To quote from Ogden Nash’s puckish poetry accompanying Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, “Now we reach the grand finale / Animale Carnivale….”
The story you’ve been reviewing has reached and passed its climax, its moment of greatest tension and conflict. The good guys have won… or not. The protagonist has survived, achieved whatever she set out to achieve (or maybe something different), or gained some new understanding… or not. Now it’s time for the author to tie everything up in a shiny bow, or leather straps, or bands of steel… or not, so you, the reader feel that satisfying sense of completion… or not.
Or not. We’ll get to that shortly.
What Makes a Great Ending?
Way back in 2011, award-winning thriller writer Joe Moore wrote an excellent post on The Kill Zone blog in which he talked about the makings of a great ending. I won’t try to reproduce the whole piece here—you should go read it for yourself—but he says a great ending should:
- Resolve anything that wasn’t taken care of in the climax. Tie up the loose ends, in other words.
- Answer the “story question”—that is, what the story was about, what changes the protagonist went through as a result of the situation he faced, and whether, as noted above, he achieved his objectives… or not.
- Establish a new sense of normalcy. Things have been topsy-turvy for the protagonist throughout the story. Now she can get on with her life, even if that life is totally different from what it was at the beginning.
- Reinforce the story’s message, theme, or moral, if there was one.
That third point deserves a bit more discussion. The “new normal” doesn’t have to be a good state of affairs. The protagonist might be dead… which could be bad for him, or good. Or enslaved. Or wealthy. Or married. Or divorced. Or back at home (except, of course, that you can never go home again). There may be hints that there’s more chaos or turmoil yet to come, but at least the chaos and turmoil of this story are over… or not.
There are several exceptions to this “rule,” of course. First, some genres tolerate unhappy or ambiguous endings that leave things unsettled. They’re acceptable in “literary” or science fiction but anathema in romance. For example, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath ends with a scene of amazing humanity and giving, yet we never know the result of Rose of Sharon’s act or what happens to the entire Joad family.
Second, if the piece is part of a continuing-story series—and this is true for non-fiction as well as fiction—there needs to be something left unresolved. In this case, just as with the end of a scene or chapter, this is where the writer leaves the reader with that, “But wait, what about…?” itch, that hint of something left undone, unfinished, or still to come that makes him want to read the next installment, even if it’ll be a year or more before it appears. This incompleteness can appear in the form of just a word, a phrase, or a sentence, or even in something left not said or not done.
Third, there’s the series in which the protagonist and some of his or her associated secondary characters continue from book to book, but each story more or less stands alone. Many mystery series fall into this category. In this case, the resolution of one book may not necessarily lead the reader to the next one. Character is critical in these kinds of books: if the reader isn’t interested enough in the protagonist, she won’t seek out another book in that series. In each book, while the story (such as the murder to be solved) is different, what carries the series is the nature of the protagonist and the personal problem (what Les Edgerton calls “the story-worthy problem”) he or she must face because of the story problem. J. A. Konrath’s Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels mystery thriller series is an example of this. The conclusion of one book may or may not suggest what the protagonist’s next challenge will be, although there might be hints of it buried in the text. For you as a reviewer, this is going to be hard, if not impossible, to ferret out, so in this respect, this kind of book is similar to a stand-alone one.
Fourth, a variation of this latter series is one in which the environment, setting, or wider story remains more or less constant but different characters become the protagonist in subsequent books. Think The Hobbit followed by The Lord of the Rings (setting aside the arguments about whether Lord of the Rings is one book or three). In this case, the author has a couple of choices: they can elevate a previously secondary character to protagonist, while demoting the protagonist of a previous book to a secondary role, or they can introduce a totally new protagonist in each book. For the purpose of evaluating the ending, in the first case, you’ll want to see if that secondary character was interesting enough and had a large enough role to make you want to read more about them. In the second case, the environment, setting, or story has to be interesting enough to make you want to return to it.
Note that in both of these last two cases, the author has to be up-front with you about their intentions. In a critique group setting, writers will tend to want to not reveal future elements of the story (that is, “spoilers”), but writers should be discouraged from doing this because it hinders the group’s ability to fully evaluate the work and how well it will function as part of a series.
In the end (pun fully intended), no matter how a piece concludes, your job as the reviewer is to decide whether it succeeded in its mission to complete the story… or not.
Questions You Can Use
Here are questions for you to ask as you make your evaluation:
- If the piece ends a series or is meant to stand alone:
- Have all the threads of the story been tied up?
- Do I know what happened to all the major characters and why?
- Has a new state of normalcy been established?
- If the author meant the piece to have a message, moral, or theme, is there a concluding restatement of it? Note that this statement can be implicit or explicit. The Grapes of Wrath has one: the human spirit will triumph, no matter how many degrading and demoralizing obstacles are put in the way. Rose of Sharon’s action says it better than any blunt statement even Steinbeck could have ever made.
- Do I feel the story is complete, or is something still lacking? If something is lacking, what is it?
- If the piece ends ambiguously:
- Is the piece written in a genre that accepts or allows this kind of ending?
- Is this what the author intended (as best you can tell)?
- Did she prepare me for this?
- Is it a fitting ending for the story?
- If the piece is any part of a series except the last, add:
- Do I have an idea of where the larger story is headed next, what’s in store for the protagonist (and possibly the antagonist)?
- Is the “new normal” still unsettled?
- Does the protagonist know there’s still something more to do or resolve? He may not, but you, the reader, have to sense it.
- Am I excited by the possibility of spending more time with these characters? Do I want to know more about them? Do I want to find out how they deal with their next adventure, or the danger I see lurking around the corner?
- Have all the threads of the story been tied up?
- If the book is a part of a continuing-character series, add:
- Is the protagonist compelling enough that I would want to read more about him or her?
- If the book is part of a continuing-setting series, add:
- Are there secondary characters who are interesting enough that I would like to know more about them, or see one of them become the protagonist of their own story within this world?
- Does the story-world provide enough opportunities for new stories and new characters that I would be interested in reading more books set in it?
What else do you look for in the end of a piece to decide whether that ending is successful or not? Add your suggestions or ideas in the Comments box below.
And with that, we’ve reached the conclusion of this series on beginnings and endings. Next time we’ll begin looking at characters and characterization.