Anatomy of an Ending

There is a popular sentiment that stories, like life, are about the journey, not the ending. I think good fiction has to differentiate itself from life, so stories are about the journey and the ending.

Maybe I’m hopelessly morbid, but I think about death all the time. I know I’m not the only one, but how I’m going to check out is constantly on my mind. It doesn’t frighten me or stop me from living, but like a good story, I do want to know how it all ends. Like reading a good story, though, I’m not eager to get there. It’s a paradox. I don’t want it to end.

You can stop psychoanalyzing me now.

There certainly are plenty of readers who turn pages as quickly as they can to see how everything shakes out, and I’d ask those readers to slow down and enjoy the time they’re spending in whatever world they’re in. Yes, the clock is running out and there are many good stories to read, but what is the point in reading a story if you’re missing its point?

I’m a slow reader. I have a complex about it. I worry a writer/editor should be able to read faster, but I can’t because words are like glue for my eyes. I worry a writer/editor should be more well-read, so I feel the compulsion to speed to the next book and the book after that and the one after that until I’m someday caught up and can actually read for pleasure again.

Again, you can stop psychoanalyzing me now. Rude.

It’s by choice that I spend too much time on a book. I often reread whole chapters or set a book aside for a while just to think about it before continuing, and during that time I’m just thinking. I’m not reading something else.

That’s part of the beauty of books versus other media: You can move at your own pace. I often tell other writers they’re not the painter; they’re the person at the store who fills the paint cans. It’s the reader who defines the experience.

So I get it when an author says, “It’s not about the ending, man. It’s about the journey.” I really do. But the ending is really important, and we shouldn’t just disregard it because a good ending is hard to come by or accept.

A story is about the journey as well as the ending, and the ending is really, really important. If the journey is 26.2 miles of pavement beating, a good ending is breaking the tape and getting the high five from your buddy when you finish the marathon. Without an ending, what is the journey’s meaning?

No, really. Without an ending, what is the point of the story? Generally speaking, the ending provides the outcome of each character’s decisions throughout the story, which supplies a large part of a story’s meaning. Without an ending, we witness the characters’ struggles, but we may never learn what they were struggling for, how their actions affect the world around them, and what that says about humanity.

In a sense, a good ending is why I write at all.

So what makes an ending good? It’s easy to say it’s subjective, but I don’t think that is true (or does anyone any favors).

Let’s oversimplify. I think a good ending hits three points: it makes sense, it has poetic meaning, and it is satisfying.

(By the way, I’m about to spoil a bunch of modern and contemporary classics, so if you haven’t done your obligatory reading, you might be a bit disappointed. The contemporary ones are toward the end and include The Dark Tower and The Road.)

1. It makes sense

This one is probably the most important. If the ending doesn’t make sense, audiences will reject it. For instance, imagine Ernest Hemingway ending The Sun Also Rises with Jake and Brett getting picked up by aliens and whisked off to an intergalactic cornhole game between two humanoid races battling for a prized cheese wheel and Jake and Brett have to be the judges of a dispute in a critical play or the aliens will introduce atomic fission to the human race way too soon so that they inevitably destroy themselves with it.

I mean, how silly would that be? Nobody even knew what cornhole was in the 1920s.

Instead, Jake and Brett ride off in a taxi together, reflecting on the possibilities of their lives (the suggestion is fairly obvious that they’d have been together) if not for the war (and Jake’s wound, all of which combines for a pretty powerful statement about human relationships and the foundations they rest on).

2. It has poetic meaning

A story that is merely a sequence of events is boring. Similarly, an ending that doesn’t capitalize on the events that come before it is meaningless.

Frankenstein is a good example. Victor Frankenstein’s creation seeks everything we all seek: acceptance, friendship, joy, love. In experiencing rejection because of his nature, he embraces the image everyone sees when they look at him and takes everything from his creator. In Frankenstein’s quest for vengeance, the good doctor ultimately loses his life. With that, the monster announces he’s going to kill himself and disappears, and it’s this ending that makes the story about the dangers of obsession. Everything is awful, and everyone dies.

But, imagine if Victor finds the monster in the Arctic, gets his revenge, and returns home with the creature’s head in a jar. This ending changes everything. Instead of the inevitable consumption by obsession, it’s about triumph over it and a reminder of what it can cost.

Also, in this ending, the monster who just wants to be accepted and experience happiness is murdered because of what he is, so there’s that to chew on. If you can get past how dated the prose is, Frankenstein is such a bleak story with an incredibly meaningful ending. But it isn’t the story’s bleakness that gives it meaning; it’s the combination of everything the narrative comprises. More about bleakness in a minute.

3. It is satisfying

I think this one is easily misunderstood as the happy ending. A satisfying ending doesn’t need to be happy, and happy endings aren’t inherently good. In fact, if they’re contrived, happy endings by their nature can violate the first two points in the triad of ending principles. Contrived happy ending may not make sense, and they may be meaningless.

Happy endings aren’t inherently bad, however, and they can be very satisfying indeed.

