Everybody always talks about story openings, but what about the opposite end of the work -- what about story endings? What makes those work? Let's talk about it.
Let's start with an easy one. Tell me your favorite story ending and why it works for you, why you find it memorable.
H. David Blalock:
My favorite story ending? I don't think I have a single favorite. Endings do several things for a story. Tell a moral, provoke an emotion, teach a lesson, pull things together in the way most satisfying to the writer but not necessarily for the reader.
Choosing a favorite story ending is difficult. Though the one that came to mind when I read this was the ending of Travellor In Black
by John Brunner. I always enjoy it when there is an unexpected twist. Not one out of the blue, but one suspected but cannot be proven/disproven until the end. There have been a lot of predictable endings, and those are naturally appropriate but sometimes a little "where did that come from" or "I knew it!" is refreshing.
In "Once Upon A Time" tales the guy gets the girl and slays the dragon. In action stories the hero lives to fight another day, I assume bodice rippers end with something climactic, but the endings that I like best are those that either leave you wanting for more, or when you read the last line and realize that the entire 268 previous pages were nothing but setup for a marvelous one liner such as in Zalazney's A Night In the Lonesome October
- Jack and Jill ran down the hill and Grey and I came after...
How about I go opposite... the WORST ending ever... Stephen R Donaldson's Mirror of Her Dreams
. 654 pages to find out that ... continued in part 2. Over a year and a half later when the second part came out I had to reread part 1 to get up to speed... it just wasn't the same. Where I had been on the edge of my seat to find out what's next... I was now... sigh.
When I thought about this question, several answers came to mind but a favorite would be the end of To Kill a Mockingbird
. After all the excitement we get a short chapter that shows a gentle scene of the family - Jem, Scout and Atticus, as Atticus reads them a story and puts the children to bed. We get a lot right at the end -- a story-within-a-story with a moral that echoes the story of the whole novel, a gentle moment, and for the reader, a return to the world of our own - the characters literally go to sleep. I'm left entranced and feeling privileged to have spent time with the characters.
Lee Houston Jr.:
My favorite story ending (to date) unfortunately has yet to be released, so I'm not sure I can talk about it in great detail right now. I will say that the short story is scheduled to be published by Airship 27, and that the twist ending has a very big surprise for even the most casual pulp (or movie) fan.
It's kind of a tossup to be honest. But, if I had to pick, I think I'd go with Caliban's Hour
by Tad Williams. It was the first time as a kid that I read a book that left me actively guessing after the book was closed.
The whole premise of the book was Caliban finding the woman who betrayed him years prior and making her pay. But, after he tells her his story, the woman's daughter storms in and offers to leave with Caliban in order to spare her mother. Caliban says that he'll take care of the girl, but also openly says that he could be lying if he's truly the monster he's been called all these years. The most fascinating part about the ending was the way he leaves everything in the hands of the woman he'd been intending to kill for the whole book, telling her that, if she believes him, she'll wait until the candle in the room goes out before calling the guards.
It's an ending that still gives me chills to this day when I read the book.
There are three kinds of endings I find effective. The first is the "they all return home changed" end. Think of the last couple of chapters of Lord of the Rings
, where four kick-ass Hobbits get back to the Shire, Frodo stomps Saruman, and we see how the adventure is going to shape everyone's lives thereafter.
Then there's the big-last-clash type of ending, which ties together everything that's come before. There are revelations, betrayals, major moral choices, possibly a countdown, probably things exploding. I try for these in my pulp fiction writing, especially at the close of my Robin Hood trilogy and in Blackthorn: Dynasty of Mars
Lastly there's the sense-of-destiny ending. King Arthur takes his place at the Round Table - or heads away in a boat for Avalon, to await the day of his return. It's the moment when the protagonist we've watched struggle for 500 pages comes into his own. This ending sometimes but not always involves a romance, and sometimes but not always sets up a sequel.
What is the purpose of a good and effective story ending? How does that purpose differ from the opening of a story? Which, if either, if more important to the work?
H. David Blalock:
A good ending should at least finish the story in a way that lets the reader see there is nothing left to tell. Unless you have the prestige of a Hitchcock or a very forgiving readership, all plotlines should be resolved. All questions should be answered. All conflicts should be resolved. One way or the other.
An effective story ending resolves all threads laid out in the story. Even if the thread is not tied up the way the reader would prefer, at least it is addressed. To me that is an effective ending - what threads were put out there and how can they be resolved?
An over simplified answer would be that one is just as important as the other for the same reason, gaining enough of the reader's trust to get them to buy the next book... But from a story telling standpoint to me at least, the beginning is about kicking the door in and exposing what is on the other side. Endings, well not every story has a happy ending and life even in fiction isn't always neat and tidy. For me the ending is resolution of a problem and not about packaging it neatly for the evening news. I seem to do better with the endings to novels than with my short stories. I have trouble because endings require setup and sometimes its a challenge for me in shorter word counts... Boiled down, "The beginning sells this book, the ending sells the next one."
An opening is supposed to set you down in the middle of the action, sweep you up in the story. The ending should be satisfying. Something that makes you feel the journey was worth it. And hopefully, it also instills excitement in you for the world you've just explored. Hope that you'll have other adventures in the same universe. Both are important... bookends.
Lee Houston Jr.:
The opening should draw the reader into your tale and make them want to find out what happens next. The ending should at least have the reader satisfied, if not excited, that they did spend the time to read your story. Both are equally vital to the overall work.
The opening is more important for drawing the reader in, but the ending is what they're going to remember.
That said, I've seen a million-and-three different types of endings in my lifetime, and only a few of them stood out as wrong. I know people sometimes hate it when a book's last chapters move at light speed and the story ends leaving them with more questions than they had when they started. Personally, I like that, but it's not for everyone.
