Saturday, May 17, 2014

May 2014 Ramble: It All Comes Right in the End

Have you ever finished a book, put it down and sighed?  Was it a sigh of exasperation, or one of contentment?  Perhaps it was one filled with regret because the story had ended.  Maybe it was a sigh of pure joy because you felt empowered and changed.  What is it that gives us these varying reactions at the end of a tale?  What kind of reactions do you want your readers to have?  What kinds of endings do you as a reader find most satisfying and have you ever paused to figure out why?

Many ingredients are used in the art of storytelling, many things to consider at each stage of your story.  This post is going to discuss what makes an ending satisfying.  There is a difference between happy endings and satisfying endings.  A story doesn’t have to end happily for it to be satisfying to a reader.  So what does it need to be?

The first thing you need to consider is any promises you have made to the reader throughout your story.  It is a good idea to keep a list as you are writing of the different agreements you’ve entered into.  Notice what you’ve shined a light on, where you have led the reader, what events you have set in motion, etc.  You don’t need to wrap up every scenario and subplot with a pretty bow, but you do need to understand what you’ve led the reader to expect, what you’ve set them up for, and deliver it.

That in no way means to be staid and predictable.  What most readers expect is a logical resolution, in whatever form you may have in mind.  Have as many twists and turns and upsets as your story can safely and logically handle, but realize what expectations you are building in your reader.

People read for myriad reasons, but in some way it generally comes down to an emotional payoff.  Deliver an ending with the emotional payoff that your reader is looking for.  How do you know what your reader is looking for?  Well, if you write mysteries it’s a safe bet someone who picks up your book is looking for a mystery, n’est pas?

This leads into the next item to remember.  Be mindful of your genre and audience.  If you are writing a mystery, then you’d better solve the crime by the end!  In a romance readers expect the main characters to get together eventually.  Epic fantasy is an interesting genre; readers expect wonder and struggle and heroism, etc.  This may span across more than one book.  Each book needs a satisfying ending even if the main arc of the story has not been resolved, the minor arc of that book needs to resolve.  The protagonist may have lost his magic which will lead into another quest of getting it back in a second book, but by sacrificing or overextending himself he thwarted the immediate threat.

Your ending/resolution should never come out of left field.  If you are planning a twist or desire a surprise ending, you need to make sure you have left enough bread crumbs throughout your book that your reader can say, “How did I not see that coming? All the clues were there!” and not, “Uhhh… what??”  A wonderful example of this is the movie The Sixth Sense.  If you haven’t seen it, watch it and you’ll understand what I mean.

While most readers can handle (and sometimes thoroughly enjoy) mind bending endings, they don’t like being tricked or cheated.  It isn’t wise to write a mystery leading the reader toward the butler, then the husband, then the neighbor only to end it with the culprit being a character only introduced at the end.  ‘Oh ho! I’m so clever!  You didn’t see that coming, did you?’  “Of course not!  You made me invest my detective skills into figuring out which of the characters you’d actually developed had done it.  Boo!  I’ll not read you again, and I’ll tell all my friends!”

There are as many ways to end a story as there are stories, but as long as you remember to keep your promises; deliver an appropriate emotional payoff; abide by the rules of your genre; and have enough foreshadowing and subtle clues to ensure your ending is logical, authentic and makes sense, your readers will be satisfied.

I’m curious to know your opinions about satisfying endings.  Which stories have had your favorites?  Which stories have left you feeling unsatisfied?  Leave a comment with your thoughts :)

1 comment:

Josh Morrey said...

So, I'll give you two examples, one bad, one good. Both are from TV shows, however, not literature.

The TV spy thriller/comedy "Chuck" is a great example of a terrible ending. **Spoiler Alert** The whole point of Chuck is for Chuck and Sarah to end up together. And about halfway through the show they do get together. But in the final season, Sarah has her memory wiped and forgets her love for Chuck. Which was fine, so long as the she gets her memories back by the end. Only... she didn't. The entire series ends on the question of whether or not she will ever remember her love for Chuck. Worst. Ending. EVER.

A better ending to a series was for the detective/comedy series "Psych". Now, Psych is a great show, funny, interesting, worth watching. However, the final season got really bad, and not funny at all. In fact, it was so bad that I nearly didn't watch the last episode. But since it was the last one ever, I gave it a shot. SO worth it. Despite the bad writing of the past season, the show manages to wrap up all loose ends, have the characters who are supposed to be together, together, and, even though it's not a happy ending for everyone, there's closure for everyone and it ends on an optimistic note of hope for the future. Beautifully done.

Unlike Chuck, Psych manages to fulfill every promise it made over eight seasons of story.

That's how you do it right.