam Heine said...

Agreed, Laura. While I think it's important to stay unpredictable (meeting all the reader's expectations perfectly will just get them bored), it's important that whatever twists you throw in are BETTER than what the reader expected.

L. T. Host said...

Ah man. Don't get me started on endings. I HATED the ending of the TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE. HATED. Fiery, burning passion of a thousand suns HATED.

And that's not the only one. Robin McKinley's PEGASUS, and a few others, all of which I appear to have blocked from my memory.

These two are still fresh enough to remember, apparently.

Endings are always my biggest love, and my biggest challenge. I can only hope that when you get to the ending of my most recent MS, you aren't left with burning rage. And if, for some reason, you have already read it and it in fact inspired this post, I AM SO SORRY.

Peggy Eddleman said...

I totally agree! I hate when I'm reading a book when plot promises were not fulfilled. I'm even okay with cliffhangers, as long as the author kept his/her promises along the way.

Tim said...

Back to the Future was awesome. That's my non-writer contribution to these comments.

linda said...

Definitely agree that endings are super important. Endings I dislike totally ruin the entire book for me.

Keriann Greaney Martin said...

So true. A whole book can be ruined by a sub-par ending. This is something I will keep in mind for sure!