I also think that a good opening is more universal than a good ending. Most people like for their books to open with a hook to draw them in, whereas endings are very diverse, depending on the audience you're trying to reach.
The opening of a story performs the critical function of getting you, the reader, to read the whole first page and then turn that page. The rest is optional. The closing of a story performs the critical function of making you glad you read all the way to the end - a tougher job and one that books often fail. To me the opening is important for a very narrow purpose: getting you to decide in a split second whether to keep reading. (That's why I try to begin my adventure novels in media res, with the main character, say, falling out of an airplane. But even if you don't start with action, even if it's a dialogue scene in someone's drawing room, the opening has one job: keep you from putting the book back down.
An ending, on the other hand, has to make you feel like you were not wrong to keep reading -- to satisfy you and with any luck leave you with a visceral thrill, hairs standing on your arms. The opening can be a carnival barker and promise anything at all; the closing must sell you on the value of what you've read, and be right about it.
I prefer the emotional ending to the big reveal. I want the reader moved insomuch they have a real emotional reaction. In order to achieve this, it forces me to write and develop a story the reader is fully invested in.
A good opening lays out the themes for the book, piques reader interest, sucks readers in. it;s most basic job is to get someone to turn to page 2, but it can and should do a lot more than that. A good ending affirms the whole experience, making the reader glad he or she purchased the work. The opening might determine whether the book gets read; the ending determines whether it gets read again, and loaned out, and recommended to friends, and given five-star reviews.
An ending needs to tie up plots, themes, personal character arcs, and any outstanding business. There's a slightly different answer for endings on ongoing series, which may carry over some elements, but in both cases there had to be a sense of closure. Think how many fan-favourite TV series have dropped from grace through poor endings (hello, Lost, Twin Peaks, even How I Met Your Mother). Books, which are usually longer-term commitments to experience and require a deeper cognitive function, demand even more rigorous levels of sense-of-completion.
Endings are more important in terms of literary quality. A book's reputation might survive a bad start. It won't survive a bad end.
What are the key elements of an effective ending paragraph or line? What makes them effective?
H. David Blalock:
The ending is the most important part of the story, as just about any writer can tell you. It's easy to create conflict, to build characters, to populate plots. It's only the best writers who can bring everything together, meld it into a unified whole, and present it in an entertaining and acceptable way when the final paragraph passes under the reader's eye. Editors look at the opening to see if they should further consider a work for publication, but even if you pass the first hurdle, if you can't write an ending that tells the editor you know not only how to tell a story, but how to satisfy the reader.
Depending on how the paragraph or line is being used, how it is phrased. If you are using it to lead into the next sentence or chapter, be sure it leaves a sense of what is to come. If it is meant as a closure, have a feeling of finality to it.
Resolution of a problem. Recovery of the McGuffin. Rescue of the damsel in distress. These are the purposes of the ending. If there is not an adequate and justified reason for the release of dramatic tension then give me something I can sink my teeth into. IF you can't do that then you better hit me with one heckuva good joke. The ending is the money shot, it is where your reader feels the value proposition... The most effective endings give you resolution, but they also tease you with things that happen just outside the field of vision or earshot. Your reader has lived and died with your characters, they require justice for those with whom they've bled and cried. A happy ending is nice in the given circumstance, but the right ending is everything.
Hmm.. perhaps an ending should be like a sleeve - (keep in mind I sew) - where a sleeve should end with an appropriate edge, line, or decoration. Something that complements the sleeve that led up to it. Some sleeves have a frilly edge, or a clean line of pin-tucks with a decorative button, or a light and airy froth. but if it contradicts the rest of the sleeve or the garment that it is worth with, it ruins the whole thing. Yeah, that may not work in everyone's mind, but that's how it is in mine.
Lee Houston Jr.:
Somehow, those last words should summarize and impart the overall essence of the story, at least from the point of view of whoever says them, without revealing the outcome of the tale in case a copy should be looked over by the browser who glances at the last page of the print copy first.
For me personally, I like for the last line to keep me asking questions. I want to continue living in that world long after the last page is turned. Any book that can give me that, I consider effective.
But, again, the effectiveness of any ending line depends on the reader entirely. Some people don't care what it is as long as they get closure, others (like me) want some more things to think about.
And it's important to remember that your ending, whatever it might be, will define the story you're trying to tell. So it's best to make sure it's a definition you can live with. You want it to be as memorable as possible.
The ending paragraph or line doesn't have to be a clever line or joke; doesn't have to be the best line in the book. It just has to make you satisfied that you read it. So some final lines are not memorable per se - To Kill a Mockingbird's
is: "He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning."
And you can't match the angry cool at the end of Casino Royale
: "Yes, dammit, I said 'was.' The bitch is dead now."
Nor the chillingly taciturn final line from 1984
: "I love Big Brother."
The final line of Frankenstein
is: "He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance." I like that one; it's another pure close, the monster drifting "into the distance, like someone waving from the back of a train. Plus it's alliterative. Well done, Mary.
And the final line of Wuthering Heights
is so good that it makes me cry even years after I remember the scene that ends it very well at all: "I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."
So there it is: openings have to drag you in. The ending has to send you away feeling you were right to be dragged.
I've written a whole chapter on this for my forthcoming essay book Where Stories Dwell
so I won't spoil that here - it's the last chapter in there, naturally. I'll briefly comment on some of my favourite tricks for closing lines:
1. Final paragraph revelation: Rosebud was his sled!
2. Underlining a theme or moral: "Next time, kids, maybe don't hold your frat party in the abandoned asylum, huh?"
3. The hero gets his reward. "Sure, you're very clever. Now shut up about the case, get over here, and kiss me." "A point well made."
4. Hook right back to the opening lines and offer some circularity or progression.