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Does Your Novel Have a Ta-Da Ending?

Tim RT, Flickr’s Creative Commons

Please welcome back Densie Webb [1] whose first novel is You’ll Be Thinking of Me [2]. Densie is currently working on novels two and three, and she’s also a nonfiction writer/editor, mainly about health and nutrition. She has written for The New York TimesParade, been a columnist for PreventionFamily Circle and now writes for industry and trade organizations. She added fiction to the mix about six years ago and never looked back. She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, SheWrites, the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Romance Writers of America. She’s a music lover, walker (not of the dead variety), dreamer, warm-weather enthusiast, and has now acquired all of the usual writer quirks, including the uncontrollable urge to write about people and things that live only in her head. Connect with Densie on Facebook [3] and on Twitter [4].

Does Your Novel Have a Ta-Da Ending?

The opening lines of your novel are arguably the most important words you will write on the path to publication. Those words are what catch an agent’s eye, a publisher’s eye and ultimately the eye of your readers. Their importance is evidenced by the plethora of contests that ask you to submit the first 250 words, the first 500 words or maybe the first couple of pages. In fact, Writer Unboxed’s own Ray Rhamey has Flogging the Quill, where he asks if, after reading the opening lines, you would place your bet on the table and turn the page. No doubt, opening lines are important. There are no second chances, as they say, for making a first impression.

Much less focus seems to be placed on the ending of a novel. To be fair, you can’t critique the last few lines of a book if you don’t know everything that came before. But here’s my thought: The opening may get you to turn the first page, but it’s the ending that stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page. And, I believe it’s the bittersweet, heartrending endings that stay with you the longest, haunt you, leave you with an insistent unnamed yearning. It won’t let you forget. And isn’t that what we all want from readers—to remember our words long after they’ve turned that last page?

The importance of endings was never more clear to me than recently when one of my all-time favorite post-apocalyptic movies (and I’ve seen a lot), I Am Legend starring Will Smith, was available on Netflix and I gave in to the urge to watch it “just one more time.” A director’s cut was available and I began streaming, expecting the same movie, with a few extended scenes or additional scenes that had ended up on the cutting room floor. What I got was a totally different ending. And I walked away with a totally different feeling. Warning: If you haven’t seen the movie, there are spoilers ahead.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Will Smith’s character does not survive the apocalypse. He is immune to the virus that has decimated the world, turning almost everyone into zombie-like creatures, but they ultimate destroy him. Just before that happens, he gives a young woman and a boy he has met, his legacy, a vial with his antibody-containing blood. The hope is that they will get to a sanctuary where a vaccine can be developed. Will Smith is on screen almost the entire movie leading up to his demise. We know him, we suffer along with him and we feel his pain. We want things to get better. They don’t. They get worse and when he dies you feel like “if only.” That empty, aching feeling in the pit of your stomach leaves no doubt that you were affected by the ending. At least I was.

On the other hand, the ending in the “director’s cut” had the creatures showing mercy. Will drives off into the sunset with the young woman and the boy. On the surface, it was a happy ending. Right? But it left this viewer feeling cheated—cheated of the emotional impact of the original ending. I yearned for the yearning. I believe the same applies to our novels. Unless it’s a romance novel, which demands an HEA, happy endings are not the most impactful. To quote Writer Unboxed’s own Donald Maass “Take your characters to places they will hate to go.” I have those words taped to my computer screen and I glance at them daily for inspiration. And to refer to the world of film again, Jason Reitman, director of Juno and Up in the Air, among others, said at the South by Southwest festival “In every movie, all I’m thinking about is what is the ending? How will you feel as you leave? That’s kind of it. A film is a magic trick that leads to a ‘ta-da.’” It’s the same for novels.

Among my favorite melancholy “ta-da” endings in novels—Bel Canto by Anne Patchett, Me Before You by Jo Jo Moyes, The Good Girl by Mary Kubica and Post Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (that one had me crying on my yoga mat during corpse pose). To investigate further, I asked online writer friends to name novels that left them with a satisfyingly sad ending. It became clear that I’m not the only one who likes their novels with a well-stirred cocktail of melancholy, regret and deep yearning. I haven’t read all of these, and certainly there are tons more, but I wanted to share them in no particular order or genre:

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Kite Runner by Khalid Housseni

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Evening by Susan Minot

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

How do you take your novels? With a cherry on top or a squeeze of lemon? Care to share your favorite heart-rending novels?