Why is it we can forgive a book’s slow start, a meandering middle, but not a bad ending?
Some endings leave you feeling cheated. Or disappointed. Or plain confused.
You’ve invested your time, money, and heart and you want a payoff at the end. Endings matter to readers and movie-goers. A lot. The highly ambiguous ending to the 2014 movie Birdman ignited an intense online debate about what actually happened. Some loved the ending, others hated it.
For years after publishing Gone with the Wind, author Margaret Mitchell was deluged with reader requests for a sequel. Mitchell adamantly refused, saying she purposely left the ending ambiguous because she had no idea whether or not Scarlet and Rhett would be reunited.
So what makes a bad ending?
I asked my friends and family. Their answers aligned with the advice you’d get in a basic writing workshop.
-Based on coincidence
-It was all a dream
-Too many loose ends
-The hero dies without achieving or seeing his goal/dream
There’s a great scene in the movie The Silver Lining Playbook when the main character Pat, upon finishing Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, throws the book out the window. Pat then wakes his sleeping parents and launches into a rant over the love story’s bleak ending.
“…She dies, Dad! I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys…Can’t somebody say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”
Turns out, Hemingway considered at least 40 possible endings to the classic 1928 novel. If your curious, a 2012 Library Edition exists containing these alternative endings.
This brings to mind the wacky physics theory of “parallel universes.” I won’t get into the scientific details behind the controversial concept, but basically, it explores the possibility that other versions of ourselves, our histories, and our outcomes exist simultaneously in multiple universes. (A premise portrayed many a time in science fiction tales.)
So, let’s say you’re feeling sad and regretful about letting a lover go. Perhaps you can take comfort in the idea that somewhere out there your replica is enjoying life with this missed love.
In the 1980s and 90s, the widely popular children series, Choose Your Own Adventure, allowed readers to assume the role of the protagonist. Every few pages, the reader gets to make choices that determine the outcome. The fun part is getting the chance to explore several possible endings.
Each book’s introduction affirms the power the reader holds.
“There are dangers, choices, adventures, and consequences…but don’t despair at anytime YOU can go back and alter the path of your story, and change its results.
If only real life were like that.
How do writers craft the perfect ending to their story?
Some decide on the ending at the very beginning and fill in the rest. Others follow a detailed outline which builds to a specified ending. Others writers like to journey with their characters and allow the ending to unfold. The process becomes an exciting discovery.
Best-selling thriller writers Lee Child and Lisa Scottoline described this process in a recent NYT podcast. After getting a feel for the tone of the book, Lee Child just sits down to write and sees what happens. Lisa Scottoline knows only the beginning when she starts writing a novel. As she reaches each new point, Lisa asks herself, “Okay, now what?” The prolific author says this process mirrors life.
I rarely know the ending of a story before I write. Even if I have a sense of the story’s conclusion, I often change my mind or consider alternatives. In my novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number, one of the characters reveals a secret toward the end. I didn’t even know what it was until I got there.
In my new short story, “When We Were Bad”, I knew one of the characters would end up in the wrong place at the right time but wasn’t sure if she’d get out alive. Making that decision ultimately changed the final paragraph which I rewrote several times.
But even when you decide on the ending of your story, how do you know it works?
What makes a good ending?
This is a trickier question than what makes a bad ending. According to the character Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye,
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
I love this quote and have experienced the feeling myself.
The answers my friends gave me regarding a good ending were more about emotion–how a story ending left them feeling.
-Wishing it never ended
The most common answer was satisfied. Hmm. Makes me think of a good meal. What is satisfying to one reader may cause another to toss the book out the window.
So how does a writer choose?
A while back, I came across an answer.
A good ending to a plot must be both inevitable yet surprising.
I’ve been pondering this paradoxical advice since ever since.
Thriller writer, Meg Gardiner, (also interviewed in the NYT Podcast) summed up the above axiom in her 2015 blog post as:
Amazing! Not what I expected, but exactly what I expected.
Try putting your favorite books and movies to this test.
For me, this played out in the novel Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. (Don’t bother with the movie version.) It’s a contemporary romance between an unlikely pair who seem to hate each other at first then fall deeply in love. At the end of the book, one of the characters makes a choice that made me cry. I thought about it for days. At first, I was sure it was the wrong ending. But as I reflected (and debated with a friend), I could see the author had planted the seeds for what was to come. The reader doesn’t want this ending, is hoping until the last page that it won’t happen, but it does. The conclusion is unsettling, thought-provoking and, indeed, “inevitable, yet unexpected.”
Few endings, in fiction or life, are perfect.
Story endings can leave us sad and still be a good ending. Or, perhaps, the right ending.
What are your favorite or worst book/movie endings?
If you’re a writer, do you plan the ending ahead of time?