Endings

When I was a kid I thought writing a story was easy. I just wrote down everything that was in my head and then slapped a “The End” near the bottom of the last page. Sometimes I added carefully drawn curlicues on either side. For some reason the mental picture I have of this includes me lying on my stomach in the grass, sun and shady tree overhead and my tongue firmly clamped between my teeth, but I may be embellishing.
I never worried about the end. I knew without a doubt that it came…at the end.
Now as an adult writer I do not find it quite so easy.
The story unfolds. Before I even start writing it down I know where I am heading. I am not a stringent outliner but I am not a seat-of-my-pants writer either. I don’t like to know every single plot twist in advance because I like to be surprised sometimes.
But I must say that lately I have been fussing over my endings. Usually I fuss (ie.-worry) about my middles but SOMETHING has changed.
(I don’t quite know what that ‘something’ is).
I hate books where everything is wrapped up neatly in a bow. It doesn’t feel real to me. Life isn’t like that.
Obviously you must have some kind of resolution or you’ll piss everyone off. I think the main conflict must be resolved in some way that does not feel less than satisfactory. But there is a delicate balance between under doing it and over doing it.
Sometimes I think that the hardest part of writing is achieving nuance without making the reader feel short-changed. If you over-write something, it is akin to hitting your reader over the head with your book or computer or a shovel, but therein lies the rub. Personally I like some straggling ends. It makes me think the characters have carried on with their lives after I’ve read the last page.

Is a foregone conclusion a bad thing? Or is it a natural denouement? Once the plot starts rolling, and all the threads have been picked up, there is a wild, ride to the finale where it should all come together. But is that predictable? Boring? Unsatisfying?

Should it all be wrapped up so there is no room for speculation? Or should books be like life? Of course life is messy and tangential and needs a lot of tidying up to make it read-worthy.

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11 Responses to Endings

  1. Danae says:

    🙂 Some books are more predictable then others. I only like them predictable at a certain length. Some books you know what will happen at the end while others…you need to read the next chapter to find out what happens next. I prefer the latter.

  2. Lynn says:

    I also believe that the endings of books are more satisfying when they’re somewhat ambiguous and open ended.

    Obviously, the main points which a reader would want wrapped up should be, but if the author has done a good job of creating characters and a world and story for their characters (which is certainly the case with Ashes, Ashes, by the way) then regardless of the specifics of the ending, the story will seem to live on – because the characters and their world do.

    Books where every single detail that’s been touched on throughout the novel are wrapped up at the end tend to irk me, as it is just so not true to life. Minor characters come and go. Certain situations can not be resolved. And this is ok.

    Of course, the point of a written story is that there is some level of resolution and of artifice…I remember being irate when I finished “The Magus” by John Fowles. It felt as though the author had crafted a wonderfully fascinating story, only to sit at the end of it laughing from his writing chair while he penned the most frustratingly ambiguous endings every conceived by man. (A friend of mine threw it across the room when she finished it, she was so pissed.)

    It’s late and this is a bit rambling…so…I’ll go on.

    I still remember my creative writing teacher from high school (who had a huge influence on my writing) commenting at the end of a story I’d written which had worked up to a point – “Endings are hard. Come speak with me about this.”

    The YA manuscript I’m working on now has an ending which is also intentionally somewhat open ended. The most important points which need to be resolved will be, but I want it to have the feeling that it could go on – not in a cliff-hanger, will they get out of the burning building alive, I-can-milk-this-for-a-dozen-or-more-sequels sort of way – but in a way that the characters and their situation will be real enough for that illusion to be believable.

    A tall order indeed. Thanks for raising this topic which is of interest to both readers and writers.

    And so to bed.

    • Jo says:

      Ha ha! I had the same frustrated reaction when I read The Magus! I remember I flipped the pages back and forth wondering if I’d missed something.
      Glad to know you don’t feel that way about Ashes, Ashes. I must admit that some readers have wanted more of a complete wrap-up of the story which spurred this post. I guess I could have killed off my ‘villain’ but that seemed hardly plausible- and not in character for any of my heroes.
      In addition I was trying to show that morality and making the right choice is not always plain to see. People have different and varying notions on what is right and wrong, and it changes depending on the circumstance.
      Anyway, now I have gone on and on….
      Thanks so much for your comments, Lynn!

  3. Marg K. says:

    In regards to the 1st or 2nd installment in a trilogy, for example, I fully embrace a shocking, suspenseful cliffhanger ending. If it messes with my head Nolan style or teases me like a shameless flirt, I’ll gobble it up with a pudding spoon and then cry for more. However, if it just ends abruptly at a seemingly random spot (I’m looking at you, Enclave!), then I’m left feeling rather miffed.

    As for the major finale, “The Big End”, well I suppose I agree that there has to be that middle ground where the major plot points are wrapped up while a few of the less significant ones are left open-ended.

    Additionally, I’m not a big fan of the “happily ever after”…I mean, I want the protagonist(s) to succeed and if there is a relationship involved I want it to survive & flourish, but I also want there to be tough consequences involved and aftershocks from the major conflict built throughout the story. I have a lot of respect for ballzy authors who take some very drastic final steps…like killing of an important character or stripping the protagonist of his/her special abilities.

    Anyways, writing an ending that both you and your readers are happy with is definitely really tough. I certainly don’t envy your position. If I was a writer, I’d probably drive myself bananas and end up with: “It was all just a dream. FIN.”

    • Jo says:

      Great comments, Marg!
      I totally forgot that most of my childhood writings ended with “It was just a dream”. Hilarious!
      Yeah, it’s hard to balance on the too much/too little seesaw. I just need to accept that I will disappoint some readers, and live with that.
      I’m still striving for the rhinoceros hide.

      • Marg K. says:

        No matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to please everyone that’s for sure. Readers enter a story with vastly different expectations, views, interpretations, likes/dislikes, etc. That’s why I got into book blogging. I became fascinated with how different people react to the same book, especially when compared to my own reaction.

        On a side note, am I correct in the understanding that Ashes, Ashes is a stand-alone?

        • Jo says:

          As of right now it is a stand-alone. I would, of course, love to write other stories set in that world and further explore the characters I love so much. We’ll just have to see!