“The Lady or the Tiger,” a 19th century short story by Frank Stockton, tells of a commoner who falls in love with a princess in a semi-barbaric kingdom somewhere in the East. When the lovers are caught, the commoner is subjected to a trial by ordeal in which he is led into an arena and forced to choose one of two doors. Behind one door is a beautiful woman whom the commoner must marry. Behind the other is a hungry tiger. The commoner’s choice will determine his innocence or guilt.
But the princess has learned which door holds what. She’s also learned that the beautiful woman is a hated rival. So when the commoner is escorted into the arena, she nods to the door to the right. The question is, does the princess want her lover to live, or would she rather see him killed in front of her than married to her rival? The commoner opens the door . . .
And that’s where the story stops.
I’ve written a lot about how important it is for your writing to feel like real life. If it feels at all contrived, your readers will lose their suspension of disbelief. This is most critical with your ending. Readers expect you to start out your story by presenting some sort of problem that needs to be resolved. Then, as you develop that problem and the characters it’s happening to, it’s not too hard to make events seem as haphazard and ad hoc as real life. But your ending is where you pull all your plot threads together, often with some unexpected twist you may have set up chapters earlier. All the contrivance in your story gets distilled into your ending.
This is less of a problem for genre novels, where readers expect the murderer to be caught, or the couple in love to finally get together, or the madman’s bomb to be found and diffused. But readers of mainstream and literary novels, who often read to experience real life, are a lot more likely to be suspicious of an ending that resolves things. The conflicts that infest people’s real lives rarely wrap up in nice, satisfying packages. The desire to capture this authentic experience may be why writers of literary novels often shy away from endings that actually end the story. And if the pain your characters go through shows your readers enough about the human condition to leave them thinking, you can sometimes get away without resolving your characters’ lives.
But there’s a risk with this approach. How your characters respond to the problems you throw at them tells your readers who they are. In fact, a lot of tension that drives readers toward your ending is based on the question of who your characters will turn out to be. If you never settle the question, then you’re really leaving it up to your readers to decide who your characters are. And as nearly everyone realizes when they first read Stockton’s story, that’s asking too much.
E. L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain [spoiler alert] tells the rambling, chronologically confused story of Andrew, whom readers learn at the beginning has lost his second wife. Much of the tension of the story centers on who Andrew is, where he is at the moment (he’s narrating the story to an unnamed listener he refers to as “Doc”), what happened to his wife, and how her death and other enigmatic events affected him. And Doctorow slowly reveals more and more of Andrew’s character and life in a way that builds that tension nicely. Then, in the final chapters, readers discover that Andrew’s wife died in the 9/11 attack, Andrew has been arrested for possible terrorist connections, and Doc is a government interrogator.
Andrew is, by that time, a fairly sympathetic character, likable despite a greater than usual supply of anxiety and confusion. But while readers find the answers to some basic factual questions, his story doesn’t end. None of his problems are solved, and the last chapters introduce new ones. As Ron Charles put it in his review of the book for the Washington Post, “Early in the book, he [Andrew] says, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here,’ which makes two of us. . . . It’s our job to put the tragic incidents of his life in order, to unscramble the taunting clues, to unearth the profundities buried in this misanthropic rumination. . . . The problem isn’t that the novel requires a significant degree of intellectual effort; it’s that it doesn’t provide sufficient reward for that effort.”
You may be reluctant to resolve your story, not for literary reasons, but because you want to avoid an overly-pat ending. Too many second-rate novels have wrapped up with happy packages in which all problems are solved, virtue is rewarded, and the main characters ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after. And, yes, these endings don’t look much like real life, where virtue is not necessarily rewarded, and often solving one problem raises new and deeper ones. Grownups don’t believe in “happily ever after.”
Bear in mind that your ending doesn’t have to be a happy one. Readers have been enjoying tragedies since long before Shakespeare began littering the stage with bodies in the fifth act. But even the most tragic ending brings some kind of resolution to the story. Things do not end well for Graham Greene’s Whiskey Priest or John le Carre’s Alec Leamas, but in both cases, the endings resolve the dilemmas the characters faced. They have made a clear and even satisfying choice, even if it gets them killed.
Your ending need not be particularly neat, either. While it’s a good idea to wrap up your main plot points and subplots, if only to keep readers from feeling that you’re wasting their time, there’s nothing wrong with hinting that your characters’ lives keep going past the end of the book. At the end of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, [spoilers ahead], Roland Michell and Maud Bailey finally uncover the truth behind the mysterious relationship between the two Victorian poets, Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, revealing that Maud is actually their descendant. But at the end of the story, Roland and Maud are just beginning a romance, Roland’s future academic career is finally showing promise, and he may be getting in touch with his inner creativity. The end of the story is really the beginning of new lives for the two main characters.
Stockton’s short story was considered clever in its day, though his readers found it frustrating even then. And it was only a short story. If you ask your readers to invest the time and effort into following your characters’ troubles through an entire novel, then leave them hanging at the end, they are not likely to thank you.
Your story may not have to end well, or end cleanly. But it does have to end. It can’t just stop.
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So what are the most and least effective endings you’ve encountered? Remember, don’t simply list a book. Give us enough details that even those of us who haven’t read the book can see what you see in it.