So, I’ve talked about openings, which seemed like a very good place to start. But just as important as beginnings are endings. Endings are what really make a good story, for me. The beginning can get me hooked, but the ending will leave me wanting more, will send me back through the story to think over what I saw or didn’t see, will give me a feeling of awe. It doesn’t have to tie things up in a neat bow, but it has to give a sense of completeness. A complete story is a beautiful thing and is entirely dependent on the ending.
In my estimation, there are a few broad categories for endings: happy, sad, and bittersweet. Different genres tend to skew towards one over another (romance is almost always a happy ending, for instance, and literary tends to skew towards sad because the characters often don’t get exactly what they want).
Some people like happy endings (and I don’t mean the kind that follows a “massage”; funny joke, huh?). I don’t necessarily think that happy endings require the main character to ride off into the sunset on a white horse. Sure, you can have the Beauty and the Beast ending, where the bad guy is defeated, the curse is broken, and everyone is overjoyed. But I think of a happy ending as an ending where the character’s main goal is achieved. Sometimes the happy ending could be getting that job, or solving the case, or marrying the guy/gal. In this vein, most mysteries would be “happy” since the objective is almost always achieved (the mystery is solved). It can be difficult to define an ending as happy if the main character’s central objective is not well-defined. If the writer is good enough and the reader is paying attention, though, the main character should have one overriding aim. Let’s take Beauty and the Beast again as an example. The Beast’s main aim is to break the curse; done. Belle’s main aim is to find “something more” for her life; done. (Isn’t it nice how neatly most Disney films define these things? That’s part of the reason for their success.) Now, let’s take an other example: Shakespearean comedies. All the characters (well, the non-evil ones) in Much Ado About Nothing, for instance, end up together with the person they want to be with. Happy ending!
I like a happy ending from time to time, if the story up that point promises it. For instance, one would be hard-pressed to think a sad (or even bittersweet) ending would be appropriate to a story like Beauty and the Beast, which includes singing dinner plates. One would also be a bit shocked if, after all the banter, Beatrice and Benedick didn’t end up together or if, after her humiliation, Hero weren’t vindicated.
But, mostly, I find happy endings a bit boring. They’re fine, but what I really like is a bittersweet ending.
What I mean by that is a happy ending with caveats. The main character gets what he/she has been gunning for the entire story, but at a tragic price that may make the victory an empty one. Usually, there’s a lesson. And I like my stories to have a lesson, to have some moral complexity. Without paying a price for it, what is success worth? What have we learned, who has changed? In the real world, nothing really comes easily. I like to feel that bittersweet bite in my literature, too. Take, for example, one of my favorite endings: Jane Eyre. Jane gets what she wants, and you might consider it a happy ending. Except that Mr. Rochester is blinded and lamed, so it’s not exactly an unalloyed rainbow-and-unicorns kind of happiness, is it? Or, take for example one of my favorite series as a kid: Animorphs. The war against the invading army was won but at the price of many lives and at least one character’s mental health.
There’s another kind of bittersweet ending: the happy-for-now ending. This is different from happily-ever-after because of the strong implication that though the character got what he/she wants, he/she is going to have to struggle to hold on to the things he/she values. I think a great example of this is Wolf Hall. Bear with me. I think we all know how that ends (just jump to Wikipedia to find out how Thomas Cromwell died), but this wonderful novel stops well shy of his death. When it stops, Cromwell is in the king’s good graces, he’s successful, feared, and admired (in some ways). Yet, even if we didn’t have Wikipedia to tell us that everything definitely will come tumbling down, we would know that at a moment’s notice everything could come tumbling down. Also, if you like, Jane Eyre could fall into this category. Yes, reader, she married him, but I think we all know what happened to the last wife.
Finally, of course, we have the tragedies. These are the big ones, the dramatic ones the stage-littered-with-bodies ones. The classic examples are Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. But there are plenty of more recent examples, too. Incidentally, one of the best books I read in the past year (an older book) is a novel-length treatment of Macbeth by Dorothy Dunnett called King Hereafter. Unsurprisingly, it has a tragic ending. The king–called both Thorfinn and Macbeth in this version–overcomes staggering odds in the hopes of creating a unified Scotland. In the end, he dies and the kingdom he created basically falls apart for several generations. So he didn’t get what he wanted; tragic ending.
So do my stories have happy endings? No. But neither are they tragic. I’m okay with a tragedy now and again, but I prefer happiness with a hint of healthy pessimism. My stories tend to end with a kind of wistful acknowledgment that the struggles of the last x chapters are over, and the characters have achieved y goal(s), but there are more goals and more obstacles just ahead. Or maybe there’s an acknowledgment that though the character(s) won, it may not have been worth it.
Witness the end of Grove of Venus, about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. When we finish the story, the main character, has gotten what she wanted: the diamonds. She has a healthy, happy son. But outside her window a revolution is unfolding that she had some part in beginning. Internally, she’s ill and dying, so that whatever she’s accomplished is clearly temporary.
Or take, for example, my more recent completed project, Channing. The guy and the girl get together at the end, but it’s at the price of two deaths. And we’re reminded in the last few lines that the guy has a penchant for purposefully putting himself into danger. Oh,yeah, and there’s a war coming . . .
Do those endings work? Well, I think so, but the jury is still out since I have yet to clinch myself an agent (dear random agents who stumbles upon this blog: I got two full manuscripts ready for you to look at!).
Let me leave you with some words of wisdom from Chuck, the character from Supernatural who just happens to be God (he’s God, okay? don’t contradict me): “Endings are hard.”