Thursday, September 13, 2012

Good Endings 1 - The four essentials

Good endings are fundamental to successful fiction (and, often, nonfiction). In fact, it's not unusual for writers to hesitate to write a work until they have good ending in mind. In some cases, people have imagined a powerful ending before everything else and felt compelled to write the whole story leading up to it.

Endings are the last chance for the writer to connect with the reader, and they are the most potent opportunity to leave a memorable impression. I wrote about "bigger" endings before, but what are the basics of a successful ending?
  • Clarity - After a reader has invested time in reading the whole work, there is nothing more frustrating than an ending that is not clear. I am not talking about the kind of ambiguous ending that is found in Inception (although that DID irritate some people). I'm talking about endings that are opaque.
    Often, this happens because the writer writes poorly. Sometimes this happens because the writer does not want to commit. Usually, the writer is just trying to be arty or cute. I fell in love with the sound of the words for my story Peter's Shell, and I nearly lost the sale. But luckily the editor let me know I'd blown it and gave me a second chance. The best way to find out if your ending is unclear is to have people read the work and tell you what happened at the end.
  • Resolution - The story question should be answered. People want to know if the protagonist succeed, partially, succeeded, or failed. Most satisfying endings answer this question.
  • Logic and fairness - The ending must make sense within the context of the story and be a consequence of all that came before. And you have to play fair. A deus ex machina ending will drive readers away.
  • Timing - The story must end in the right place and have the space it earned. Some stories ramble on for chapters after the story question is answered. Often this is to set up another story, but it dilutes the good will of your reader and flattens out the experience.
    Just as bad is the narrative that ends so abruptly that the reader can't tie up the most interesting loose ends. (Although few endings have irritated me more than The Cold Moon, which seemed to agonizingly tie up every loose end, including many I didn't care about.) It is okay to leave the readers wanting more. It is unfair to cheat them out of the ending they deserve.
There are more advanced elements that contribute to a good ending. Tie back to theme, a great image, a wonderful last line, and balance and focus. I'll write about these next week, but, if you can achieve these four, you'll have the necessary elements for a good ending.

What do you look for in a good ending when you read? How do you achieve these when you write?


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