This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?” The rest of the series is here. You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂
Endings of stories.
Two things to cover here:
- The end of any given story.
- The end of a story in some sort of series.
It turns out that there isn’t much of a difference, although there is some.
The goal of an ending is to satisfy the reader, right? The reader should feel happy to have finished a story that, hopefully, is written so well that they don’t want to finish it.
Easy! At least, if you’re good at paradoxes.
It actually is almost painfully easy, as long as you break things down in a methodical manner and don’t try to skip anything.
First, let’s look at types of endings:
- “Up” endings.
- “Down” endings.
- “Ironic” endings.
These are sometimes known as happy/sad/mixed endings, or comic/tragic/ironic endings. My definition is, “Did the character achieve their overall goal, and was it good?” If the character both achieved their overall goal and it was good, that is an “up” ending. If the character both did not achieve their overall goal and it was bad, that is a “down” ending.
But if the character either achieved their overall goal but it was bad that they did, or didn’t achieve their overall goal but it was good that they didn’t, that’s an ironic (“up but down,” or “down but up”) ending.
An example of an “up” ending is in the original Star Wars. Luke wants to become a pilot; he does; it’s good. The story is more complicated than that, but the ending really isn’t.
An example of a “down” ending is A Nightmare on Elm Street. Nancy wants to save herself and her friends from Freddie Kreuger. She almost seems to win…but is dragged off by Freddie at the last minute.
An example of an “ironic” ending is Schindler’s List. Schindler wants to live a normal life while making money off the war; he fails to do so, but saves his own soul. Or you might say he wanted to save Jewish people and did so, but feels nothing but sadness because he wanted to save more.
It’s very difficult to have a straight “down” ending on a story, one that the audience will enjoy. You often have to hold out the possibility of success until the very last moment in order for it to work. Otherwise, it’s just too depressing. (Even Requiem for a Dream has a bit of an ironic tone.)
How is an ending put together? I’ll talk about this in more depth later, but for now, let’s go with:
- It usually takes up the last quarter of the book.
- The main character has been preparing for this final, definitive attempt at achieving their main goal throughout the book.
- The main character attempts to achieve their main goal. This is “the plan,” or “the big push.” Officially, we’ll call it “the climax.”
- The main character does or does not achieve their main goal and that’s either a good thing or a bad thing.
- The rest of the story focuses on wrapping everything up.
So you’ve written everything needed to set up your ending, you’ve written the climax and it’s either “up,” “down,” or “ironic,” and you’re not sure how to wrap everything up. What to do?
How to end a story (in general):
- Wrap up your subplots, usually in reverse order of importance (see below for how to wrap anything up).
- Wrap up your main plot.
- With the last line, tell or confirm to the audience what kind of ending they just read.
It’s weird. People want you to explain things to them, but not in a way that makes them feel like you’re explaining things to them. I’ll explain.
There are basically five ways to wrap something up, and a sixth to not wrap things up and just leave the readers hanging (but not in a bad way).
- Happily ever after. State or hint that no major changes or problems will occur after this for the character.
- Happy for now. State or hint that life goes on, but for now, it’s mostly good things for the character.
- Doomed ever after. State or hint that the character is screwed and that this situation will not change.
- Doomed for now. State or hint that the character is definitely screwed and has a long road ahead of them if they want to fix it.
- OMFGINE, or Oh my f@#$%^& God, it never ends. State or hint that all of this is going to happen all over again, in some form or other.
- Unresolved. Move the interpretation of the story onto the reader’s shoulders; usually balanced between two possibilities. You tell me, you tell the readers, what happens next. “The Lady and the Tiger” by Frank R. Stockton is an example of this.
So when you’re wrapping up subplots, each subplot gets one of these wrap-ups.
Here are some examples, in order: “The two hitchhikers who won the lottery got married, the town drunk has stopped drinking for now, my brother is dead (and I was the only one at the funeral), Raymond’s in the hospital in a full-body cast, my parents are convinced that they need to hold another over-the-top Christmas party next year, and either Gail is still alive or she isn’t. I still get postcards from her, but the postmarks are all old, her messages have been lost in the system for years before they reach me, and I’m still not sure whether she loves me or I’m going to wake up someday with a knife on my throat.”
Most of the time, the endings and the wrap-ups match: happy endings and happily ever afters. But a lot of horror movies have happy endings with doomed ever afters at the last moment. And ironic endings get the endings that they get, with an extra reminder that the ending is happy–but wasn’t what the character wanted–or doomed–but was what the character wanted. The irony itself is like a separate subplot that has to be wrapped up and pointed out.
You don’t have to tell the reader “this is a happily ever after,” but you really should hint at it, even when the reader clearly can already tell what that ending is. The last scenes in The Princess Bride (movie version) show a) the kiss that was the most perfect, the most pure, then b) the grandson inviting his grandfather to come back and read the story again: “As you wish,” he says.
That extra bit of confirmation of what type of ending you just read is something that audiences love.
But what to do with series? Most series just need a regular ending as you wrap up all the plot threads (or most of them). But some series have over-arching plots. What do you do about those?
- Wrap up all the subplots, generally in reverse order of importance. If a lot of the subplots are to be continued, indicate that.
- Let the reader know if this is a “happy for now” or “doomed for now” type of wrap-up. “As they celebrated, they knew that there would be darkness ahead.” “Even as they grieved, they knew that for the first time, there was hope.”
- The important part isn’t making the reader feel like what they read is “a complete book.” Each book should have, as previously discussed, a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Even high-fantasy sagas have steps that the characters have to take in order to reach their final goal; stop the book at the climax of the first, or second, or seventeenth set of steps.
- The important part in this type of series is to reaffirm to the reader what exactly got accomplished in this book, how the reader should feel about that, and the expected tasks ahead.
An example, this time from Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny:
I would never rest until I held vengeance and the throne within my hand, and good night sweet prince to anybody who stood between me and these things.
The sun hung low on my left and the winds bellied the sails and propelled me onward. I cursed once and then laughed.
I was free and I was running, but I had made it this far. I now had the chance I’d wanted all along.
A black bird of my desire came and sat on my left shoulder, and I wrote a note and tied it to its leg and sent it off into the west.
It said, “Eric—I’ll be back,” and it was signed: “Corwin, Lord of Amber.”
A demon wind propelled me east of the sun.
The character states his goals and the stakes. The character then states how he feels (curse then laugh), which is how the reader should take it, too. The character states what he has accomplished (freedom, a chance). The character threatens someone else, so we have that promise of what will happen next. Then we get a little foreshadowing about how his goals will come out: he’s going forward, but maybe his plans are not going to go as expected and may even be co-opted by something else.
You might want to think of the wrap-ups in an ongoing, overarching series as status checks rather than wrap-ups.
At any rate, try the easy, obvious solution when you’re ending a story: check in with all your plots and subplots in reverse order of importance while stating how things ended for the characters involved in that part, then kiss off the audience on the last line with something that tells them how they should feel about the events of the story.
A good wrap-up can take a lot of words, and that’s okay. You aren’t belittling the reader or giving them something they don’t want. Readers want to feel strongly about stories. You’re allowed to help them along.
What’s up next? When we’ve been looking at scenes, what we’ve really been looking at is structure on a micro level. We’re going to look at macro-level structure next. I’m going to just call it “structure,” though…
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