Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Endings

One month and one day ago, I wrote a blog post on beginnings. I did this because I had attended an extremely brilliant workshop on beginnings, run by the fabulous Anita Shreve, and learned so much my brain was going to explode a little. Plus, beginnings are an important part of your book. Some would even say the most important part. They hook the reader (and before that, the agent, and somewhere in between, the editor), and set the tone of the novel.

But more than once I've heard agents express their disappointment over full manuscripts they've received that just didn't live up to the shine and promise of the first few sample chapters. That's probably because most writers get it drilled into their heads how important the beginning is that they often neglect, or at least don't criticize as harshly, the middle and the end. But the truth is, although the beginning is what hooks a reader, the middle is what keeps them going, and the end is what makes them beg you to write another book.

There are several ways to end a novel:

1. The happy ending. We're all familiar with the happy ending. Everything gets wrapped up in a neat little bow, the evil-doer is vanquished, the lovers OMGTOTALLYMAKEOUT, and all is well. Most fairy tales, unless they're German and/or the Brothers Grimm, have a happy ending. The problem with the happy ending is that it's not always totally true to life. In real life, everything isn't perfect all the time. Sometimes the bad guy wins. Sometimes the lovers don't work out. The good thing about the happy ending is that it will probably make most of your readers pretty happy, as well.

2. Everybody dies. I don't necessarily mean this literally. What I mean by "everybody dies" is basically the opposite of "happily ever after." Your main character does not successfully complete their goal. The villain gets away with the diamonds. The girlfriend cheats on her boyfriend. A black hole envelops the world. And then you have to put your dog down. It's a tragedy, in other words, and when done well it can be a perfect ending (just ask Shakespeare). The problem, of course, with this type of ending is that a lot of readers don't like them, especially in contemporary YA, so you're going to piss some readers off. I also tend to think that they aren't realistic, for all the same reasons I think happy endings aren't realistic.  

3. The cliffhanger. This is an ending you'll often see in a series, particularly from established authors, or in the middle of a trilogy or longer series. (Think Catching Fire) You typically don't see cliffhangers at the end of the first book from a debut author. Why? Because even though the author might know that the book will go on to be a well-loved seven book series, and will in fact be one of the biggest literary phenomenons of our time, the publisher doesn't know that. They want to make sure that you write a book that leaves room for a sequel, but also could stand alone in the event that the book isn't successful enough to warrant follow-ups. After all, they don't want to annoy the few fans you did manage to snag. Remember to keep this in mind as you write: if you have a series planned, the first book needs to be able to stand on its own.

4. The ambiguous ending. This is the kind of ending were you leave it up to the reader to figure out what happens next. The most recent book I read with this kind of ending was The Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper. In that book, it was done well, and I loved it. In general, though, these endings are very hard to pull off. They take a sophisticated, coy writing style. They also can infuriate some readers, and you should prepare to be asked, for the rest of your life, "So did Jack really get away with the diamonds? Or did Mona push him off the cliff after all? I HAVE TO KNOW!!!!!"

5. The happy median. It should come as no surprise that this is my favorite kind of ending. In this ending, some loose endings are tied up, while some are left dangling for the reader to speculate on. The hero wins some battles, but faces tragedy as well. I like this ending because it is the most realistic. Life itself is a balance of good and evil, happy events and sad, and I think that novels should reflect life. So my current project has a happy median ending. However, this is a planned series, so if this WIP gets picked up, hopefully the next book will end in a cliffhanger...

What kind of ending do you like to read? And, if you're a writer, what kind of ending does your book have (if you want to share)? If you think there are more ending categories (I know this isn't a comprehensive list, but I think I got all the basics), please share them in the comments!


  1. I love to read #5, the most but I'm not going to say how mine ends, because I don't want to ruin anything... I will say though that I had more of a cliffhanger ending at first, and it drove one beta reader CRAZY! So I changed it. Which I'm glad I did, since cliffhangers drive me crazy too!

  2. I'm with you, I like those happy median endings. I like some things left up to speculation...I think it's fun and it keeps me thinking about the novel long after I've read it. Much more so than happy endings or sad endings. And I think my ending will be like that. Answer some questions, leave some things up to speculation.

  3. Oh, I'm a happy ending girl. I sometimes wish I could be edgy and capable of ending a story Hamlet-style or even ambiguously, but I simply cannot do that to my characters (or... ahem... myself). Perhaps I'll encounter a plotline in my future that deserves an ending in which everyone dies, but as of right now I'm a big fan of a nice, little package wrapped all prettily with a nice, little bow.

  4. I didn't think about that, but I guess it does give some stuff away if you say everything ends, say, in #2. Since mine is #5, that's not really giving anything away because who knows which parts are happy and which parts aren't, you know?

  5. I'm definitely a happy median kind of girl. It's what I write and what I prefer to read. Excellent breakdown, by the way!

  6. This is a great topic. I've only written a couple of endings since most my works are started but not close to being finished.

    #2 makes me think of Hamlet. That is one ending where almost everyone literally dies. lol

    I read a book, On Writing Romance, and it said that the genre prefers the happy ending. Good thing I don't stick to that genre.

    As for the rest, it depends on the book. What I really don't like is the "sudden ending". The books that end at what feels like a random point, not finishing anything. Happy endings can be good in certain books but there are some merits for the sad endings as well. I have one planned where there are two characters and one gun. Let's just say one of them doesn't make it. lol I do like the happy median one to some degree as well and with certain series a cliffhanger.

    If that all makes sense then good for those that understand me.

  7. I like #5. I believe in satisfying endings, not necessarily ones that are "happy" in the clichéd sense.

  8. Im with you...not EVERYTHING can work out and the things that do aren't as meaningful without some losses or sacrifices along the way. And LOL everybody dies...soooo Hamlet.

  9. I'm definitely a happy ending sort of gal.

    Good post :)

  10. I usually like happy endings but life is not always like that. So sometimes I don't mind it if the villian gets away.
    Great post!

  11. I enjoy happy endings for the most part, but I also love to be surprised. I know if I read a certain type of romance that it will always end happy, however I like different endings therefore I find different titles that I know wont give me the ending I'm used to. Stepping outside the box if you will!!

    One story I'm working on the villian will get away, but there will be one survivor.

    Another story it will end happily :)

    Great post!!

  12. I'm a #5 with a heavy lean towards happy endings. The argument I hear most about that is it doesn't reflect real life very often, and I get that, but I don't want to read about real life. I want to read a story that makes me feel content and exilerated it's the conclusion. I can read the newspaper for the unhappy endings.

  13. Just stumbled across your blog, thought I would say hello! My favorites are cliffhangers. I don't know why. I suppose I just enjoy pulling my hair out while waiting for the next I can find out what the Dickens just happened!

  14. I'm not a writer, but as a reader, I'm a sucker for a happy ending. I know real life isn't like that, but that's ok!

  15. Mine are usually happy. But I'm sure eventually, I'll have to do a few happy medians. Can't be predictable all the time. ;)

  16. I like for the ending to have an overall satisfying tone - in a good way - but I also HATE it when things are too rainbows-and-puppies. For example, the end of Breaking Dawn. Someone should have died, but no one did. Everything ended way too conveniently. It angered me. =)

  17. Nie post. Not a topic I've seen addressed too often. :)


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