By Ross B. Lampert
I’m not sure whether I should be hearing Jim Morrison’s dark, “this is the end, my friend,” or Ogden Nash’s, “And now we reach the grand finale / Animale Carnivale.” Somehow, neither Morrison’s song “The End” nor Nash’s verse for Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Carnival of the Animals” seems right.
This post does mark the end of the Critique Technique series, at least for now. But like a good ending to a short story or novel, it should feel like it wraps up the series well.
Or maybe not!
You see, endings can take many forms—happy or sad, satisfying or unsatisfying, completing or dangling—as the author chooses. There’s no single “right” kind of ending except the one that’s right (appropriate) for its story. A romance is likely to end up happy, satisfying, and complete—the lovers fall into each other’s arms and all is right in their world. A tragedy can end up sad, dangling, and unsatisfying (yet perhaps in some strangely satisfying way). Take Shakespeare’s King Lear: at the end Lear has returned to madness and died, his beloved and only true daughter Cordelia has been murdered, and none of the survivors wants to take the English throne. And yet, if you’ve read or seen that final scene, you know: wow, what an ending.
So if there is no single kind of right ending, are there some general characteristics we can look for to determine whether an ending has done its job or not—and what that job was supposed to be? I think there are. Let’s try these on for size. A good ending should:
- Be consistent with the rest of the story in tone and style. An essentially happy story shouldn’t end on a down note. Conversely, and tragic story shouldn’t be forced into a happy ending, á la P.D.Q. Bach’s “half-act” opera, “The Stoned Guest,” in which the entire cast sings, “Happy ending, happy ending, happy ending…” after they’d all died in the previous scene.
- Wrap up only what needs to be wrapped up and leave dangling what needs to be left dangling.
A former member of my writers’ group took too much to heart the ideas that a story needed to end on an up-note with all loose ends tied up, so every one of his characters, from the hapless British ex-pat who’d gotten himself wrapped up in a gold theft and smuggling scheme to the down-on-their-luck Nigerian family who’d hatched the plot to the ruthless Mafia boss who wanted the gold for himself all ended up living happily ever after, with their storylines tied up in pretty bows. Um, no. The ex-pat, sure. He was the hero of the story and managed by pluck and luck to get himself out of a bad bind. The family, maybe. At least their story as the antagonists needed to be completed, although not necessarily with unicorns and rainbows. And the Mafia boss’s story didn’t even need to be wrapped up. His part wasn’t major enough to deserve it.
Conversely, my novel The Eternity Plague ends with some serious dangling threads (no spoilers here) because it’s the first book of a series and the dangling threads are what carry the reader into the sequel.
A good ending should also:
- NOT resort to desperate, deus ex machina kinds of devices to wrap up story lines and achieve an undeserved happy ending. The story should reach its end naturally, not be forced into one.
- Leave the reader satisfied. Now what the heck does that mean? Let’s try this. Say you’ve got a story that’s about a search for justice, an attempt to right a wrong. If the story ends with justice done, that’s likely to be satisfying. But if it ends with justice not done, but it’s clear why it wasn’t, and why the ending was understandable, even inevitable, then while the reader might not be happy about the ending, she can still be satisfied by it. In other words, the ending needs to make sense, to be fitting, in the context of the overall story.
- Stays with the reader after he has closed the book or turned the page. Not every short story or novel will reach this level, nor should they. Not every piece is meant to do that, and whether it does or not depends in large part on the reader. But if the reader is still thinking about the story, the issues it raised, and the conclusions it came to days after he finished it, if he’s telling his friends about it, that’s a story with a good ending.
So as a critiquer, these are the kinds of things you’re looking for: consistency, the right degree of completion, naturalness, satisfaction, and resonance. If you find them, be sure to congratulate the author on them.
For writers, there are only three parts of a story that are hard to write: the beginning, the middle, and the end. A successful ending is something worth celebrating.
All right, then. Here’s your last chance: What do you look for to call the ending of a book or story a success? Add your suggestions in the comments below. And thanks for reading.