I’ve spent the last eight months writing a novel, and I’m now closing in on the finish. What makes a good ending? How do you know if you’ve landed it?
One of my favorite TV shows of all time is heading into the final season, and I am not happy about it ending at all, so the actual end had better really hit all the right notes, or it will be ruined for me.
Ruined for all time.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a new adult series of five books about a love triangle. As I came closer and closer to the end, I started to realize that the ending I though I’d be writing was not the ending the books needed. To write it the way that was right, deep down right, I would have to break a sort of rule about triangles, which is that the girl will end up with the first guy the reader met. It’s not a hard and fast rule, not like the happily-ever-after of a romance novel. My protagonist had her happily-ever-after, and a happy romance.
But I knew I would get letters, and I did. One absolutely broke my heart, from a reader who’d been deeply invested in the series and couldn’t wait for the last book. She read it the minute it arrived, and cried all night long because the ending wasn’t the one she wanted.
Cried all night long.
That’s the kind of thing that will keep a writer up nights. I’ve rethought that ending a dozen times, a hundred. I tried to set it up so that readers would know there was ambiguity in this triangle, and new adult is known to break rules, but readers love what they love.
Just as I do. The reason things have to end the right way in Game of Thrones is because I am fiercely attached to one particular character. I need her to be okay. I love others, but she’s my heart. If she dies, I will cry all night long.
A series that was difficult to end properly was The Sopranos. I loved the way they didn’t exactly tell us, but you knew what happened. I could let it be however I wanted it to be in my head. It was logical. It felt true. It matched the series in tone and gave us the grace note of the entire series in one scene—Tony with his family at a diner, while his career is about to interfere.
A great ending emerges from the work itself, from the characters and the themes and, of course, the plot. To be satisfying, it has to answer all the questions that have been raised by the story (which means you have to know what those questions are). It has to have a sense of rightness in terms of what happens to each character, and it has to follow the rules of the genre you’re writing. Nothing is more irritating to a genre reader than a book that breaks the rules just because. My sister and I saw Message in a Bottle together at the movies, and after my rant at the end, which lasted all the way home, as I furiously listed all the reasons THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN LIKE THAT, she refused to go tot he movies with me again for a long time. I’m not going into details, but it’s a very bad ending for many reasons, the most glaring of which is a character issue that makes no sense whatsoever.
A satisfying ending answers questions, has a sense of rightness for each character, and answers the rules of genre.
Most of us want better than that, and we should. [Read more…]