Since I just used Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula provides a pretty interesting contrast, especially since they exist essentially because of the same writing prompt. Dracula’s ending is very “happily ever after.” The Count gets it, Mina Harker’s curse is lifted, and she and Jonathan start a family. There’s a heroic sacrifice, of course, but what exactly does the ending of Dracula add to the story? There’s something nice about everything working out the way you want, but is this mostly happy ending satisfying?

I think it’s helpful to think of a satisfying ending as the right ending. Given the entirety of the journey, is this ending maybe not the one the story needs but the one it deserves?

Where’s the twist?

Just about everyone I know (in the literary field or general audience) would tell me a good ending should be surprising. As a writer, I generally don’t concern myself with surprising the reader because A). whenever I do that thing where you tap your friends on their shoulder and slide to the other side, they never fall for it and B). an ending you can see coming a mile away is better than an ending that doesn’t make sense, isn’t meaningful, and isn’t satisfying. When a writer shows his or her hand by bending the narrative with a twist for the sake of surprise, that’s contrivance, and it’s a writer’s cheapest gag.

To be clear, I’m not saying surprises in endings are bad. I’m saying a good ending should prioritize the three points I outlined above before even thinking about being surprising.

However, any good ending has to feel like the right ending. You want a twist? I’ll caveat the above three points: you can line them all up and shoot them down if that means you have the right ending.

How do you know when it’s the right ending? I’m afraid I don’t know of a formula for that, and that is the whole point, isn’t it?

Some good endings

So is the ending in The Sun Also Rises a good one? It’s very simple, but yes, I think so. Endings don’t have to be about parades and fanfare. In fact, the best ones are often subdued and subtle with heavy undertones and subtext. Frankenstein’s ending is good for what is ultimately a tragedy, and Dracula’s is not.

My favorite endings? So glad you asked!

Fahrenheit 451 has an arguably happy ending that is logical, meaningful, and satisfying. Montag escapes and joins a community that is dedicated to memorizing and preserving books, and though society has been destroyed, Montag reflects on the power of fire to take life as well as nourish it. It’s a hopeful ending as he observes natural cycles and looks forward to a rebirth of a free world. I think the reader can see it coming, though, so it may not qualify in some books.

Similarly, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road ends on a definite note of hope after a hopeless slog through a gray, ashen swamp. After The Man dies, The Boy finally finds a “good guy,” and there’s a suggestion that everything is going to be okay after all. McCarthy’s gotten criticism on this ending for selling out, or whatever, but I think this ending perfectly illustrates the importance of a good ending. The upward tonal shift completely changes the story’s meaning, and without that trajectory change, The Road would just be a slow submergence into a filthy bog. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for bleakness, but bleak for bleak’s sake misses an opportunity to say something. Imagine spending all that time on The Road only for the ending to statically reaffirm everything you read before it. What does that say? Everything is awful, and humans are garbage? It’s not, we’re not, and what use is a story like that?

So why does bleakness work in Frankenstein but not as an ending to The Road? Dynamics. A good story should shift and change, and when we end, we should be in a different place than when we began. For all of Frankenstein’s bleakness, there are plenty of ups and downs. The Road is begging for some light by the end, and McCarthy mercifully grants it.

Another example of bleak done right, the ending of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower concludes seven books of fantasy/horror, and people generally interpret it as being all for nothing. In a literal sense, Roland ends up exactly where he began. Despite that, I think it is fantastic. The best endings, in my humble opinion, break the rules.

The Dark Tower’s ending makes all the sense in the world, and it is meaningful for both the character and as a metaphor for writing and storytelling. Is it satisfying? As I wrote above, a satisfying story doesn’t have to be happy. Some readers argue it makes the entire series irrelevant. I disagree because Roland’s relentless will to reach the tower is the story’s entire point, and the cyclical nature for a series that is ultimately an allegory for storytelling is beautiful. Furthermore, Roland succeeds. He is victorious. The result just isn’t what anyone expected or hoped. It’s a twist, but it’s done right because it carries the story’s meaning on its shoulders.

It’s funny. King even interjects before the final chapter with an essay about endings and how stories are all about the journey, not the ending. The essay practically asks readers not to read the final chapter. That essay has always bugged me (commit, Stephen!), but the ending stands as one of my favorites.

The ending of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is brilliantly heartbreaking. I have to admit I don’t really like the novel that much (it’s mostly a dude sitting in his house drinking and smoking and sometimes killing vampires during the day), but it drives home the idea that Neville is the monster of this story and forces the reader to confront the idea that the identity of heroes and villains is a matter of perspective. In some ways, the ending of I Am Legend could be considered a twist. It isn’t a twist in which the plot makes a hard left turn. The twist is in the theme and central ideas of the novel. What happens to Neville is less important than the ideas it conveys.

Endings are as endings do

The bottom line on whether an ending is any good is what it accomplishes. Does it merely provide a climax and resolution, or does it offer a final amplifying, empowering flourish to the narrative?

The simplest way to judge an ending is whether it has any visceral effect. How does it make you feel? Why does it make you feel that way? If you feel nothing, it could mean the entire story lacks something for you. If you feel something, though, there’s something there. You just have to dig a little bit into the narrative and characters to understand what.

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