I recently received an email from a writer I follow; the subject: avoiding anticlimactic endings. How timely! The same day another email came in, this one titled, “Why Writing Fiction Is Hard.” Okay, I get it. This is going to take some work. I’ve already restructured the opening four times (and need to do it again), I shouldn’t expect anything less of the ending.
The stakes are high
Endings matter. A lot. It’s why people reviewing books and movies have to announce SPOILER ALERT if they are going to discuss the ending or even major plot points. Want to get sucked into an endless internet debate (you know you do) that isn’t about guns or politics? Find a discussion on the ending of your favorite long-running TV show—Lost or Battlestar Galactica or The Sopranos or Seinfeld or even Little House on the Prairie, anything that had built up anticipation for its ending. Claims and counterclaims fly in every direction as people attack and defend and disparage and debate… a work of fiction. Nail the ending and people focus on their favorite characters, the amazing plot twists, and the profound themes. Falter in those final moments, and the greatest virtues of the work get overshadowed by the final imperfections.
It’s why I will never watch Lost again, no matter how enjoyable and moving individual episodes were. Why? Because so much of it ultimately meant nothing. There were no real answers to far too many plot questions (like, pretty much all of them!). And while I was deeply moved by the new Battlestar Galactica, the ending left some things to be desired… or was an utter disaster, depending on your point of view. To say it was polarizing is an understatement. One extensive and persuasive analysis is straightforwardly titled, “Battlestar’s ‘Daybreak’: The worst ending in the history of on-screen science fiction.” Ouch! At least we know where the author stands. The reaction by some was so strong that it led another reviewer to write: “Sure, it was a letdown, but people act like that episode personally broke into their homes and stabbed their mothers.” Endings can affect us that much.
A tall order
The ending of a story of any significant length has a big job to do, a lot to take care of, including:
- Complete the story, wrapping up the principal plot and answering the “dramatic question.” (Want to know more about what the dramatic question is all about? Check out the links at the end of this post.)
- Resolve the story arcs of the principal characters.
- Tie off loose ends—but not so tightly that it all seems contrived.
But an ending can have all this and still fail. How the ending is accomplished is crucial. Ideally, the ending will:
- Have an element of surprise. This doesn’t have to be a big twist (although a well executed twist ending can be especially memorable), but the ending can’t be something that was utterly obvious from the first page (or opening shot). We may be confident the guy’s going to get the girl in the end, but at least surprise us in how it all comes about.
- Be inevitable. That may seem to contradict the previous point, but the best endings will be both surprising and inevitable. We might not have seen it coming, but once everything came together, we’re struck that it couldn’t have happened any other way. It was inevitable. All the threads of the plot have come together to make sense and the mysteries are resolved.
- Be the best part of the story. After all, it’s a drag if the best part of the story is the beginning (or even the middle, for that matter), and then everything is all downhill from there. This doesn’t mean the ending has to be the most exciting moment; it’s quite possible to have a satisfying ending that isn’t bombastic. But it needs to be gripping, have punch, and not just peter out.
Stick the landing
You know the phrase “stick the landing.” It may be a bit of a cliché, but it really is a useful metaphor. Think about the gymnast doing a floor routine. It’s full of all sorts of wonderful athletic moves and jumps and acrobatics that make us mere mortals shake our heads in amazement and imagine how even attempting such feats would send us right to the ER with back trauma. But more than that, it’s a joy to watch. And it all culminates when the gymnast performs a final sequence of flips and lands on her feet and sticks the landing, her arms shooting up in the air and her head held high in that final victory pose. Yes! She acknowledges the crowd; the applause fills the arena. But if she doesn’t stick the landing, if she takes an extra step, or wobbles, or falls down, it colors everything that went before. The applause is muted as disappointment at what could have been clouds the moment. Whether that’s fair or not is immaterial; that’s how it is.
So it is with writing. The opening can be gripping, the characters compelling, the action heart-pounding, the plot twists jaw-dropping, but if the ending isn’t satisfying, it tarnishes everything that went before.
“All’s well that ends well”
…so said a rather talented fellow—and even titled one of his plays. How ironic that the ending of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well has been criticized as forced, rushed, and unearned. Still, the point is a good one. Make the ending all it can be. A good ending covers a multitude of writing sins. And so now it’s time for me to get back to working toward just that…
What are the endings (to books, movies, TV shows, whatever) you found most satisfying? Leave a comment and let me know what made it so great.
As promised, links to articles on the dramatic question:
- The Dramatic Question and Suspense in Fiction
- Do You Know the Answer to Your Story’s Most Important Question?
- The Major or Central Dramatic Question (Tip #101)
- The Dramatic Question
- Critical Concepts: Dramatic Question