SensibleShoes has the night off, and she foolishly left me the keys to the place, so I'm rearranging her index cards and changing her color-coding system. No, wait, I'd better not - I just finished Jinx's Magic, and I want her to hurry up and finish the third book so I can see how it ends!
Which brings me to endings.
My theory of endings is that they fall into roughly four categories: hero wins, hero loses, hero wins by losing, hero loses by winning. Obviously there’s some overlap, and not all protagonists should really be called "heroes." Any of these can make for a satisfying ending, if it feels like the author has earned it with the action of the story.
Hero wins. Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star. The happy couple in any romance novel marches down the aisle. The detective catches the killer. The First Wives Club gives their exes the payback they all deserve.
Happy endings are crowd-pleasers for obvious reasons: it’s satisfying to see the good guys win and the bad guys fall on their faces. But the happy ending has to take some real work by the hero, or it feels phony. The convenient rescue, the revelation that the breakup was caused by a silly misunderstanding, or (heaven help us) the hero waking up to realize it was all a dream – these devices make readers feel like they’re wasting their time investing in the characters. You can get away with more of that in comedy, which is allowed to turn the readers’ expectations on their heads.
Hero loses. Romeo and Juliet commit their ill-timed suicides. Faust has had his fun, and now must hand over his soul to the devil. Dimmesdale can no longer live with his guilt, and keels over while revealing the scarlet “A” on his chest (except in the hideous Demi Moore / Gary Oldman movie version, a fine example of an unearned happy ending). The defeat doesn’t have to be anything that monumental: in Mrs. Doubtfire, Daniel wakes up to the fact that he and his ex aren’t getting back together and she’s sticking with Pierce Brosnan.
Tragic endings can be hard to pull off. We all root for Romeo and Juliet to be able to get together; the author’s task is to make us feel that their love was worth the price. In Jakob the Liar, Jakob has held off despair for as long as he can, but now the Holocaust is closing in. In a lot of political fiction, like 1984 and Brave New World, the tragic ending is the only one that would deliver the warning the author is after.
Hero wins by losing. Rocky loses the fight, but is proud to learn that he can go the distance. Rick and Ilsa give up true love for the sake of the Greater Good. Another famous loving couple discovers that her beautiful hair and his beloved pipe are less important than the fact that they're willing to make sacrifices for each other.
In my own writing, I found that I “trusted” these endings more than the straight-up victories. Maybe it’s just from living in a cynical age, but if an ending doesn’t have at least a hint of bittersweet, I start looking for the catch. But bittersweet has to be earned as well: the character needs to be strong enough that the reader believes in a reward that’s internal rather than external.
Hero loses by winning. In All About Eve, the devious Eve claws her way to the top in Hollywood, only to have another schemer poised to take her place. Similarly, in the Godfather series, Michael Corleone builds an empire by shedding a lot of blood – including in his own family – then dies alone, having lost or alienated everyone he cared about.
John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent is a more subtle example of this category. Anti-hero Ethan Hawley feels deprived of his rightful wealth and position, so he plots a bank robbery where doom is repeatedly foreshadowed. At the last moment, it appears that Ethan will get a happy ending: just before he’s about to risk everything for the robbery, he’s interrupted by a government agent who informs him that his boss is being deported, and the boss has signed over the store to him because of Ethan’s honesty. Even Ethan’s teenage son has a triumph, winning an essay contest. But it’s all a sham: Ethan was the anonymous tipster who got the boss deported, he’s destroyed another friend’s life for financial gain, and his son turns out to be a plagiarist. Outwardly, Ethan has everything he wanted, but he’s even more racked by self-loathing than he was in the beginning.
HOW NOT TO WRITE ENDINGS:
The Scent of an Ending contest (which, sadly, appears defunct now) did to endings what the Bulwer-Lytton does to beginnings. Even without the reading rest of the book (which we can’t, because fortunately it doesn’t exist), I think we can safely call this an unearned ending:
I Am the Verdict by David WaldorfTHE EXERCISE:
I looked into his face for the first time, the face that little Carrie and my husband had seen before they died. Before he killed them. There was terror in his eyes as I leveled the pistol on his chest; I was glad for that, it made the moment more satisfying.
"When I pull this trigger," I said, "the first bullet's for Greg." I clicked the safety off, and the tears started to come. "The second is for my baby girl. The rest are for what you made me that day."
"You know," he said, "you're kind of cute."
At his words I apprehended at last this universal truth: Love Conquers Hate.
"I love you," I said, and threw myself into his arms.
Write the final paragraphs of a story where the hero’s own actions have come home to roost. Use your own story or one of these:
Belinda has spent the whole story trying to keep her beloved Lord Postlethwaite-Praxleigh (pronounced Puppy) away from Adelaide, who only wants him in order to get her hands on his jeweled sash.
A callow youth has completed the quest to obtain the Jewel of Togwogmagog and save the kingdom.
Detective Scotty Blaine hears from the local mob boss after refusing to help the mob boss’s son get out of jail.
Private investigator Celia Spunk finally tracks down the Chainsmoke Killer.
International superspy James Buns and his unfortunately-named girlfriend have (apparently) defeated the super-villain, and fall into each other’s arms.
Write On! will be a regular weekly diary (Thurs 8 pm ET) until it isn't.
Before signing a contract with any agent or publisher, please be sure to check them out on Preditors and Editors, Absolute Write and/or Writer Beware.