Monday, January 9, 2012

A Satisfying Ending

Have you ever read a book and when you got to the last word, and closed the cover, you felt cheated, like someone has just robbed your wallet and sucked ten hours of your life? I hate books like that.

A satisfying ending makes you feel good, real good, like you want to smoke a cigarette afterwards or something. You close the book, sigh real deep, lean back in your comfy recliner and ponder the world you just left behind. I'm getting warm just thinking about it.

But writing a satisfying ending can be difficult. You have to pull everything together and in a way that isn't too obvious. The end must be surprising and inevitible.

And according to fiction writer E.A. Hill, "A satisfying end doesn't always mean a happy ending. Authors don’t owe their readers a happy ending (unless it’s an expectation of the genre).  They don’t owe annihilation of all evil.  They don’t owe restoration for every injustice faced by their characters.  But they do owe their readers satisfaction, a completion of the contract entered into when the reader laid out money and/or time to live in the writer’s world for a couple of hours.  It is justice, of a kind.  Fair dealing between writer and reader.  And if it’s done well, the completion of this contract, the writer has reason to hope that the reader will both recommend the novel and look for more from the same author."

E.A. Hill gave the following checklist to ensure reader satisfaction:
  • Is the end inevitable? (Or would other endings make more sense?)
  • Was the end hard won? (Or did the hero fall into his triumphs?)
  • Does it make sense by every measure? (Or were vital steps glossed over?)
  • Is the end long enough—deep enough—for the length and breadth of the novel?  (Or does a 400-page novel get a two-paragraph resolution?)
  • Are major plot points addressed without being overemphasized?  (Or does the ending drag?)
  • Are burning questions answered? (Or are they relegated to nothing status by the end?)
To set up the satisfying ending, be sure
  • The main character is someone the reader identifies with.
  • Conflict and tension are present and dynamic.
  • Reader emotions are engaged.
  • Pace varies.
  • Action is seen, not only talked about.
  • The story is layered, so the reader must be satisfied by several outcomes on several levels.
  • The ending grows out of earlier events.
Some of my favorite books don't have a happy ending, but they were satisfying because they used the above techniques. My most recent example of this is The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell. Not the happiest ending by far, but I felt satisfied by it, and I thought about for days, if not weeks, after. 

What are some books you've liked or didn't like because of their endings?


Cheree said...

Endings are hard. I hate getting to the end of books only to be let down and hope it would have finished some other way. Thanks for this, I'll definitely use these points when designing my ending.

Crystal Licata said...

Endings are crucial. I seriously throw the book when the ending is horrible. It's tough as a writing to know how to wrap it all up and not just end the story suddenly. I know a few of my early drafts of my WIP ending wrong and it took a while to get it right.

Kelley said...

I know I'm probably in the minority on this one...but I did not like the ending to The Hunger Games Series. It felt rushed and not what I expected at all. Big letdown. Oh well.

Thanks for this post. Very well done.

J. A. Bennett said...

This is the precise reason why I always hit a wall when I go to write my climaxes. Good endings are so important!

K. Turley (Clutzattack) said...

Just read a fairytale remake and for some reason everyone gets married at the end. While this is sort of a normal thing for fairy tales, when I'm reading a full length novel, I expect the characters to give some thought to the decision.

Having a character marry another character "just because" they're both single and royalty really trivializes the value of marriage and I think it cheapens the romance.

Cindy C Bennett said...

Great post, Rachel. I'll be copying it to use for reference.

I, myself, am a sucker for a happy ending, though tragedy speaks to me as well (Othello, Romeo & Juliet). But an ending that just sort of... fizzles really ticks me off. I'm with you, Kelley. The end of Hunger Games felt rushed and not satisfying at all, in spite of the fact that it ended as I hoped it would. That speaks to writing a GOOD ending vs. an EXPECTED ending. I prefer the good ending.

Crystal: a suggestion. Never invest in an electronic reader. They don't stand up well to being thrown. lol

Lorelei said...

It is difficult to come up with a satisfying ending. But trying to tie up everything into a nice pink bow is not the way to do it.

I loved the Harry Potter books, and realized I had to write fantasy because every fantasy author I loved showed me how it was done (in their writing).

It's good to have a resolution for the main things that go on in the book, but it don't have to be "pretty", someone can die and if it's a series you don't want to resolve everything. Keep that villain at large, have something happen during the course of the story which was still a question. There's many ways to go about an ending, it just takes practice and several re-writes. Don't get discouraged, and find beta readers who are honest with you, and be flexible when they are.

carrieannebrownian said...

Endings I hated:

The Haj, by Leon Uris. I LOVED the novel, but in the last 50 pages or so, all these well-established characters I'd grown to know and love started acting so out of character, and the whole story seemed to fall apart and head off in a really weird direction that didn't make any sense. It's like he thought he only had so many more pages to complete the book, and came up with that confusing, bizarre mess of an ending.

Parts 7 and 8 of Anna Karenina should have totally been switched. That was a really disappointing ending, and completely out of character for Levin to suddenly get religious faith out of nowhere after spending the entire book a confirmed, proud agnostic.

I hated Part 8 of War and Peace, and will skip it when I reread it. It had absolutely nothing to do with anything that had come before, and was just Tolstoy rambling on and on about God knows what. Talk about one of the worst, stupidest non-endings ever!

Endings I loved:

Narcissus and Goldmund, Steppenwolf, The Divine Comedy, The First Circle, Cancer Ward, and The Play of God.

S P Mount said...

Good post; I just wanted to mention that six years ago when I was a complete novice, I put my heart and soul into a book that has been with me from my amateur days to being taken seriously - despite having written many things in-between. However, this book was so overwritten, contained so much passion, and edited numerous times before I had any kind of professional training, and then again, when I did - a massive project, an epic. I recently finished it, worked on it most of 2011 and into 2012, and an end of an era, but the part that I never did get around to editing in those six years was the ending; always getting sidetracked before I got there. I was surprised to see though when I did, that it appeared hurried to me, or something, not the best it could've been and certainly not written with the same passion that the rest of the book was. It was a pleasure therefore to indulge myself with two brand new chapters that ended this book, completely removed from the original, surprising even myself where I decided to take it, despite the extra work of making it work, but I left myself feeling I had done it justice; twists and turns right to the last sentence so that no one could see it coming (because neither did I) and hopefully will get the reader thinking for some time after.

I also like most people's comments here too, that everything does not always need to be all nice and fuzzy in the ending. I personally like to resolve the conflict of course, to a certain satisfactory level, but I do also like to leave a mix of emotion, even a question mark for the reader to wonder about.

LateToTheParty said...

Real, real late to this party but Harris' ending to "Hannibal," sucked out loud as did the ending to every one of the Brian Herbert/KJA "Dune" cash-ins. Primarily because the authors didn't stop writing these turkeys, they kept on churning them out.