Friday, January 20, 2006

The Best Ending I Ever Read...

If the beginning of a story is a promise to the reader, the end is its fulfillment. Once hooked on a story question, readers will keep turning pages. A skillful writer deepens characterization and escalates both stakes and conflict with each scene.

But the ending is what clinches it. A strong one leaves the reader with a sigh or such a sense of satisfaction that she immediately checks to see what other books the author has written. A weak ending is a promise broken, and if the reader feels sufficiently betrayed, there may be no second chance for that writer.

So what goes into a great ending? For certain, questions raised must all be answered. Nothing is more irritating that reaching the end of a story and turning to the next, blank page and asking, “But what happened about the boss who was blackmailing him with those compromising pictures?” Not every plot thread needs to be tied up neatly in a bow. There’s room for subtlety, even ambiguity, if the writer makes the reader believe that was the goal. Otherwise, the reader feels irritated – or worse yet, tricked - that the author made her care about something so unimportant it was later forgotten.

One of my requirements for a satisfying ending is that the main story problem be actively solved by the protagonist. Not a convenient earthquake which opens up a chasm to swallow up the bad guy in the crucial moment. This unlikely sort of conclusion, called the deus ex machina (or “god comes from the box”) ending harks back to a time when Greek playwrights wrote their characters into a corner, then had a deity handily show up to save the day. Today’s readers want their heroes and heroines to earn their happy endings because of strengths they have developed by surviving the story’s challenges.

We also like the protagonists to suffer in the process. In real life, change is difficult and its costs are high. We expect to see that dramatized in fiction, just as we hope the outcome reaffirms our belief that when someone suffers sufficiently, learns, and grows for a worthy cause, the effort will be rewarded in the end.

I’d like to finish this entry by asking what book or movie endings have left you most satisfied? Which particular stories left you desperate to read the author’s next work or see the next movie by the same screenwriter or director? Can you explain why the conclusion worked so well for you?

In March, I’ll be giving a workshop to the West Houston Romance Writers of America on writing satisfying endings, and I would love to add the opinions of both readers and writers. Thanks so much!


Sarah Catherine said...

I'll be the first to answer! :)

An ending that sticks out in my mind as making the entire movie worth it is "Schindler's List". His grief at the end for not doing more, when he had done so much. His change from selfish businessman to savior.

Also, Dead Poet's Society - "Oh, Captain, my Captain."

And Bridges of Madison County - her hand on the doorknob. The choice between real love and her responsibilities. Urging her to runaway, when you know she has to do the right thing.

All movies! All tear-jerkers. :)

Thanks, Colleen. Looking forward to March.

Ann Roth said...

Neat topic, Colleen. I liked the ending of Brokeback Mountain. It was bleak and sad but fitting to the story.

Which brings up an interesting conundrum. In general I prefer "happy" endings, or endings where the viewer knows things will work out. Or at least where the characters grow and learn and move forward in their lives.

That didn't happen in Brokeback Mountain. But an upbeat, optimistic ending just didn't fit.

So I'd say that the best ending is the one that fits and satisfies.

Sue-Ellen Welfonder said...

Well, I will surely be branding myself as hopelessly old-fashioned, but I absolutely must have a rip-roaringly triumphant happy ending.

And I do mean the pull-out-all-the-stops kind of happy ending that makes my heart swell with joy and triumph and definitely brings tears to my eyes.

Real life can be so fraught with every day cares and heartaches, stress and irritations. Endless things. When I read for pleasure, I want to be swept away into another world where the good guys win and love prevails.

There are too many wonderful romances that provide such glorious endings for me to name a single one.

But I -can- say, for those interested in the writing process that it is the endings of my own books that fill my heart with the most gladness.

That is because during the long writing process the characters become so real to me and, truly, they are indeed a part of me. But by the time I complete a manuscript, do revisions, then copy edits, etc ... I tend to get really tired of the story and even think that if I must waltz through the manuscript even one more time, I will die.

Except for the ending!

Oddly enough, even when I have read a book-in-progress umpteen times until I feel that every page is hanging out my ears, the ending always moves me.

And that is my own personal measure of whether or not I am satisfied with my work: if the ending gives me that thrust-my-fist-in-the-air surge of heart-swelling triumph. And, of course, if it has the power to bring tears to my eyes.

And not just once, but again and again, whenever I read or even just think about those last few passages.

So no sad, 'just-seeming,' or leave-you-hanging endings for me. Give me an old-fashioned happy ending, please. And in return I'll close the book with a heartfelt, satisfied sigh.

Sue-Ellen Welfonder

Colleen Thompson said...

Great responses, Sarah, Ann, and Sue-Ellen, and much-appreciated.

I love an ending where characters (good and bad) get what they have coming. I also love poignant endings where characters sacrifice their personal happiness to the greater good (say, Humphrey Bogart's Rick in Casablanca; that one gets me every time).

I agree that Brokeback Mountain wouldn't have been nearly as effective with a happily ever after, any more than Million-Dollar Baby would have. But there's just something about that original Star Wars-type/hero's journey arc that's deeply satisfying. Or the ending of a well-written romance novel. :)

Nancy Herkness said...

Interestingly enough, it's not an ending that sticks in my mind but an epilogue. The best one I've ever read was at the conclusion of Judith McNaught's ALMOST HEAVEN, one of my favorite books.

Part of the reason I loved it was that I adored the characters in the book and was desperate to spend more time with them. I enjoy all epilogues though because they give the reader a glimpse of how it worked out. We all know that passionate romantic love often burns itself out. An epilogue proves that even after the passage of time, these two people have made a satisfying life together and it shows us how.

After reading ALMOST HEAVEN, I swore to myself that I would always include an epilogue in my books and so far I have. Like Sue-Ellen, I enjoy the epilogues in my own books for all the same reasons I like them as a reader. In fact, the epilogue at the end of my first book, A BRIDGE TO LOVE, still brings tears to my eyes. Don't they say not to trust a chef who doesn't eat his own cooking? Well, I believe an author should cry at her own books as well. VBG

Colleen Thompson said...

I love epilogues, too, Nancy. Sometimes, while I'm writing the middle of the book and things seem darkest, I'll skip ahead and write the most fulfilling epilogue I can come up with. Then I'll be able to go back to the angst and write the characters' way toward pure joy. :) I guess I need to see that light at the end of the tunnel to help move the story forward.

To me a really strong epilogue very briefly gives the readers a taste of hope -- the sort of simple human joys that make life worth living. It's never about having things but healthy, loving relationships instead -- or at least their possibility.